The pursuit of nuclear-armed submarines reflects a security assessment that is becoming increasingly irrelevant
On November 5, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India’s first indigenous ballistic-missile armed nuclear submarine (SSBN), Arihant, had “successfully completed its first deterrence patrol” and claimed that this “accomplishment” would “always be remembered in our history”. However, he failed to address some fundamental questions: why does India need such a submarine? And, are the enormous resources spent on the nuclear-submarine programme justified?
A nuclear submarine is fuelled by an onboard nuclear reactor, which allows it to operate underwater for long periods of time. In contrast, a conventional diesel submarine uses batteries to operate underwater, but is forced to surface periodically to recharge its batteries using diesel-combustion engines that require oxygen. SSBNs were first deployed during the Cold War and justified as a tool of last resort. If an adversary were to launch a devastating first-strike on a country, destroying its land-based missiles and paralysing its air force, the submarine — undetected at sea — could still deliver a counter-strike, assuring the “mutual destruction” of both countries.
However, this strategic function makes little sense in the modern Indian context. There is no realistic threat, which the Arihant could counter, that could wipe out India’s existing nuclear deterrent. The range of the missiles carried by the Arihant is about 750 km, and so it can only target Pakistan and perhaps China.
The Pakistan government has threatened to use “tactical nuclear weapons” to counter India’s cold-start doctrine that envisions a limited invasion of Pakistan. However, these are relatively small nuclear weapons that could devastate a battlefield but would not affect the Indian military’s ability to launch a counter-strike using its existing land or air-based forces.
China has consistently pledged, for more than 50 years, that it will never be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. Even if China were to suddenly change its policy, any attempt to disable India’s nuclear weapons would be fraught with unacceptable risks regardless of whether India possesses SSBNs. Even the United States, which maintains such a large nuclear stockpile, is unwilling to militarily engage a limited nuclear power such as North Korea since it understands that it cannot reliably disable Pyongyang’s land-based deterrent.
Much of the rest of the world has moved to outlaw nuclear weapons. Last year, 122 nations voted in favour of the “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons”. The Indian government skipped these negotiations claiming, nevertheless, that it was “committed to universal… nuclear disarmament”. So the government’s active pursuit of nuclear-armed submarines undermines India’s stated international position and reflects a security assessment that is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
In fact, nuclear-armed submarines increase the risks of an accidental conflict. Traditionally, nuclear weapons in India have been kept under civilian control, and separate from their delivery systems. However, the crew of a nuclear-armed submarine will have both the custody of nuclear weapons and the ability to launch them at short notice. Even though reports suggest that nuclear weapons on Indian SSBNs will be safeguarded by electronic switches, called “permissive action links”, such a setup can dangerously weaken the civilian command-and-control structure, as declassified documents from the Cuban missile crisis show.
During the crisis, U.S. warships recklessly attacked a Soviet submarine with practice depth charges to force it to surface. The captain of the submarine, which had been sailing under difficult conditions and was out of radio contact with the Soviet leadership, thought that war had broken out and decided to respond with nuclear torpedoes. It was only the sober intervention of another senior officer on the submarine, Vasili Arkhipov, that prevented the outbreak of large-scale nuclear hostilities. For his actions, which averted a civilisation-threatening event, Arkhipov was posthumously awarded the “Future of Life” award last year.
Given its uncertain, and even adverse, impact on the country’s security, it is especially important to examine the costs of the SSBN programme. Media reports suggest that the Indian Navy would eventually like about four SSBNs. The government has not released precise figures, but the international experience can be used to estimate the costs of such a fleet.
The British government recently estimated that the cost of four new SSBNs would be £31 billion, or about ?70,000 crore per submarine. This is similar to the U.S. Navy’s estimate of the cost of a new “Columbia-class” SSBN. The lifetime costs of operating such submarines are even larger than these initial costs; British and American estimates suggest that each SSBN requires between ?2,000 crore and ?5,000 crore in annual operational costs.
The Indian submarines will be smaller, and perhaps cheaper. However, even if their costs are only half as large as the lower end of the British and American estimates, the total cost of maintaining a fleet of four SSBNs, over a 40-year life cycle, will be at least ?3 lakh crore.
It is senseless to spend this money on nuclear submarines when thousands of lives are lost each year because the state pleads that it lacks resources for basic health care and nutrition. It seems appropriate to revisit the words of Sardar Patel, who is held in high esteem by the current dispensation. Patel was hardly a pacifist but he was alive to the issue of wasteful military expenditure. “We must not… be frightened by the bogey of foreign designs upon India,” Patel explained in his presidential address to the 1931 Karachi Congress, or allow it to be used to turn the army into an “octopus we are daily bleeding to support”.
*Suvrat Raju, a theoretical physicist associated with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, is based in Bengaluru. The views expressed are personal