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In­dia re­cently took its first steps to­wards es­tab­lish­ing the third leg of a nu­clear triad: the abil­ity to launch nu­clear weapons from un­der the sea. On Novem­ber 5, Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi an­nounced that In­dia’s first in­dige­nous bal­lis­tic mis­sile sub­ma­rine (SSBN), the INS Arihant, had com­pleted its first de­ter­rent pa­trol.

A strate­gic de­ter­rent pa­trol is one where an SSBN with a full com­ple­ment of nu­clear-tipped mis­siles sails to­wards its in­tended area of de­ploy­ment and within range of an ad­ver­sary’s tar­gets. In case of an at­tack by a nu­clear-armed ad­ver­sary, In­dia’s Nu­clear Com­mand Author­ity (NCA) can or­der the sub­ma­rine to launch its weapons.

The prime min­is­ter’s state­ment as­sumes sig­nif­i­cance be­cause it also hints at hav­ing estab­lished a com­mand chain—the NCA’s abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate with a sub­ma­rine lurk­ing in the depth of the ocean. In the Arihant’s case, the or­der will be passed via a so­phis­ti­cated Ex­tremely Low Fre­quency (ELF) com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem near Tirunelvel­i in Tamil Nadu.

The Arihant re­turned to its base in Visakha­p­at­nam on Novem­ber 4 af­ter a 20-day sub­merged pa­trol. The pa­trol area is a closely guarded se­cret, but the PM’s state­ment warn­ing of a “fit­ting response to those who in­dulge in nu­clear black­mail” seems to sug­gest that the North Ara­bian Sea, off Pak­istan, rather than the East China Sea, was the Arihant’s pa­trol area. (It will take the sub­ma­rine nearly a month to make the pas­sage to and from China’s shores).

De­ter­rent pa­trols are meant to dis­suade a po­ten­tial nu­clear-armed ad­ver­sary from launch­ing a nu­clear first strike. Once a sub­ma­rine sails out into the deep ocean, it is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to de­tect, track and de­stroy, mak­ing it the most sur­viv­able plat­form of the nu­clear triad that con­sists of air­craft-dropped and ground-fired nu­clear mis­siles.

All five per­ma­nent mem­bers of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil de­ploy their SSBNs on de­ter­rent pa­trols. The ro­bust­ness of the de­ter­rent is de­cided by mis­sile ranges, num­ber of weapons and, most crit­i­cally, the abil­ity to have one plat­form on con­tin­u­ous pa­trol. China was the last en­trant into this club with its SSBN mak­ing its first de­ter­rent pa­trol as re­cently as De­cem­ber 2015.

In­dia, how­ever, is still years away from a ro­bust third leg. “The triad be­comes ef­fec­tive when you have a sub­ma­rine op­er­a­tional at all times, [and that would re­quire a fleet of four such ves­sels at the very least]. In our case, a triad is op­er­a­tional only when the Arihant sails,” says strate­gic an­a­lyst Bharat Kar­nad. The 6,000-tonne INS Arihant was in­ducted into ser­vice in Au­gust 2016 and is cur­rently armed with 12 B-05/ K-15 SLBMs (sub­ma­rine launched bal­lis­tic mis­siles), which have a range of 750 km. Its ar­se­nal of four K-4 SLBMs, with a range of 3,500 km, is yet to pass tri­als.

Three other SSBNs are be­ing built un­der the De­fence Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Or­gan­i­sa­tion’s Ad­vanced Tech­nol­ogy Ves­sel (ATV) project in Vizag. A sec­ond SSBN, the Arighat, launched last Novem­ber, is ex­pected to join the navy in a few years. Two more SSBNs are likely to join within the decade. More sub­marines with longer-ranged mis­siles means more de­ter­rent pa­trols and, hence, a cred­i­ble third leg. The Arihant’s first de­ter­rent pa­trol, though a com­mend­able achieve­ment, should be seen as the first steps in that di­rec­tion.


INS Arihant sail­ing near Visakha­p­at­nam

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