Skip to comments.The secret undersea weapon(India's nuclear submarine)
Posted on 01/18/2008 10:17:50 PM PST by sukhoi-30mki
The secret undersea weapon
January 17, 2008
Located up the winding shipping channel in Visakhapatnam harbour is a secret, completely enclosed facility known only as the Shipbuilding Centre (SBC).
Inside this dry dock, nearly 50m below ground level, is a cylindrical black shape, which is as tall as a two-storey building and at 104 m in length, is longer than the Qutub Minar lying on its side.
Technicians working on it confess to a surge of national pride: Indias first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine or SSBN is arguably its greatest engineering project.
For over a quarter of a century, the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV), smaller than the USS Alabama from Crimson Tide, has been among the most highly-classified government programmes, if not the most delayed.
Officials still refuse to confirm the existence of the project or the sea-based ballistic missile. A decade after India came out of the nuclear closet in the sands of Pokhran, it has moved some tantalising steps closer to realising the third and possibly the toughest of the three legs of the triad enunciated in its nuclear doctrine: a sea-based deterrent or a secure underwater platform for launching nuclear weapons.
Things are developing as per schedule, Defence Minister A.K. Antony recently said of ATV. Early last month, Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sureesh Mehta was the first government official to not only confirm its existence but also lay down a timeframe: It is a DRDO project and a technology demonstrator. It is somewhere near completion and will be in the water in two years.
The admiral had reason to feel confident about the project. Just last month, an 80MW nuclear reactor, smaller than a bus, was pushed into the hull of the submarine and successfully integrateda milestone in the project approved by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1970.
By April 2009, the submarine will be launched and will begin sea trials before it is inducted into the navy. The goal is to field a fleet of three SSBNs by 2015, one in reserve and two on patrol, each carrying 12 nucleartipped ballistic missiles (Artists impression of Indias nuclear-propelled ballistic missile submarine) .
Possibly the last gift to India from the now-extinct Soviet Union, it was designed with Russian assistance in the late 80s. Based on an entirely new design, the 6,000 tonne submarine (not the elderly Charlie class N-sub as thought earlier) will make India the worlds sixth nation to operate a boomer.
Part of the acceleration in the programme has to do with the rapid buildup of Chinese nuclear forces. China operates 10 nuclear submarines, and in the past year, has fielded as many as three new Jin-class SSBNs, each carrying 12 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). Given the growing military asymmetry with China, Indias need for a reliable nuclear deterrent that can survive a first strike has never been greater, says strategic expert Brahma Chellaney.
ATV is in line with Indias nuclear doctrine enunciated in 1999, which calls for its nuclear forces to be effective, enduring, diverse, flexible and responsive to the requirements in accordance with the concept of credible minimum deterrence. The doctrine calls for high survivability against surprise attacks and for a rapid punitive response.
A nuclear submarine that can remain submerged almost indefinitely and cannot be detected underwater, therefore, meets all these criteria and offers an almost invulnerable launch platform for nuclear weapons.
For a country like India with a no-first use policy, it is vital because it prevents a potential adversary from launching a crippling first strike that can knock out all nuclear weapons (see box). It also allows India to inflict considerable damage to the aggressor.
One submarine carries at least 12 missiles with Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles, which could mean as many as 96 warheads. When such a submarine goes out to the sea, that many missiles are removed from our own territory. The enemys targeting of that many sites gets neutralised, says Rear Admiral (retired) Raja Menon.
ATV, with its suitably muted acronym, was a euphemism for a longdelayed project. Shrouded in obsessive secrecy for decades, it has been under the direct supervision of the prime minister, who also chairs ATVs apex committee.
Nearly 200 naval officers and technicians are directly involved in the project that is managed by a vice-admiral who functions out of ATV headquarters in Delhi Cantonment. Funding was never a problem, even during the lean days of defence spending, like in the pre-1990s. An estimated Rs 2,000 crore was spent even before work on the submarine was started.
The excessive secrecy, say experts, was based on a misinterpretation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)that building a nuclear submarine would be a violation. There was, therefore, a lack of accountability, which harmed the project.
Project officials in Vizag are now sealing the reactor with a special shield and plugging in the control systems, turbines and piping. The next few months are critical. After the reactor compartment is sealed, the tail sector which includes the propeller and the shaftwill be welded in and the submarine will be ready. By April next year, the dry dock will be flooded and the vessel will be officially launched.
After it hits the water, the nuclear reactor will be jump-started and the submarines propellers seven highlyskewed brass bladeswill be tested. After the reactor and all its associated control systems are successively proven, the submarine will be towed out of the harbour for extensive sea trials lasting over a year before it is inducted into the navy around 2010.
While the impending launch of ATV is reason for cheer, the actual fielding of a secure second-strike capability is still three years away. This is the time it will take to integrate and successfully test fire the missile from the submarine. Without its nuclear missiles, the submarine is just a platform.
The missile is being concurrently developed under an equally-classified programme. Announcing its successful test in April last year, DRDO chief M. Natarajan called it a strategic system which I cannot talk about.
The enigmatic two-stage missile dubbed K-15 under the Defence Research and Development Organisations (DRDO) Sagarika (oceanic) project is a technological breakthrough. Rapidly ejected from the submarines launcher by igniting an underwater gas booster, it rises nearly 5 km above the ocean.
When it reaches a pre-determined height, it ignites a solid booster and travels to a range of nearly 750 km. Tested three times from a specially-designed submersible pontoon, the yetto-be-named naval missile is another feather in Indias cap.
The 100-member crew, which will man the submarine, is being trained at an indigenously-developed simulator in the School for Advanced Underwater Warfare (SAUW) at the naval base in Vizag. Hands-on training will be done on the INS Chakra, a 12,000-tonne Akula-II class nuclear-powered attack submarine being taken on a 10-year lease from Russia next year.
SBC in Vizag is to become the assembly line for three ATVs, costing a little over Rs 3,000 crore each or the cost of a 37,000 tonne indigenous aircraft carrier built at the Cochin Shipyard.
Larsen and Toubro (L&T) has begun building the hull of the second ATV at its facility in Hazira, to be inducted into the navy by 2012. The SSBN fleet will be housed on the east coast at a new naval base in Rambilli, a few kilometres south of Visakhapatnam, where nearly 3,000 acre of land has been acquired for Indias first strategic base, to be manned entirely by military personnel.
Unlike the narrow single channel in Visakhapatnam, it will offer the nuclear fleet direct access into the sea. The first phase of the project, costing approximately Rs 1,500 crore, will be ready by 2011.
Why has the project taken so long? For a country that built only two conventional submarines of the Germandesigned HDW Type 1500 class in the early 90s, building a nuclear submarine was the ultimate challenge: a DRDO official sees the learning curve to be the equivalent of a scooter mechanic building a Mercedes.
The key challenge, however, was not in designing or fabricating the hull, but the reactor and containment vessel, which consumes one-tenth (nearly 600 tonne) of the vessels total displacement. The hydrodynamics of a vessel with one-tenth of its weight concentrated in one place is a formidable naval engineering challenge, but miniaturising a nuclear reactor the size of a football field to fit inside an 8m enclosure is an even bigger hurdle.
This was among the reasons for the decade-long delay in the project. The nuclear reactor in a submarine generates heat to convert water into saturated steam to turn the submarines turbines. Unlike an oilfired boiler, it does not require air to operate. All other parts of the submarine are the same as any steam-powered turbine plants.
The reactor operates on uranium enriched to nearly 45 per cent (uranium used in civilian nuclear reactors is less than 5 per cent and bombs use uranium enriched to over 90 per cent).
In 1998, L&T began fabricating the hull of ATV but the struggle with the reactor continued. After BARC designs failed, India bought reactor designs from Russia.
By 2004 the reactor had been built, tested on land at the IGCAR and had gone critical. Its modest size, around 6,000 tonne (the Ohio class SSBN in the movie Crimson Tide weighs over 14,000 tonne), has led experts to call it a baby boomer. While the present project ends at three units, defence officials have not ruled out building larger submarines on the basis of national strategic imperatives. These have changed since the conception of the project.
The plan, until late 80s, was to build an SSNa fast-moving deep-diving nuclear-powered attack submarine, which would hunt surface ships.
Around the time India leased a Charlie-I class nuclear-powered attack submarine from the Soviet Union, it had already veered towards building a submarine carrying ballistic missiles. The hull design was lengthened and the SSN quietly transformed into an SSBN. There are, however, some key challenges to be overcome. ATVs SLBMs have a range of only 750 km, a big leap from its start of 250 km a decade ago, but still smaller than the SLBMs deployed by the Big Five, which boast ranges in excess of 5,000 km. DRDO is working on fielding a submarine launched variant of the 5,000-km Agni III missile, which will give the submarine true striking power and flexibility.
Scientists believe the submarines present reactor output of around 80 MW is limited because it imposes operational restrictions on the submarines speed and will mean that the reactor will have to function near peak power at most times.
The reactor would also need constant refuelling a fairly expensive process where the hull is cut open and the nuclear cores replaced every decade. For the moment, however, the immediate challenge lies in successfully sending the submarine out to the sea.
Like pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle, ATV project sites are scattered across the country.
Indira Gandhi Atomic Research Centre near Chennai fabricates ATVs light water nuclear reactor. Visakhapatnam
ATV production line at the Ship Building Centre. School of Advanced Underwater Warfare (SAUV) for training ATV crews.
Indigenously developed control room simulator.
Evolution of strategic submarine operational doctrines.
Strategic submarine base south of Vizag will be commissioned by 2011.
ATV project headquarters.
Rare Materials Project near Mysore supplies enriched uranium for ATV reactor.
Sagarika complex is fabricating and developing SLBM. Project began in 1994.
Special underwater launch test platform for test-firing ATVs missile.
Naval Physical and Oceanographic Laboratory developing ATV sensors.
what, a nuclear slingshot?
Also, I doubt China will be very happy about this boat going to sea as, quite obviously, they're the logical reason for this boat to be built in the first place.
37 years for the whole programme.Don’t expect the sub & it’s design to be that old.Firstly,I think work on a design itself started in the late 80s after India leased a Soviet boat..I believe atleast 3 design variants,starting from a copy of the old Soviet Charlie-II to a smaller indegnious design in the mid 90s were evaluated.From the looks of the artist impression(by no means definitive),it seems to borrow a bit from the Russian Akula class submarine.
No matter how good your engineers/architects,if the policy makers & strategists don’t know what they want,you will never get there.
Amen to that.
Not bad, I hope it will be upgraded to reach Shanghai someday to give the Chicoms a “hello”.
37 years to build that? What an achievement.
...We’d better look out because they might get to the moon first.
About 25 years of which were spent on debating whether an N-sub was required in the first place.
It will be interesting to see how it stacks up against the new Chinese SSBN's that have been coming out in the past couple of years.
>>>Not bad, I hope it will be upgraded to reach Shanghai someday to give the Chicoms a hello.<<<
I hope so. OR the Indian Navy will help the Chicoms screw us here.
I wonder if the Indians allow cows on their subs as well?
And the answer was yes. Without SSBNs, a nuclear deterrent has no credibility unless you want to either move missiles periodically on trucks and trains or keep airplanes with nukes in the air 24/7. The problem is that SSBNs are extraordinarily expensive to build and maintain. And you have to build them quiet so that they aren't followed. Good luck to India on the endeavor. I just hope they have the security procedures in place to prevent this technology from leaking to Pakistan. The last thing the world needs is for Pakistan to have the technology to build a blue water sub that can deploy nuclear weapons around the world.
WIth a reactor on board, you can stay underwater until you run out of food for the crew. You won't run out of motive power, or air, or drinking water before you run out of food. You can literally stay submerged for months without surfacing once.
I'm not terribly afraid of India. In fact, I think they're a natural ally -- they're threatened by China more immediately than we are. And if they can carry more of the freight for patrolling the Indian Ocean and the southwestern Pacific, more power to 'em.
But on the other hand, another country with boomers means more targets to track that aren't easy to track, and as we've learned from bitter experience, many times at great cost, yesterday's friends aren't always tomorrow's.
Umm,should the Pakis need nuke-capable subs,the Chicoms shall hand it over to them.Like they have always done by handing over nuke warhead designs,ballistic & cruise missiles.
Pakistan has built atleast 2 French Agosta-90B class subs under license,which can fire the French Exocet & US Harpoon(Pakistan signed up for 50 more).These are equipped with AIP modules to enhance endurance considerably,while still being far cheaper than an N-boat.The Pakis reportedly plan to modify those ships to fire their Babur/Hatf-7 cruise missiles-about as effective as a boomer by their standards & far more cost-effective.
About the Indian boat-firstly,this is just an article.Most resources on India’s sub based missile programme are not sure whether it will carry cruise or ballistic weapons-so we will have to wait & watch.
It just needs enough stealth to prevent detection by Chinese vessels.
If so, if it is not evading our detection, then it is not a threat to us. Just to them. Im cool with that.
I only hope this country has enough common sense to not get between these two when they decide to nuke it out!