Why does India need nuclear powered submarines so badly?

It feels increasingly besieged by Pakistan and China, and to counter China’s aggression and rapidly modernizing navy, India must urgently strengthen its underwater capabilities.

Indian Navy Submarine Program

Submarines are vital to the Indian Navy’s maritime strategy. According to the 2015 Maritime Security Strategy, The Maritime Security Strategy document emphasises the importance of India adopting sea-based nuclear deterrence and a carrier task force group as a mobile base. The document gives similar importance to maritime chokepoints and the need to control the Sea Lines of Communication in the Indo-Pacific region.

project 75i
Kalvari class submarine

To that end, the Indian Navy will primarily use submarines, which are well suited to conduct maritime denial attacks in areas including port access points, sea ​​lanes of communication (SLOC), and mid-ocean. Beijing is developing the port of Gwadar in Balochistan (Pakistan) as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project to develop an alternative route to mainland China because it believes that the Indian submarine fleet can cause significant damage.

Submarines are also indispensable for nuclear deterrence at sea to ensure the survivability of nuclear weapons, enabling nations to reliably inflict destruction on their enemies. In fact, countries like France and Great Britain don’t even have land-based nuclear deterrents and depend primarily on sea-based nuclear deterrence through ballistic missile submarines (SSBN).

The Indian Navy has been talking about efforts to modernize its submarine fleet for decades. However, those efforts have stalled again and again, lacking support from successive governments. Only in 1999, when the rise of China, with its enhanced naval fleet in the Indo-Pacific, became a reality, India did pay attention to submarines. A 30-year submarine program was planned to replace the submarine fleet with ships of two types – the P-75 (Scorpene) and the P-75I.

In 2017, the Ministry of Defense introduced a policy under which certain private sector companies are allowed to manufacture weapons and equipment, including submarines, under a model of cooperation with equipment manufacturers. equipment of foreign origin (Original Equipment Manufacturers – OEM). Mazgaon Dockyard Limited (MDL) and state-run Larsen & Toubro are two Indian companies, invested by MOD; Five foreign suppliers, namely Russia’s Rubin Design Bureau, France’s Navy Group, Spain’s Navantia, Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) and Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering, were shortlisted.

According to the plan, six submarines will be built using Western technology, while another submarine will be built in cooperation with Russia. Work on the P-75 began in 2005, its delivery long overdue. Only 3 Scorpenes have been delivered so far, and 3 more are expected to be delivered by 2024. Recently, the Indian Ministry of Defense approved Project 75-I, under which 6 submarines with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system will be built in India.

Focus on nuclear submarines

indian nuclear submarine
Indian nuclear submarine INS Arihant

The Indian Navy’s underwater non-nuclear submarine fleet includes 10 kilo-class Russian submarines and four German HDWs. Today’s ships are losing ground in the race to rapidly modernize the navy and most of them are expected to be retired soon, causing further problems for the Indian Navy. It is estimated that India needs about 18 conventional submarines for coastal surveillance, but it may only have 6 submarines for this task.

With a naval mission in the Indo-Pacific, India’s submarine fleet is too small, consisting of an homemade SSBN (ISN Arihant), a nuclear-powered submarine (SSN – INS Chakra II, leased from Russia, recently returned), and 14 diesel-electric attack submarines (SSK). India’s second indigenous SSBN INS Arighat is expected to join the Indian Navy this year. India signed an agreement worth $3 billion (Rs 21,000 crore) in 2019 with Russia to lease another nuclear submarine (renamed Chakra-III) of the Akula class for 10 years, to be delivered for the Indian Navy by 2025.


In 2016, Arihant SSBN made India the only non-permanent member state of the United Nations Security Council to build an SSBN. Arihant is armed with 12 short-range ballistic missiles K-15 with a range of 700-1,000 km. It can also be adapted to launch four K-4 ballistic missiles with a range of 3,000-3,500 km. The second INS Arighat is expected to enter service in late 2021. It is known that the Indian Navy is currently building two more Arihant-class SSBNs at Visakhapatnam.

Clearly, India needs more nuclear-powered submarines and that explains the urgency of owning SSNs,  in 2015 when the plan to build 6 SSNs was approved, each submarine priced was at around Rs 15,000, 3 of which, are in the priority category. Diesel submarines are battery-powered and can stay submerged for only a few days at slow speed, or a few hours at full speed. The highlight of nuclear-powered submarines is that they operate at high speed for long periods of time with unlimited range.

Not much is known about the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) developed by DRDO for India’s SSBN. But it is safe to assume that future SSBNs (besides Arighat, India is building three more, named S-2, S-3 and S-4 at Vadodara shipyard) will be integrated. medium-range K-4 (3,500 km) and long-range K-5 (6,000 km).

K-15 Sagarika SLBM during trials
K-15 Sagarika SLBM during trials

Another intercontinental range SLBM being developed by DRDO is the K-6 which is said to give the SSBN better strike capability and allow it to stay away from enemy shores. The K-6 is expected to carry multiple guided warheads to attack independent targets (MIRVs) to help avoid interception. India is also said to be building a secret submarine base on the East Coast at Rambilli – INS Varsha, capable of withstanding nuclear attacks, located a short distance from Vishakhapatnam – the headquarters of the Eastern Naval Command – 60 km – is a technical support base for future nuclear-powered ships.

INS Varsha is the answer to China’s underground nuclear submarine base at Yalong on the southernmost tip of Hainan Island, where Shang-class and Jin-class SSBNs are stationed. China is believed to have built six such bases on its east coast, and more than 60 Chinese submarines have operated there.

India bets on France

The French Naval Group is the leading candidate for the SSN project thanks to two advantages. First, India already has experience working with France, which is building six new Scorpène-class ships at Mazagon Dock Ltd. (MDL) is state-owned in Mumbai in partnership with Naval Group.

The first of these – INS Kalvari, entered service at the end of 2017; INS Khanderi (S22) was put into operation in September 2019; INS Karanj (S23), INS Vela (S24) and INS Vagir (S25) have been launched and are currently undergoing sea trials; the other, INS Vagsheer, is under construction.

Second, France has been one of India’s most trusted allies since it faced sanctions over its nuclear tests in 1998. Unlike the US or other European countries France has never used sanctions against India – which played a huge role in India’s choice of Rafale fighter aircraft over Eurofighter, F-16, and F-18 to “change blood” of its air force.

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