The Indian Navy has clarified its stance to the Government that the construction of six nuclear-powered attack submarines would take precedence over the new aircraft carrier, to counter the rapid expansion of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy in the Indian Ocean.
According to the Indian newspaper Hindustan Times, government officials have told that the decision was taken during the Indian Navy’s recently-held Combined Commanders Conference at Kevadia in Gujarat. Analysing the maritime scenario of the Indo-Pacific along with Beijing’s ambitions, it was decided that the nuclear submarines (aka SSNs) should take priority over the project to build the third heavy aircraft carrier called IAC-2 (Indigenous Aircraft Carrier-2). The report also mentions that the Navy will seek Acceptance of Necessity (AON) approval from the government on the SSN project, keeping in mind that China has developed the capability to build Type 055 (Renhai-class) destroyers in just five years.
The question on the viability of spending billions over costly nuclear submarines over diesel electric ones is rather about operational requirements. While a conventional diesel-electric submarine has to surface frequently in order to run diesel engines and charge the battery (thereby losing its main virtue of stealth), a nuclear submarine is run by a nuclear reactor and can run almost indefinitely underwater without the need to surface- almost indefinitely- only bound by human restrictions of supply needs (good for long-range strike missions). An SSN could patrol the entire length of the Indian Ocean without surfacing even once.
Recently, the Indian Defense Research and Development Organisation also successfully built Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) technology for the new Kalvari-class submarines. The AIP allows a non-nuclear submarine to operate without access to atmospheric oxygen (by surfacing or using a snorkel), being submerged for significantly longer periods of time than traditional propulsion.
The Indian Navy currently has 2 commissioned nuclear-powered submarines, and 15 conventional diesel-electric subs while one more nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) would be commissioned by the end of this year. Three more diesel-electric attack submarines shall be delivered and commissioned by early 2023, with two of them already undergoing sea trials. The service shall also commission its second heavy aircraft carrier (IAC-1) by the end of 2021.
The Navy’s plans to build six new nuclear-powered boats presumably comes under the Project 75 Alpha, which was approved by the Government in 2015. These would be designed by the Navy’s in-house Directorate of Naval Design and indigenously built in the Shipbuilding Centre at Visakhapatnam.
The report also mentioned that the Indian Government is looking forward to tie-up with France over joint development and construction of the new subs, which is already helping New Delhi with the construction of Kalvari-class diesel electric boats (based on French Scorpene-class).
“Apart from being India’s closest allies in defence technology, joint development of submarines with France is free from any regulatory regimes such as the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) with the US or any future sanctions in case of Russia,” it said.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy has been the major reason for arms proliferation in Asia and Oceania, especially due to the South China Sea dispute over the claimed nine-dash line, and at its land borders with neighbouring countries too. In a U.S. congressional report released last year, the PLA Navy’s surface fleet numbers have even surpassed the US Navy, however still lacks in the terms of tonnage.