INS Chakra commenced harbour trials last April and in June began its sea trials
By Prasun K. Sengupta
It is time to separate the wheat from the chaff. For at least a decade speculation has been rife on two major issues: India’s quest for acquiring a credible sea-based element of the country’s nuclear weapons triad; and the Indian Navy’s (IN) projected plans for acquiring on lease two nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSGN) of Russian origin. More often than not, it is the Russian mass media that has been more accurate in reporting key developments on these two issues, while its Indian counterpart has been engaging in speculations ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. What follows below is a detailed analysis of India’s continuing quest for acquiring the two SSGNs for both conventional strategic sea denial and strategic nuclear deterrence.
It was in the mid-Eighties that Navy HQ was promised by both the then government-in-power as well as the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) that the IN would, by 2004 have an SSGN derivative of the indigenous nuclear-powered Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) technology demonstrator. However, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the financial crisis of 1991 and the ‘Shakti’ series of five nuclear weapons tests of May 1998 all contributed to the ATV project’s R&D timetable being drastically revised, and its performance parameters being redrafted by late 2000. What the IN now wanted were SSGNs and at least one SSBN. According to Russia’s ministry of defence, the issue of dry-leasing up to two Akula-2 SSGNs was first discussed during talks which began in St Petersburg on 15 September 1999 between the then Chief of the Russian Navy Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov and his Indian counterpart Admiral Sushil Kumar. The lease issue was firmly in the agenda of both India and Russia by October 2000 after both countries inked a Declaration of Strategic Partnership. In February 2001, Rosoboronexport State Corp’s Deputy General Director Viktor Komardin officially stated that India had expressed an interest in leasing a single SSGN. On 5 June 2001, however, Russian newspapers reported that India and Russia were planning to sign a contract by the end of 2001 for the completion of two unfinished Project 971A Shchuka-B SSGNs which were under construction at the Amursky Shipyard Komsomolsk-on-Amur (this being the Nerpa) and the Kuguar, whose construction at Sevmash FSUE in Severodvinsk) had begun in 1993. Russian defence ministry officials confirmed that this issue was discussed on June 4 during the inaugural meeting of the IRIGC-MTC in which Klebanov and India’s then defence and external affairs minister Jaswant Singh took part. On 26 January 2002 while visiting Amursky Shipyard, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov confirmed that Russia planned to lease two SSGNs to India. The terms of the yet-to-be-inked contract would include the training of IN submarine crews in Russia and the lease of two SSGNs for five years each, beginning in 2004. It was in late 2002 that the Cabinet Committee on National Security (CCNS) reportedly committed itself to acquire at least one SSGN for the IN based on purely China-centric threat perceptions. Consequently, Navy HQ firmed up its plans to dry-lease for a period of 10 years (with an option to increase it by another five years) the K-152 Nerpa (the Seal), a Project 971A Shchuka-B (Akula-2) SSGN whose keel was laid down in 1986 and has since been built by Russia’s Amursky Shipbuilding Plant JSC at Komsomolsk-on-Amur. The Letter of Intent for leasing the SSGN under ‘Project India’ was inked on 8 February 2002 in New Delhi during the 2nd session of the IRIGC-MTC between the then Russian deputy prime minister Ilya Klebanov and the then Indian defence minister George Fernandes. On 24 November 2002 final price negotiations for the lease began took place during Klebanov’s visit to New Delhi. Rosoboronexport officials then stated that fabrication of the two SSGNs will resume after India pays the first tranche of USD 100 million as per the contract. The final lease contract for only the Nerpa for the time-being, valued at USD 650 million (26 billion rupees), was inked in New Delhi on 20 January 2004.
To be christened as INS Chakra, it will be commissioned on or around December 22 this year at Vladivostok and will arrive 15 days later at Vizag, HQ of the IN’s eastern Naval Command, after undertaking a ferry voyage through the Western Pacific and entering the Indian Ocean after transiting through the Lombok Straits. In January 2007, work began on modifying (at a cost of USD 135 million or 5.4 billion rupees) the SSGN to accept on board 12 BrahMos cruise missiles as well as TEST-71ME and TEST-71ME-NK torpedoes (built by Russia’s DVIGATEL FSUE and Region State Research & Production Enterprise) that will be fired from the SSGN’s six 533.4mm and four 650mm tubes. The Chakra commenced harbour trials last April and by last June had begun its sea trials. The SSGN will have a dived displacement of 13,800 tonnes, full dived speed of 33 Knots, operational diving depth of 520 metres and a hull-crush depth of 600 metres. The hull will also feature twin flank-array sonars for being used as a torpedo approach warning system, and a stern-mounted distinctive ‘bulb’ on top of the rudder housing an ultra-low frequency thin-line towed active/passive sonar array. INS Chakra’s crew complement will be all-Indian. Some 300 IN personnel, comprising three sets of crews, have for the past three and half years been extensively trained and type-rated to man the SSGN at a specially built secure facility in the town of Sosnovy Bor near St Petersburg in Russia. The IN will be using this first of two such SSGNs (the second one is believed to christened as INS Chitra) for the following:
• Undertaking anti-submarine patrols along the southeastern and southwestern parts of the Indian Ocean.
• Establishing a series of restricted submarine patrol sectors in far-flung areas of the Indian Ocean to allow persistent undersea warfare operations unimpeded by the operation of, or possible attack from, friendly or hostile forces in wartime; and without submerged mutual interference in peacetime.
• Perfecting the art of communicating with submerged SSGNs using VLF, UHF SATCOMS, SHF and EHF frequencies, and using maritime surveillance/ASW aircraft as mission controllers for the SSGNs.
• Exploring ways of evolving a robust and nuclear first strike-survivable two-way communications system comprising shore-based, airborne and submerged elements to ensure that the SSGN’s commander receives explicit rules of engagement and strategic targeting data.
• Analysing the pros and cons of having either a decentralised C³ network for certain types of missions, or a tightly centralised network by developing command automation via network-centric warfare strategies.
• Trying to achieve submarine internet protocol connectivity and working on solutions that will deliver a reduction in time latency, increased throughput and the ability to maintain communications at speed and depth. One technology demonstrator already developed by the DRDO by still classified comprises a submarine- or air-launched recoverable tethered optical fibre (RTOF) buoyant 450mm diameter buoy which, upon reaching the surface, deploys a low-frequency acoustic projector to a preset depth, enabling reach-forward from the Fleet Command’s SSGN operating authority via a built-in SATCOM antenna. A pager is then activated via SATCOM and paging and target cueing messages are sent to the submarine at a data rate of 2.4kb/second. Consideration is also being given to the use of a swimming communications device, such as an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), which would surface to exchange data via SATCOM via a repeatable 32kb/second communications window, and then return to the host SSGN for download. A prototype AUV for undertaking such operations has already been developed by the DRDO.
• Use of RTOF buoys, which provide data rates of around 32kb/second while the SSGN is cruising at 8 Knots and is more than 244 metres underwater. The IN’s longer-term network-centric vision includes the use of distributed undersea networks, offering the submarine a network of known underwater nodes to be used to download large amounts of information, while remaining at depth. The concept calls for a field of acoustic sensors, UHF local area network-linked platforms and SATCOM buoys.
• Establishing a protocol for undertaking deep-sea crew rescue and salvage operations using the IN’s yet-to-be-acquired remotely operated rescue vehicles (RORV) and related launch-and-recovery system (LARS) and a fully integrated self-contained emergency life support system (ELSS) package.
However, it must be noted that the acquisition of INS Chakra give by no means India the long-awaited third leg of the nuclear triad. Neither will the SSGN come under the tri-service Strategic Forces Command. Simply put, the Akula-2 SSGN will be armed with BrahMos cruise missiles which, along with the on-board torpedoes, will give the SSGN a formidable sea-denial capability along a 200nm arc contiguous to India’s coastline as well as in the Indian Ocean Region. Russia, which adheres to the Missile Technology Control Regime along with the NPT and START-2 treaties, is obligated to ensure that INS Chakra does not carry on board any nuclear weapon whatsoever. Furthermore, the SSGN’s employment in wartime too will be highly restricted and its rules of engagement will have to be cleared with Moscow, thus limiting India’s operational sovereignty over the SSGN. In fact, it is due to this very reason that the ATV project is being undertaken to ensure that India’s nuclear deterrent, in the long run, remains effective, enduring, diverse, flexible, and responsive to the requirements of credible minimum deterrence.