Strategic Base for Nuclear Submarines

The growing prowess of the third leg of India’s nuclear triad may be slow to take-off and emerge as a potent force, yet it already has all essentials to employ deterrence in the region

Issue: 1 / 2018By Rear Admiral Sushil Ramsay (Retd)Photo(s): By MOD
INS Arihant

Close on the hels of Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Submarine Arm came a report on in-principle approval of the Central Government for clearance of the acquisition of 676 hectares of forest land in Rambilli off Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh for the classified Nuclear Submarine Base on the eastern seaboard was received with a big cheer. This proposal had been languishing for the past seven years, or more. The ambitious Nuclear Submarine Base, code-named Project Varsha has been conceived and planned as a strategic asset of the nation, to be a stealthy base for the emerging prowess of the third leg of the Nuclear Triad. The Base is designed to contain whole gambit of maintenance, support infrastructure, technical area and the command and control centre, way beyond the range and reach of the hostile satellites to snoop.

Phase I of Project Varsha which is designated as the Naval Alternate Operating Base is already on stream and progressing very well. The approval-in principle for Phase II is a real shot in the arm and will now propel the project to start expanding vital facilities to safely house recharge stations and technical support areas for future nuclear-powered strategic assets to break out at the time of own choosing under favourable conditions.

Reportedly, the approvals are in place for the project to establish a new missile testing range in the Andaman Islands and a few more strategic facilities to be dispersed in Madhya Pradesh. In the past there were serious impediments and inordinate delays in acquiring land for critical needs to store, service and manufacture equipment for nuclear assets like missiles, warheads, etc.

Project Varsha is a strategic joint venture between Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Indian Navy. The forest area for which clearance has been awarded recently is ideal to provide camouflage and concealment to this vital and strategic facility. The area is located at Varahat and Sarada River front which provides a safe entry into the Bay of Bengal to launch nuclear submarines on operational missions.

Naval Advanced Operating Base

Over the past 50 years Eastern Naval Command has witnessed phenomenal growth such that its present location has saturated to the extent that additional infrastructure and facilities are now not possible at Visakhapatnam. Hence, the futuristic projects of the Command have to be dispersed to village Rambilli which is 50 km south of Visakhapatnam. The new naval base has been designated as the Naval Advanced Operating Base (NAOB) which is designed to construct underground submarine pens to house the expanding fleet of nuclear submarines and to protect them from snooping by satellites and air strikes.

It is estimated that with the clearance for land acquisitions, the development work on the classified base will receive significant boost and gather momentum in a big way for the construction of tunnels, jetties, depots, workshops and accommodation. The recent clearance for land acquisitions is expected to pave way for a sprawling and futuristic base to be spread over 20 sq km. Also, just 20 km away at Atchutapuram, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) is constructing a research and development complex that will support the submarine base. About 845 hectares have already been handed to BARC for the new facility.

Future Ready Force Levels

Submersible Ship Ballistic Missile Nuclear
With the commissioning of INS Arihant, India has already acquired the membership of the elite club of six comprising the US, Russia, the UK, France and China to indigenously build a Submersible Ship Ballistic Missile Nuclear (SSBN). INS Arihant can carry twelve Sagarika (K-15) Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) that have a range of 700 km. In addition to the proven K-15, DRDO is also developing a longer-range SLBM, designated as K-4, which the future SSBNs will also carry. INS Arihant is only equipped to handle four of the larger K-4s, as Arihant has four launch tubes but three K-15s can fit in each launch tube. The submarine can also carry torpedoes and Submarine Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCMs).

INS Arihant was built primarily as a training platform to indoctrinate the selected crew to master the art of operating and operationally exploit the SSBN optimally under all conditions. Government has approved construction of four follow-on SSBN of Arihant class. It is learnt that second SSBN design will be an upgraded version of Arihant and will pack greater firepower than the first SSBN of line. Reportedly, the second SSBN is likely to be fitted out with eight vertical launch tubes, allowing it to carry twenty-four K-15 missiles or eight K-4 missiles. In addition, the new boats will have a reactor more powerful than the INS Arihant’s 83 MW pressurised light-water reactor. The new reactor will use uranium as fuel and light water as a coolant and moderator, which will allow it to operate stealthily and will have submerged endurance of about two months. The new SSBN will be able to clock submerged speed of 24 knots.

The growing prowess of the third leg of India’s nuclear triad may be slow to takeoff and emerge as a potent force, yet it already has all essentials to employ deterrence in the region

Reportedly the Indian Navy will have five SSBNs in its arsenal that will be capable of launching missiles to a target range of over 5,000 km, eventually. The Arihant class of SSBNs are critical for the secondstrike option in case India comes under a nuclear attack. The first of its class, INS Arihant, is already operational, while its successor, the Arighat, is being outfitted at Visakhapatnam. The second SSBN Arighat which was earlier speculated to be named as Aridhaman is being readied for eventual induction. The submarine has been launched into water and has now entered the crucial phase of outfitting. The submarine was launched by Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman last year which was kept under a wrap to keep away from hostile gaze. It is an open secret that the first of line has a far longer gestation period than its follow-on. Thus Arihant which was launched in the summer of 2009 was commissioned as INS Arihant under a quiet ceremony by Chief of the Naval Staff during August 2016. Having learnt the right lessons and after gaining vital experience, Indian Navy is now aiming at an ambitious target of two years to commission Arighat.

Submersible Ship Nuclear
During February 2015 construction of six Submersible Ship Nuclear (SSN) to bridge the gap of force level of 28 conventional submarines as per original perspective plan for building and modernisation of the Submarine Arm, was approved by the Government. The mammoth plan, expected to cost over $12 billion, is for six modern SSNs to be made in India. It is learnt that the design work which is a derivative of Arihant class has already started and the ambitious project for a new class of submarines is expected to fructify within 15 years.

Strategic Perspective
An ambitious and strategically crucial Project Varsha has all the ingredients to be classified as a valuable and worthy counterpart of the futuristic naval base established at Karwar under ‘Project Seabird’ in coastal Karnataka to give India’s maritime forces both strategic depth and operational flexibility on the western seaboard against Pakistan. Phase I of Karwar naval base is complete and part sanction of Phase II is also in place While Karwar will eventually decongest an already over-crowded Mumbai harbour, Project Varsha too holds the identical promise for the Eastern Naval Command on the eastern seaboard.

Total credit is due to the vision and farsightedness of the naval planners for conceiving and planning ambitious Project Varsha to house; Forwarding Operating Base and Operational Turn-around bases on the eastern seaboard for growing force levels of Eastern Naval Command. The Base promises to emerge as a state of the art, latest technology enabled infrastructure, support and maintenance facilities, technical area for preparation of weapons, missiles, etc. This is indeed a forward looking initiative as in the future newer warships, aircraft carrier, aircraft, drones, support auxiliaries, etc. will require wide berths for housing, launching and operating.

Project Varsha will have all the ingredients, albeit at smaller scale to match China’s massive underground nuclear submarine base at Yalong on the southernmost tip of Hainan Island, which houses its new Shang-class SSNs and the Jin-class SSBNs. The growing prowess of the third leg of India’s nuclear triad may be slow to take-off and emerge as a potent force, yet it already has all essentials to employ deterrence in the region. It is this realisation which will compress the build and induction cycle of Arighat, the second SSBN and the follow-on programme. Likewise, construction of six SSNs will also be energised to ensure that the project comes on stream with quite efficiency.