China's submarine progress alarms India
NEW DELHI - Recent reports about China's nuclear-powered submarine and naval capabilities are raising concern in New Delhi. It has also drawn attention to India's failure to effectively implement an elaborate naval expansion plan that stands significantly delayed.
According to reports, commercial satellite images indicate that the Chinese are building a massive strategic naval base on Hainan island, in the South China Sea, south of Hong Kong. This confirms suspicions of several Asian nations since 2002 about the underground submarine base.
A reputed British daily has described the base as a "vast, James Bond-style edifice capable of concealing up to 20 nuclear-powered submarines and which will enable China to project its power across the region".
Nuclear submarines can remain under water longer than conventional diesel-electric submarines and are thus difficult to detect. They are also capable of firing nuclear warheads.
Refusing to confirm or deny the base, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, "There is no need for the Western countries to be worried, or concerned, or make any irresponsible accusations. We have a vast territorial sea. It is the sacred duty of the Chinese army to safeguard our security on sea," he said.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Defense Minister A K Antony have said that all steps are being taken to protect India's security interests and sea lanes.
In a more detailed reaction, India's navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta said India has been aware of the base and would like to avoid a situation where it faces the prospect of a large number of nuclear submarines in its neighborhood.
"Though India is not worried about Beijing building a strategic naval base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea, it is concerned about the numbers. Nuclear submarines have long legs [traversing anywhere between 7,000-15,000 kilometers] it is immaterial where they are based," Mehta said.
The latest reports will only deepen the already heightened China focus of India's ongoing US$50 billion defense modernization exercise. This week, India tested for the third time the 3,500 kilometer-range Agni III ballistic missile that would be capable of hitting Beijing and Shanghai. New Delhi has said that the Agni III is now ready for induction. China's capabilities are of course far advanced, with its missiles capable of hitting over 11,000 kilometers.
India has been developing a ballistic missile defense program as well.
With India and China sharing the same strategic space in the Indian Ocean region, Indian defense experts view China as a long-term military threat, instead of Pakistan.
China is already beefing up bilateral ties with Pakistan, via involvement in projects such as the Gwadar port in Balochistan province, Sri Lanka and Myanmar to deepen its hold over the inter-linked complex energy-security picture in the area.
Quest for a nuclear submarine
Although India possesses air and land-based nuclear delivery platforms in the form of ballistic missiles (Agni, Prithvi) and fighter jets (Mirages), an undersea platform such as a nuclear submarine, the third leg of a nuclear triad, is absent. The Indian navy's nuclear experience is limited to a nuclear submarine leased from Russia from 1988-91.
Given the huge volumes of oil movement between the Persian Gulf and the Malacca Strait towards North Asia, the Indian navy has been looking to plug the deficiency.
China reportedly possesses five nuclear submarines and is looking to double the fleet. Not to be left behind, Pakistan is looking to equip its Agosta submarines with Babur cruise missiles.
India is planning an initial fleet of three nuclear submarines.
India's indigenous Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV), a nuclear-backed ballistic missile submarine project, began in the 1970s. Trials of the ATV are supposed to begin next year. This year, India underlined its submarine missile launch capabilities by test-firing the K-15, code name Sagarika.
But, given India's notoriously delayed defense programs, no one is sure when or whether the K-15-integrated ATV will actually be delivered.
However, India is due to receive its first leased nuclear submarine, capable of firing such missiles, from Russia. This is a 12,000 ton Akula-II class nuclear-powered attack submarine, which was commissioned following a $650-million secret pact. Reports say New Delhi recently begun quiet discussions with Moscow for a second advanced Akula-class nuclear submarine.
Powering the seas
With significant delays now expected in acquiring aircraft carriers - the Admiral Gorskov from Russia and the two that are being indigenously developed - other options are being aggressively probed.
India has a long way to go before it can match China's arsenal. Efforts are thus focused on an effective deterrence.
A key difference from an earlier Indian obsession of indigenous development has been co-opting foreign partners with developed expertise and also allowing the private sector increased play.
India has taken possession of the 36-year-old warship USS Trenton (re-christened INS Jalashwa) with a 16,900 gross tonnage. Trenton is the first-ever warship for the navy from the US and the second-biggest that India now possesses after the aircraft carrier INS Viraat
Recently, New Delhi announced a submarine-launched supersonic missile, a modification of the India-Russia BrahMos cruise missiles, a capability limited to advanced nations such as the US, France, Russia and a few more.
Antony said trials of the underwater missiles are awaiting the necessary platform that will be identified soon.
Ship and land-launched versions of the BrahMos are being inducted into the navy and army, while the air versions are being currently developed.
The state-controlled Defense Research and Development Organization is also undertaking a joint development project with Israel Aerospace Industries for a surface-to-air-missile using it from land and ship.
Last year, the construction of the highly advanced Scorpene submarine began at the upgraded Mazgon Dock (Mumbai) under a $3.5 billion deal for six such French submarines. The Indian navy is gearing to bring in 40 new warships over the next 15 years. The government plans to invest over $12 billion in this.
Given government encouragement to the private sector to play a role in defense, India's largest engineering and construction firm, Larsen and Toubro (L&T), has announced plans to build defense warships at its proposed shipyard-cum-port facility in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
L&T has been keen to bid for Project 75 and 76 of the Indian navy that entails the production of 24 underwater vessels valued at $14-16 billion to meet challenges across the Indian Ocean region.
Ramping up the arsenal is being backed by strategic moves. The massive Malabar naval exercise held last September in the Bay of Bengal is a case in point. Navies of the US, Australia, Japan, Singapore and India participated.
India has established a listening post that reportedly began operations early last July in northern Madagascar, a large island off Africa's east coast. The station is India's first in the southern Indian Ocean and is significant due to the increasing oil traffic around the Cape of Good Hope and the Mozambique Channel.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.