Asia Defense

Can India Accommodate the INS Arihant?

Delays give the Modi government space to make needed reforms to India’s nuclear doctrine.

Can India Accommodate the INS Arihant?
Credit: Chanakyathegreat via Wikimedia Commons

The latest reports on India’s first indigenously built nuclear submarine INS Arihant suggest that the project only began sea trials last month. Successive trials over a nine-month period will give way to weapons testing on board the vessel, and the submarine will only be deployed for active patrol duty in 2016. The high-tech vessel project has already been in R&D for well over two decades, having incurred exponential overrun costs and delayed delivery schedules.

This delay, however, could work in the favor of the government of Narendra Modi. Specifically, it could enable it to make much-needed reforms to India’s nuclear doctrine, to effectively accommodate the Arihant.

Given New Delhi’s uncertain mindset on nuclear deterrence, the Indian nuclear doctrine has not been touched since its hurried inception in 1998. Contextualizing the geo-political changes that have occurred in South Asia, and globally, this underscores the reluctance of Indian politicians – leery of being lumped together with Pakistan and North Korea – to come anywhere near the controversial issue. This is in contrast to the permanent members of the UN Security Council, for instance, all which have evolved their doctrines over an extended time period. In fact, for a nuclear power that is only 14 years old, New Delhi has certainly set a benchmark for political resistance on nuclear weapons. Modi will have to come to terms with this, and push for reform to the nuclear doctrine before India finally projects its nuclear prowess in the Indian Ocean region.

The main elements of India’s nuclear policy revolve around No First-Use (NFU), massive second strike capability, and credible minimum deterrence. I have previously considered the implications of India’s credible minimum deterrence.

A massive second strike capability policy, coupled with NFU, gives India a politically neutral, operationally ready stance to project its nuclear power. The second-strike capability clause, however contains a sub clause that deals with command and control delegation. Herein lies the problem. For land based silos, or gravity bombs loaded on aircraft, the command and control hierarchy can be maintained in all but the most dire circumstances. For a sea-based asset, where deterrence is primarily achieved by long-term radio silence, and launching control is delegated to seniority on board the vessel, the existing command and control model is not applicable. Just like Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons (TnWs), New Delhi will essentially be delegating launch control to field officers on board the submarine, massively increasing the probability of incidental firing. Also, as a designated “second-strike” capacity asset, the Nuclear Command Authority cannot effectively and credibly implement fail-safe measures such as a Permissive Action Link (PAL), two-man rule, or a no-lone zone on board the vessel.

India, like Pakistan, is known to keep its nuclear warheads de-mated from the delivery mechanisms. For the INS Arihant to fulfill its operational responsibility, SLBMs mounted with nuclear warheads will have to be deployed on the vessel. But for a country that allows minimal to almost zero participation of the military echelon in political and strategic matters, beyond the doctrinal headache the question is how exactly does the Modi government plan to deploy INS Arihant as a credible second-strike asset. Having never allowed an experienced serving defense personnel to sit in on a National Security Council (NSC) meeting, is the government ready to bestow the responsibility of managing nuclear weapons onto senior naval officers? Or will a politician be perpetually stationed on board the INS Arihant?

In this political setup, New Delhi is well placed to finally reform its nuclear doctrine, in a way that reflects its geopolitical ambitions. Given its investment in long-range ICBM development, and its ambitious decision to establish a ballistic missile defense shield, shifting from a second-strike capacity to a pre-emptive nuclear posture seems possible for India. In a defensive realist paradigm, states need only exercise a containment-centric doctrine until they elevate above the anarchic system. For all practical purposes, India would have reached that milestone in the military arena, when the INS Arihant finally goes underwater.

Also, for its 7,515 km long coastline, a single nuclear submarine is not enough. India has already started construction of INS Aridhaman, the second vessel in the Arihant class, and plans to have a total of four boats by 2020. Thus, “credible minimum deterrence” would have already started another arms race in the region, before India can actually attain a credible second strike capability. The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi unveiled an alternative blueprint for India’s nuclear doctrine in 2012, and one of its salient points was substituting “credible minimum deterrence” with “credible minimal deterrence,” allowing the country to avoid getting fixated on a numerical value, and simply continue arming per geo-political requirements.

While they’re at it, why not ditch NFU as well? It is quite debatable as to when global zero will finally be achieved. Until then, the only point of differentiation among the major powers is their policies on first use. New Delhi will never be able to escape its current geopolitical squeeze, unless it changes the geo-strategic dynamics on its terms.

Wishful thinking apart, the new government has closed the door on that possibility, deeming NFU a “party legacy” (the Bhartiya Janta Party was in power when India went nuclear in 1998). Should all four Arihant  class vessels be operational by the time India’s next general elections are held, this will be a major point of discussion.

The INS Arihant is a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, reported to be modeled on the Russian Akula-class vessels. The theoretical potency of the vessel can be gauged by the assistance Russia gave India in this project, which extended to leasing a nuclear attack submarine – the INS Chakra II – to India and training the initial submarine crew. Unfortunately, because Russia is a party to the Missile Control Treaty Regime (MCTR), New Delhi could not arm the INS Chakra II with developmental SLBMs for R&D purposes. Consequently, India still does not have a capable ballistic missile with which to arm the INS Arihant, vastly undermining the submarine’s utility as a sea-based deterrent. Thus, the Defence Research and Development Organisation will need yet more time before it can produce a quality SLMB to put on the vessel.   

Amit R. Saksena is an independent researcher from New Delhi. He tweets @arsaksena.