The most vital and critical of all was the milestone when onboard 83 MW miniaturised nuclear reactor crossed the threshold to turn critical in August 2013
Monday, December 15, 2014, will go down as a red-letter day in the annals of power status of our country; for on this day Arihant, the first of its indigenously designed and constructed nuclear submarine stoutly steamed out of its nestling ground, Shipbuilding Centre, Visakhapatnam, for proving its mettle at the hunting grounds under stern scrutiny of the ever vigilant nuclear safety watchdogs. The 112-metre and 6,000-tonne nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) was flagged off by the Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. This auspicious event of national importance was also witnessed by Admiral R.K. Dhowan, Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Naval Command, top brass from the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, Defence Research and Development Organisation and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.
While Arihant remained ensconced in the wraps of secrecy for strategic reasons for over three decades, her moment of glory arrived when she was launched on July 26, 2009, by Gursharan Kaur, wife of Manmohan Singh, former Prime Minister. This was the major turning point in the life of Arihant when the shrouds were disgorged for all times to come. Thereafter, there was no looking back. The most vital and critical of all was the milestone when onboard 83 MW miniaturised nuclear reactor crossed the threshold to turn critical in August 2013. From July 2009 onward the outfitting and other systems integration work had progressed very satisfactorily. The progress on operationalising the onboard nuclear reactor was very well calibrated and executed with extreme caution and professional finesse in strict compliance of all design and safety norms and with due certification by the independent nuclear safety audits.
At the Navy Day press conference on December 3, 2014, Admiral Dhowan very discreetly evaded a direct question from a mediaperson as to when Arihant will commence sea trials. When asked about the details of follow-on programme, CNS claimed ignorance and requested to share information, if available with media. The decisions relating to the strategic assets of the country are taken at the highest political levels; hence CNS strictly adhered to his brief, even if he was in the know of it.
The entire nation would have felt proud with the presence of the Supreme Commander of our Armed Forces and the Prime Minister on this historic event. Regrettably this did not happen due to health reasons of the President and the scheduling reasons in case of the Prime Minister.
Prior to commissioning of a ship or a submarine there are rigorous trials, testing and tuning of various machineries, equipment, systems, sub-systems, assemblies, etc. This phase is divided into two, harbour acceptance trials (HATS) and sea acceptance trials (SATS). It is only on successful completion of both the phases that a ship or a submarine is commissioned into the navy. After successful completion of a highly complex and stringent phase of HATS, Arihant has now entered the second most crucial and vital phase of SATS. One may ascribe various reasons to the delay of more than four years. All this was most meticulously monitored and calibrated towards ensuring zero error in placing the first ever technology demonstrator of our country on a firm and sound foundation. In this context India is very fortunate to have incorporated all the right lessons from the difficulties and challenges faced by the pioneers of nuclear submarine designers. The delays in design, development and construction of Arihant are to be viewed in this perspective.
Onerous task before Arihant during SATS is to extensively prove, out at sea in all of its designed roles, each and every piece of machinery, equipment, weapons, systems, etc. There will be no leniency or compromises by the faceless, yet most stringent of all audits. All of this will happen in a graduated manner but tested to its optimum efficiency. The very first sortie may last just for a few days, but Arihant will return to sea soon to engage in further sets of SATS. The process will continue until each and every concept of operations, operational doctrines and exploitation patterns of the third and invisible strategic leg of the nuclear triad are fully established and validated.
Reportedly, Arihant is capable of carrying four nuclear tipped submarine launched ballistic missiles, K-4 with a strike range of 3,500 kilometres or a dozen of tube launched missile, K-15 (Bo 5) with a strike range of 700 kilometres. This weapon configuration has been designed with in-built flexibility to change, depending on the mission requirements. Nonetheless, it will be fair to assess that with the upgradation of size, design parameters and induction of newer technologies the weapons and missile systems will also sequentially improve manifold with enhanced ranges and strike capabilities.
There are differing estimates for Arihant to complete SATS. Some conservative estimates indicate two years, while others assign 18 months to it. The successful completion of SATS is mandatory before Arihant could be inducted into the Indian Navy (IN). Realistically the process could take another year to prove all weapons, sensors, controls and systems. However, it would be futile to speculate over this matter. What the essential pre-requisite will be to complete validation of Arihant as a SSBN. Having proven its capabilities and prowess, in keeping with the global trends, it will only pave ways for induction of advanced design features and more current technologies for three additional follow-on platforms. The size and the tonnage will automatically be upgraded. The work in this direction has already begun in right earnest for a considerable time.
What really needs to be recognised and to be proud of the fact that with the successful culmination of each milestone by Arihant our nation is inching closer to the elite and exclusive club of the countries who acquired the expertise to build nuclear powered submarines. Presently there are just five—United States, Russia, France, Britain and China. And now it is merely a matter of time that India will be bestowed the proud status of being the sixth member of this revered Club. Induction of Arihant into IN will make India the only nation in the Indian Ocean region to possess and operate own nuclear powered submarine.
Icing on the cake was the statement of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar made on December 16, 2014, “It is an open secret. We are discussing the possibility of extending the current lease or of taking another submarine on lease. This will help us in training”. This statement made a day after Arihant had set out for SATS is seen as a real shot in the arm to bolster the complex and specialised training of crew for nuclear powered submarines and future SSBNs for the Indian Navy. India will do well to pursue the positive vibes of the recent summit level discussions between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and to take this agenda forward for culmination in a time bound schedule.