On Nov. 5, India announced that its first domestically made nuclear powered submarine, the INS Arihant, had just completed its first “deterrence patrol” by spending a month on station, quietly prowling the ocean while armed with ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the Arihant’s assembled crew that their submarine’s cruise was a “fitting response to those who indulge in nuclear blackmail … Amid an increase in the number of nuclear weapons in our surroundings, a credible nuclear deterrence is extremely important for our country’s security. Arihant is an open warning for the country’s enemies, for the foes of peace: Don’t try any misadventure against India.”
Modi’s unnamed blackmailers are no mystery; he is apparently calling out India’s nuclear-armed neighbors, Pakistan and China.
In a subsequent tweet, Modi added that the sub’s cruise marked the successful establishment of India’s “nuclear triad.” India already possesses aircraft and land-based missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons — the first two components of what strategists call the nuclear triad. Submarines launching nuclear-armed missiles from the sea constitute the third member of the triad. Nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs, also called “boomers”) like the U.S. Navy’s Ohio-class missile submarines are the top-of-the-line sea-based nuclear deterrents. Boomers carry SLBMs — submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
SSBNs are thought to be the most survivable component of the triad. Should an enemy destroy air- and land-based delivery systems, a lurking submarine can still retaliate.
The U.S. Naval Institute’s USNI News observed that the Arihant’s patrol “was more of a statement of intent than a demonstration of a new capability.”
That was a very diplomatic way to acknowledge India has reached the nuclear triad big league, while making the professional point that operationalizing an SSBN force for nuclear deterrence will still take New Delhi several years and require substantial military budget expenditures.
India has joined the U.S., Great Britain, France, Russia and China in the nuclear-triad-with-SSBN club. Though the Arihant’s design draws on a Russian nuclear submarine design, the fact that it is a domestically manufactured SSBN sub is an accomplishment.
At the moment, however, only four nations conduct sustained, continuously-at-sea SSBN deterrent patrols: the U.S., Great Britain, France and Russia. Based on crew and maintenance requirements, continuously deploying one SSBN requires a minimum of four boats. Britain and France have precisely four. Russia has four but will soon have six. America has 14 Ohio-class boomers each carrying 24 Trident II D5 intercontinental SLBMs.
China has four SSBNs carrying intercontinental missiles, but does not keep one continuously deployed. That will likely change. USNI reported that the Pentagon estimates China will have eight SSBNs by 2020.
Hence India responds with the Arihant. A second SSBN, the Arighat, should join the fleet in 2019 or 2020.
The Arihant carries only 12 short-range or four intermediate-range SLBMs. But for now, New Delhi bets a handful of warheads suffices to deter Pakistan and give China second thoughts.
Non-nuclear submarines carrying nuclear-armed cruise missiles fired from torpedo tubes can also deter adversaries. At least the Israelis think so.
Israel and China both deploy diesel-electric submarines with air independent propulsion systems. AIP-enhanced conventional subs can remain submerged for extended periods. Israel has five German-made Dolphin-class subs and two sport AIP. Israel is believed to have a sea-launched cruise missile that can deliver a 200-kiloton warhead some 1,500 kilometers.
Iranian crazies refer to Israel as a “one-bomb state.” Israel is small; one big Iranian nuke destroys it. However, the quiet Israeli sub, its missiles and its nukes would very likely survive an Iranian nuclear strike. MAD? Yes, mutually assured destruction. The mutual destruction of several million Iranian crazies is assured.
Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist and author.