‘Indian Navy needs fleet of SSNs, nuclear-powered general-purpose attack submarines’

By this metric, even with a lower single platform cost, an SSK fleet would cost 1.3 to 3.5 times more than an SSN fleet, to maintain the same on-station capability,” the IDSA report stated. 
For representational purposes. (File | EPS)
For representational purposes. (File | EPS)

CHENNAI: In a bid to transform Indian Navy into a true blue-water force, the navy requires a fleet of SSNs, a nuclear-powered general-purpose attack submarines, to meet its great power expectations in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, in the decades to come, according to Commodore  Roby Thomas.

Commodore Thomas, a Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, in his paper Nuclear Attack Submarines: The Elixir for a True Blue-Water Navy published at Journal of Defence Studies, stated that notwithstanding the current Covid-19-related economic contractions, India needs to ‘keep its eye on the horizon’ and astutely plan its rise by facilitating the strengthening of its maritime capacities, like its SSN fleet, to meet its great power expectations in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, in the decades to come.

While SSNs are known to be more expensive to build and maintain than original diesel-electric submarine, classified as SSK, which has undergone numerous iterations since World War II and is as relevant now as it was then, Commodore Thomas says on the metrics of life-cycle cost and equivalent effectiveness have proven otherwise.

"Instead of comparing the life-cycle cost of a single SSK to that of one SSN, a study by US Navy considered it more prudent to compare the total life-cycle cost of the number of SSKs that would provide equivalent on-station capability to one SSN. The study indicated that it would require anywhere between 2.2 to 6 SSKs to have the equivalent effectiveness of one SSN. Therefore, by this metric, even with a lower single platform cost, an SSK fleet would cost 1.3 to 3.5 times more than a SSN fleet, to maintain the same on-station capability," the IDSA report states.

Currently, India has 16 diesel-electric submarine  (SSKs), one nuclear-powered general-purpose attack submarines (SSN), which is leased from Russia and one ballistic missile submarines (SSBN).

"Nuclear submarines are national strategic assets and even the best of friends do not part with this technology. For example, notwithstanding theclosest of relations between the US and the UK post-World War II, the US only gave Britain the reactor to operationalise its first SSN, HMS Dreadnought, and subsequently the Trident SLBM, but never the entire submarine. Similarly, Russia provided India with SSNs on lease to gain experience and training, never to own. Conversely, if you pay the right price, you may buy or make in collaboration a conventional submarine,

but never an SSN. As this technology takes decades to develop, nurture and maintain, it needs to be a very carefully thought through strategy by any country which seeks to make and maintain a presence on the world stage.," the IDSA report states.

Commodore Thomas said that Indian Navy leased the second nuclear-powered attack submarine from Russia, INS Chakra II, in 2012 for a period of 10 years. This is to be followed by the lease of another nuclear attack vsubmarine from Russia in 2025, to be christened Chakra III, also for a period of 10 years. "These on-lease nuclear attack submarines are critical towards providing vital operational experience and training to the submarine crew. However, to exploit the complete operational envelope of nuclear attack submarines, India would need have its own Indian made nuclear attack submarines. The construction of six of these was sanctioned by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in 2015," he says.

Commodore Roby Thomas says that Indian Navy’s planned expansion, with a focus on ‘capabilities’ instead of ‘numbers’, was detailed in the Indian Navy’s Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP). This was further deliberated during the Naval Commanders Conference held in April 2019, where the need to boost operational capability was highlighted with a view to expand the Indian Navy’s overall influence in the strategic maritime zones. This required the Indian Navy to have a force level of 200 ships, 500 aircraft and 24 attack submarines. This was further reiterated by the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Karambir Singh, in the vCommanders Conference in October 2019, when he stressed the need to bridge the capability gaps, especially in light of the increasing mandate of the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), says Commodore Thomas.

Commodore Thomas also said that  first Indian-made nuclear-propelled ballistic missile submarine, INS Arihant, in August 2016 completed its first deterrent patrol in November 2018. The second in the class, INS Arighat, was launched in November 2017 and is expected to join the submarine fleet after its trials.


1. SSBNs or ballistic missile submarines, are nuclear propelled. They carry multiple sets of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), tipped with single or multiple nuclear warheads. Their

primary mission is to fulfil the vital third leg of the nuclear triad. Undetected ballistic missile submarine would assure a devastating retaliation or an assured second strike capability.

2. SSGN or guided-missile nuclear submarine carry both conventional and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. These submarines are regarded as tactical rather than strategic weapons. Though operated mostly by the  Soviets during the Cold War, the US has currently four such submarines.

3. SSNs or nuclear attack submarines, are designed for speed and agility and are considered the most versatile of all submarine classes. Due to their innate advantages of

almost unlimited underwater endurance and high sustained speeds, they are capable of multitasking on numerous critical missions while out of base port on a single prolonged duration patrol.

4. SSK or original diesel-electric submarine, has undergone numerous iterations since World War II and is as relevant now as it was then. Though designed and constructed by

only a handful of countries, today the conventional submarine is operated by over 35 navies and these numbers are expanding. These submarines are operationally limited by the need to charge their batteries, using their diesel engines for a certain period of time every day at sea, which is termed as their ‘indiscretion rate’.

(India has 16 SSKs, 1 SSN, which is leased from Russia, and one SSBN)

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