As China nears its peak in terms of power accumulation, its perception of the international system as threatening its interests will gain traction. Beijing sensing a closing “window of opportunity” will drive its policymakers to take actions that may be viewed by the international community as escalatory and disorderly, potentially challenging the sovereign existence of the states in its vicinity. Such an action-reaction cycle may soon become acute and intense, compelling Beijing to react, which others could perceive as provocative.
In this context, Washington’s desire to arm like-minded states in the Indo-Pacific region through minilateral cooperation arrangements like AUKUS has gained momentum. As the deterrent in Indo-Pacific solidifies to tackle Chinese assertiveness, Indian policymakers must prepare for a showdown against Beijing in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). Even as India welcomes the AUKUS deal as a measure to accumulate hard power capabilities against China, it must also be worried and as such, preparing to improve its deterrent capabilities in the IOR.
The desire of Indian policymakers to achieve “true” deterrence “parity” vis-à-vis China yielded a major policy push for sea-based deterrence initiatives that have still not completely come to fruition. Following India’s nuclear tests in 1998 and declaration of a no-first use policy, New Delhi decided to develop a credible retaliatory force to checkmate China’s invincibility. To realize this objective, two legs of India’s triadic retaliatory forces – the Mirage fighter-led delivery option and the air-launched dependence on Prithvi and Agni were put in place with an “afterthought” for submarine options. Given the possibility of interdiction of these two options, the only way to ensure the survivability of the arsenal lay in evaluating the feasibility of the third option, spinning the undersea deterrent options to the forefront. This pushed Indian policymakers to shift their planned Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) program, primed to build nuclear attack submarines to accommodate ballistic missiles for nuclear delivery in a bid to complete the nuclear triad.
The ATV program delivered India its first nuclear ballistic submarine – INS Arihant, codenamed S2 under Project Samudra – which was commissioned in 2016 but only performed its first deterrence patrol in 2018. The sub is equipped with the K-15 Sagarika SLBM with a modest reach of 750 km. To increase the range of missiles, initial ATV planners decided to field a mix of K-15 and K-4 missile variants with a range of 3,500 km on the next submarine, INS Arighat (codenamed S3), which was scheduled for commissioning in 2022 but was delayed. As of now, there has been no announcement of when it may be inducted into service.
However, these shortcomings of the ATV program were well known to initial planners. In 2006, a technical review committee overlooking the program reported to then-Defense Minister R. Chidambaram about the inability of future submarines to carry intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, thus revealing India’s efforts are already falling short of its deterrent requirements vis-à-vis China.
K-15 Sagarika SLBMs could easily target Pakistani counter-value assets from the Arabian Sea, but not touch China’s Beijing. This initial reflection drove Indian policymakers to scramble for ad-hoc arrangements and envisage new ways of deterring China. Barring the deficit of range in the INS Arihant and INS Arighat, policymakers decided to increase the deliverable payload capacity of the next two inductees – S4 and S4a – under Project Samudra, equipping each with two missile blocks, each containing four missile launch tubes capable of carrying a single canister of K-4 missile. In other words, India could field up to eight K-4s within a single ballistic submarine that could easily target Beijing if launched from the upper tip of the Bay of Bengal. However, these two boats will also miss their deadline to enter service, scheduled for 2024.
Considering the shortcoming in the range of missiles, the Indian government also approved the production of the next generation of S5 vessels in 2015. This stealthy equipment will be loaded with DRDO-developed next-generation K-5 and K-6 missiles with a range of 5,000 km and 6,000 km, respectively. It will effectively envelop Beijing into the fold of an Indian missile launched from its nearest station at Rambilli.
India’s deterrent capability in the form of INS Arihant is grossly under par. Rather than being deployed for naval purposes, INS Arihant primarily serves the purpose of a “training vessel” and “technological demonstrator.” In practice, India simply does not have a sea-based deterrent option ready. As the future remains grim, and India’s policy choices are yet to manifest, New Delhi should seriously consider an interim solution to manage its production shortfall and put in place some interim deterrent to balance China rather than looking to the Himalayas to up the ante whenever Beijing presses in the IOR. The best option for India lies in reinvigorating its nuclear attack submarine program to manage the increasing Chinese patrols in the region. Such a solution will only gain more traction as AUKUS stabilizes deterrence in the Indo-Pacific, while the IOR remains under-balanced.
While building a credible deterrent takes time, India’s predicament could be better served by relying on like-minded states to ease its troubles. Even if the French lost to the U.S. and the U.K. in the diplomatic ball game anchored around AUKUS, France’s intent to maintain a “rules-based” order in the Indo-Pacific region syncs with India’s thinking based on the same strategic parameter of managing China’s assertiveness. Exploiting this diplomatic fallout and mollifying French distrust against Washington and London, India could play its card to tack for significant dividends from the international community. Not only are there French promises to deepen defense ties with India post-AUKUS, according to unconfirmed reports, Paris also may offer India the design for the Barracuda-class SSN along with speculation about retrofitting its pump-jet propulsion with the 190MW pressurized water reactor.
Such speculation surfaced when India’s P-77 project developing six nuclear attack submarines hit a roadblock due to a financial crunch that awaits official clearance. If such ideas solidified into policy, India would not only clench its first nuclear-powered attack submarine but could also inject propulsion technology into its ongoing S5 ballistic missile submarines, as presciently idealized by Ashley Tellis in his envisioned “INFRUS” deal between India, France, and the United States. However, a first vessel will still take more than 15 years to come on board with Indian Navy.
India’s submarine fleet faces a bleak future, as most of its vessels are aging, with service time crossing more than 20 years for most. More so, India does not have a nuclear-powered attack submarine yet. While India’s options are limited to operating SSKs to hunt for Chinese ballistic submarines – and with its Russian-leased nuclear option, INS Chakra, concluding its patrol in 2021 – New Delhi’s ability to field its vessel for patrol and deterrence purposes to maintain a check on China’s roaming underwater presence is pretty restricted. Rather than depending on Russia to lease another nuclear attack submarine – whose prospects remain in disarray given the sanctions imposed – India should evaluate its options with France. India already operates five Kalveri-class SSKs, with two more submarines due for commission. Since this model is based on the French Scorpene class, which was earlier a nuclear submarine, India could utilize this design leverage and its interest in strengthening defense ties to push for more nuclear-powered attack submarines programs.
Further, the French could also tap in to replace the likely withdrawal of Germany and Russia from India’s submarine construction program, as the producers were unable to offer an operational air-independent propulsion system to India. A nuclear option as a replacement would be more desirable for India’s present conditions. However, if approved, these are still long-term project that could only produce results by the early 2030s.
India’s quest for SSNs as its core weapon to hunt ballistic missile submarines will only be fulfilled with external assistance. Either New Delhi should push for leasing a French nuclear attack submarine (which remains idealistic) by leveraging existing joint productions of naval platforms, or it can rely on either U.S. or French nuclear attack submarines to fill India’s deterrence deficit by concluding an agreement, allowing these like-minded partners to maintain their vessels in coordination with Indian assets to bridge India’s lack of capabilities in IOR. Such arrangement will not only enhance interoperability but will also exploit existing capabilities like sea-based sensors and surveillance aircraft in sync with these platforms to better tackle the Chinese aggressiveness in years to come.