August 26, 2013

Our blue water submarine?

The loss of INS Sindhurakshak has brought focus on the pitiable state of our far too few submarines. We had six missile-capable subs. In terms of deployability, at any given time only 60 per cent are available, which means only four subs could have been deployed. Now one is gone. Now our operational availability is less than three. This is not counting the loss of trained men who went under in such a tragic manner. It takes two years for the crew of one submarine to get battle-ready. If there were six stations that our submarines would have operated from during war time, one is no longer there. This creates large gaps in our security. I am told that in another five years, 90 per cent of our submarines would have been decommissioned if you rate them in terms of normal life. But we will no doubt persist, as we do; another jugaad in the great Indian tradition of strategic planning.
A big silver lining will no doubt be glimpsed over the reactor of our “indigenously developed” nuclear submarine Arihant going critical. I am no expert on nuclear submarines, but people who are privately laugh at our nuclear submarine. That is because it is based on designs from the Sixties, which is half-a-century old. It is the same as the Chakra which we hired earlier. To leading questions, our nuclear gurus answer that “our nuclear submarine is completely made in India, designed, fabricated, executed by Indian scientists”. Yet the Prime Minister has publicly thanked the Russians profusely for what is euphemistically being called “consultancy” work. The real credit should go to the Russians for their excellent super-mentoring-cum-monitoring on a Russian submarine with a Made in India mark. The Russians apparently were so heavily embedded in our nuclear submarine programme that every step that was taken was made possible only because of their behind-the-scenes omnipresence telling us which screw went where, how to weld this, do that...
You may ask: why quibble if the submarine works? The quibble enters the picture because after three more nuclear submarines, clones of the one that just went critical, have been produced over the next several years, we will still not have the ability to build a newer generation submarine from scratch. We simply don’t have the expertise for design, its validation or choice of material for a next generation submarine. Nobody knows where all that will come from. Russians gave us Chakra on a platter. They have since moved on and are now in the Borei class of submarines, compared to which Chakra is a museum piece.
Our nuclear submarine can carry nuclear missiles that can travel 750 km. The radius of that kind of a range is pretty small. We can’t fire a missile at China from the Bay of Bengal in this case, can we? The submarine needs to get pretty close to the Chinese coast undetected in order to pose a credible deterrence. How would you rate the feasibility of that happening undetected? The Chinese second-generation sea-launched intercontinental ballistic, the JL2, can deliver its payload, according to Wikipedia, 14,000 km away.  Even if we discount that distance, it is evident the Chinese submarines need not traverse the Straits of Malacca in order to hit us anywhere they wish. They can hit us even as they sit pretty in the depths of the South China Sea. There is nothing we can do about that.


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