India’s nuclear-powered attack submarines could change the balance of power in the Indian Ocean, offsetting China’s rising power in the region
The SSN program, estimated optimistically to cost $12 billion ($2 billion per submarine), could affect the balance of power in the Indian Ocean as India seeks to offset the growing presence and capability of China’s rapidly expanding navy.
Indian Submarine Strategy And China
In the last two decades, the PLA Navy has secured access to bases in the Indian Ocean to the west and east of India, and periodically dispatches warships and submarines to patrol those waters. Long-running tensions between China and India meanwhile have mounted, culminating in June 2020 in a deadly clash on the Himalayan border in which dozens of soldiers were killed.
CDS Rawat favoured submarines over carriers because the latter make for large and indiscrete targets, and China has developed a wide variety of long-range air, sea- and land-based missiles to attack carriers.
Attack submarines, by contrast, are ideal for navies facing numerically superior adversaries because underwater stealth allows them to (mostly) pick their battles, pouncing upon vulnerable merchant convoys or unsuspecting warships.
Furthermore, even a relatively small submarine force can compel an adversary to devote enormous resources to systematically escorting merchant convoys and valuable warships, lest they sustain insupportable losses.
Nuclear Power Under The Indian Ocean
Nuclear propulsion allows submarines to remain underwater essentially indefinitely and traverse long distances without having to expose themselves by surfacing or snorkeling to sip air needed to recharge their batteries.
That allows an SSBN to creep slowly underwater with maximum stealth on patrols that may last two or three months, ready at any moment to respond to orders transmitted by high-frequency radio to unleash a barrage of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
An attack submarine, however, is principally designed for hunting down ships and other submarines. For that role, agility is essential for intercepting vulnerable enemy ships, out-manoeuvring underwater foes, and diving deep to evade anti-submarine forces. Here, nuclear propulsion can enable much higher sustained underwater speeds of 20 to 30 knots.
Indeed, India has reportedly been researching higher-strength hull materials that will allow its future SSNs to dive deeper and travel at higher speeds. However, the greatest technical challenge may stem from the submarine’s reactor.
Thus, the level of acoustic stealth India achieves with its SSN will determine how well they match qualitatively with China’s current submarine fleet.
India’s Nuclear Submarine Strategy
However, an Indian SSN fleet would remain uniquely qualified for several offensive and defensive missions.
One classic SSN mission is escorting SSBNs deploying to station, as opposing submarines often attempt to trail behind them while leaving port. An SSN can “keep up” with the SSBNs during that vulnerable phase, and is better suited to dueling with hostile submarines. India is expected to pursue a Soviet-style bastion strategy, in which the SSBNs lurk in nearby waters well screened by friendly aerial, surface, and underwater anti-submarine platforms.
Nuclear-powered submarines would also make good escorts for India’s two aircraft carriers due to having the speed to keep up!
The Indian Navy may also seek to leverage the greater range and endurance of SSNs by deploying them to interdict the few choke points by which Chinese warships can efficiently access the Indian Ocean, notably the Straits of Malacca (at the intersection of Malaysia, Sumatra and Singapore) and the Sunda Strait (between Sumatra and Java.) Admittedly, AIP submarines have the range for this mission, though SSNs could remain on station longer with less exposure.
However, India could also dispatch SSNs through the straits into the Pacific, just as Chinese submarines are patrolling the Indian Ocean. In wartime, just one or two submarines in the Pacific could force the PLA Navy to devote expensive assets to protecting their “backfield,” instead of treating the Pacific as a safe area where shipping can safely go unescorted.
Meanwhile, in peacetime, the Indian Navy could use submarines for intelligence-gathering missions in the Pacific.
The French Connection
Finally, while India’s growing military relationship with the U.S. Navy in the Indian Ocean is well known, France also has a substantial presence in the Indian Ocean based on the islands of Reunion and Mayotte, making it an attractive strategic partner.