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Mumbai Submarine Explosion Clouds India’s Naval Progress

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The Pulse

Mumbai Submarine Explosion Clouds India’s Naval Progress

Just as New Delhi unveils the extent of its naval ambitions, a submarine has exploded in Mumbai.

In an event Indian Defence Minister AK Antony has called a “shocking tragedy,” 18 sailors aboard an Indian submarine called the INS Sindhurakshak are feared dead after two huge explosions occurred on a submarine berthed in Mumbai after midnight on Thursday. No bodies have yet been recovered, as divers are currently working to refloat the partially submerged submarine.

The cause of the explosions is still being determined and sabotage has not yet been ruled out. "A board of inquiry will cover the entire spectrum of the incident, we cannot rule out sabotage at this stage but all the indicators at this point do not support that theory," Navy chief Admiral DK Joshi said.

What makes this explosion even more tragic is that it occurred on the heels of two landmark events for the South Asian power's naval ambitions. The Indian Navy recently announced progress in its efforts to build a homegrown nuclear-powered submarine as well as an aircraft carrier in quick succession. After over two decades of research and development in a particularly challenging area of defense technology, India announced on August 12 that the nuclear reactor in its first indigenously built nuclear-powered submarine, the INS Arihant, had achieved criticality in a crucial step before becoming fully operational. With the move, India joins a select group of countries with the technology to build a nuclear reactor compact enough to fit into a submarine. Currently, only the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain possess nuclear submarines.

The Arihant will be fitted with K-15 nuclear-tipped missiles that will be able to hit targets 700km away, completing India's nuclear triad – the ability to fire nuclear missiles by land, air and sea. India already has the ability to launch nuclear missiles from land, with the Prithvi and Agni missiles, as well as from air from its French Mirage and Russian Su-30 MKI fighter jets. Indeed, having a second strike capability from sea is considered critical for India which has a declared “no first use” nuclear policy. The possession of a submarine with nuclear-tipped missiles would enable India to develop a credible deterrence policy with the ability to launch a counterattack following a first strike. Nuclear submarines also have an edge over conventional diesel-powered submarines as they can stay under water for longer periods making their detection more difficult.

On August 13, India launched its first indigenously built aircraft carrier – the INS Vikrant – which will have a displacement of 37,500 tons when completed in 2018. With its launch, India becomes the fifth country after the U.S., Britain, France and Russia to have the capability to develop its own aircraft carrier. Built at the Cochin Shipyard in the southern state of Kerala, the Vikrant will carry Russian-made MiG-29K fighter jets and a set of helicopters. India already has the INS Viraat, a vintage British-built aircraft carrier, in its fleet and will acquire another Russian-made aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya, in 2014, once the warship completes its sea trials.

The moves are part of India's plans to develop a blue-water navy, with the ability to project power beyond the confines of the Indian Ocean into the South and East China seas. To achieve this, India is building three more nuclear submarines and two more aircraft carriers. India's naval build-up coincides with growing tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the South China Sea, where a slew of territorial disputes are ongoing between China and several Southeast Asian nations, as well as with Japan. With a more robust naval presence, New Delhi seeks to protect its commercial interests, including plans to jointly explore potential oil and gas reserves with Vietnam in the South China Sea.

India's naval plans also coincide with the so-called U.S. pivot to Asia, wherein Washington has sought to boost its naval deployments to the Asia-Pacific. The U.S. has encouraged a greater Indian naval presence in the region, fueling concerns in China, which sees New Delhi's naval build-up as part of broader efforts to contain Beijing. India's latest progress in building indigenous aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines will further raise hackles in China prompting it to speed up its own naval modernization efforts.

While these developments are larger than any one event, the explosion at Mumbai’s dockyard in the early hours this morning nonetheless casts a shadow over the progress made by the Indian Navy.