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‘Credible deterrence’: How India’s new ballistic missile sub changes regional power balance

‘Credible deterrence’: How India’s new ballistic missile sub changes regional power balance
India is gearing up to test-fire its most potent home-made ballistic missile in the coming days. The missile is an upgrade to the country’s nuclear deterrence arsenal, but the submarine that fires it is a game-changer.

The K-4 submarine-launched missile has a range of 3,500 km and is scheduled for testing in mid-December, according to sources cited by the Economic Times. Previous tests scheduled for November had been scuppered by a cyclone off India’s eastern coast. A successful test would bring the nuclear-capable missile significantly closer to operational status.

However, the weapon would be useless without a platform to launch it from, and this is where India’s first home-built ballistic missile submarine enters the picture.

INS Arihant (‘Foeslayer’) is the first indigenously built nuclear-powered submarine, armed with nuclear-capable ballistic missiles (SSBN). Her return to port, following a 20-day patrol in early November, was met with jubilation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally congratulated “all those involved” with what he called an “accomplishment, which will always be remembered in our history.”

One would think that is a bit much for just one SSBN, when India is one of the world’s most populous nations, surrounded by ocean on three sides. However, Arihant is a lot more significant that may meet the eye at first. With its completion, India completes the set commonly known as the Nuclear Triad, referring to the methods of delivering atomic weapons. Unlike the bombers and ground based missiles, submarines are arguably the hardest of the three to kill.

Guaranteed second strike

It is no secret that India exists in a pretty tense geopolitical environment. The nation is virtually the only country having two nuclear powers – Pakistan and China – as its neighbors, while having unresolved territorial disputes with both of them that already led to wars in the past, Dr. Shishir Upadhyaya, a former Indian Naval Intelligence officer, told RT.

New Delhi is committed to a “no first use” nuclear doctrine. Yet the specter of a nuclear conflict still looms over the region, not least due to its extremely difficult relations with Pakistan marred by cross-border terrorism.

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“Pakistan has adopted tactical level nuclear weapons that could push … a conventional conflict [to where] that could potentially escalate quickly into a nuclear conflict,” Upadhyaya explained.

Such a situation “makes it imperative for India to have a credible minimum deterrence,” the former naval officer said. This is where the Arihant comes in: a lone sub lurking somewhere in the ocean depths is certainly not an easy target, which makes it ideal for surviving the first disarming strike and guaranteeing retaliation.

“The Arihant provides India a guaranteed second-strike capability in the case of a nuclear attack scenario,” Upadhyaya told RT. The existence of such capability, in turn, raises the stakes in a potential nuclear conflict, making it less likely and the overall security situation more stable. 

This is particularly relevant in case of a potential conflict with Pakistan, as India’s conventional fleet of diesel-electric attack submarines is roughly twice the size of its neighbor’s. New Delhi is considerably behind Beijing when it comes to a submarine fleet, though.

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China has dozens of both nuclear-powered and diesel-electric attack submarines, and possesses at least four ballistic missile ones, according to some reports. However, the possibility of retaliation could significantly reduce the risk of conflict with China as well.

New Delhi’s ability to launch a retaliatory strike has been confirmed during Arihant’s first patrol, when India’s Nuclear Command Authority, headed by the prime minister, was able to reach the submarine using the Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) communication system.

“India operates a sophisticated ELF facility at the INS Kattaboman, a naval facility in South India. Russia and the US are the only other countries with ELF capability,” Upadhyaya told RT.

Just the beginning

Currently, INS Arihant is armed with 12 nuclear capable K-15 ballistic missiles. This is not ideal, because these missiles “have a maximum range of about 700-1000 kilometers,” according to Upadhyaya, which “means that the submarine is limited in its ability to target locations from the high seas.”

Once the new K-4 missile is operational, the Arihant will be able to carry four of them.

Upadhyaya maintains that a single SSBN is “grossly inadequate to provide all-round deterrence” and that “India requires a minimum of 4-6 SSBNs,” along with a smaller fleet of strategic attack submarines to protect them at sea.

That does not diminish the role that the Arihant is likely to play within the Indian Navy, the former officer said.

“The Arihant serves as very useful platform not only as a national strategic asset in but also providing the Indian Navy, scientists, policy makers and all others [with] training and practice in the arcane disciplines of SSBN operations and maintenance,” Upadhyaya told RT. 

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The second vessel of the Arihant class, called Arighat, is currently undergoing trials and should join the Indian Navy in the coming years. Two more submarines could be launched by 2020 and 2022, and will reportedly be able to carry eight K-4 missiles apiece, twice as many as the Arihant. 

The successful deployment of the Arihant is a major step for India, as it joins the tiny club of nations with ballistic missile submarines previously reserved for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, Russia, the UK, France and China. 

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