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    South Asia
     Feb 20, 2009
India's nuclear submarine plan surfaces
Siddharth Srivastava

NEW DELHI - Expressing fears about cross-border terrorism in the wake of the November 26 Mumbai attack and keeping a close eye on China's military expansion, India announced plans this week to hike its defense budget by 34% to 1.4 trillion rupees (US$30 billion) and last week revealed that its project to build three nuclear-powered submarines is nearing completion.

"Things are in the final stage now in the Advanced Technology Vessel [nuclear-submarines] project. There were [mainly technical] bottlenecks earlier ... they are over now," Defense Minister A K Antony said on February 12.

The Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) project is part of India's $3 billion plan to build five submarines and complete what it calls


a "triad" of nuclear weapon launch capability - from air, land and sea. India is concurrently developing the K-15 ballistic missile, which can be nuclear-tipped and launched from submarines.

Defense sources have told Asia Times Online that New Delhi has been actively seeking out assistance from France in the implementation of the ATV project, and that Russian engineers are already involved. The sources said that the sea trials of the nuclear-powered submarines should begin this month and that the submarines should be operational within the next three years.

The secretive ATV nuclear backed ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) project began in the late 1970's and is being implemented at a secret dry dock in Visakhapatnam, India's Eastern Naval command base. Observers have said that the submarines are a critical addition to India's weapons capabilities.

In a grim reminder of the possible dangers facing India from the sea, India's Naval chief Admiral Suresh Mehta warned this week that terrorists could smuggle "dirty" nuclear bombs via the nation's ports as they lack adequate security measures. Terrorists also used a sea route to infiltrate Mumbai.

Nuclear-powered submarines with their greater speed, power, range and the length of time they can stay submerged compared to conventional diesel-electric submarines are effective for sudden strikes as well as fast and stealthy protection from attacks.

New Delhi has been concerned about Beijing's strengthening of bilateral ties with Islamabad, particularly given recent tension on sea projects such as at the Gwadar port. China has also been developing ties with Sri Lanka and Myanmar to deepen its control over a complex energy-security conflict being aggressively played out in the region.

Given the ongoing tussle between India and China to control the waters of the Indian Ocean, the New Delhi government has been put under tremendous pressure from the navy to ramp up India's sea power. China has already spoken of creating three ocean-going fleets to patrol the areas of Japan and Korea, the western Pacific, the Malacca Strait and the Indian Ocean.

The ATV project has been in the spotlight as India's other attempt to procure a nuclear submarine this year received a setback when Russia "indefinitely" postponed delivery of the Akula-II class Nerpa nuclear submarine, citing incomplete sea trials and a lack of funds.

Further, the Amur shipyard in Russia's far east, where the sub is being built, is yet to finalize a new team following an accident in November in which 20 members were killed. The accident has led Indian media to describe the submarine as "cursed".

India has been looking at developing underseas capabilities to launch nuclear weapons, after gaining some competence in land-based nuclear delivery platforms for the domestically developed ballistic missiles Prithvi and Agni.

India has already developed a submarine-launched supersonic missile, a modification of the BrahMos cruise missiles, an achievement previously limited to only advanced nations such as the US, France and Russia. Ship and land launched versions of the BrahMos are being introduced in the navy and army.

The state-controlled Defense Research and Development Organization is also undertaking a joint development project with Israel Aerospace Industries to develop a surface-to-air missile which can be launched from land and ships.

Upgrade and renovation of India's navy will be an important aspect of India's US$50 billion defense modernization exercise. Under the plan, the projects code named 75 and 76 entail the production of 24 underwater vessels valued at US$20 billion to meet the challenges across the Indian Ocean.

In 2007, construction of the highly-advanced Scorpene submarine began at the upgraded Mazgon Dock in Mumbai as part of a US$3.5 billion deal for six such French submarines. As the Scorpene deal involves transfer of technology, it should be beneficial for both nations as India gains new technology and French firms gain a possible foothold in the big Indian market.

But significant delays are now expected in India's acquisition of the aircraft carriers Admiral Gorskov from Russia and two that are being developed at home. In early 2007, India purchased the 36-year-old US warship the USS Trenton (re-christened INS Jalashwa) with a gross tonnage of 16,900 tons for US$50 million.

The Trenton is the first ever US warship owned by the Indian Navy and the second largest that India possesses after the INS Viraat aircraft carrier. The Indian Navy plans to add 40 new warships to its fleet and the government plans to invest over 500 billion rupees (over US$12 billion) over the next 10 years on warships.

The government has encouraged the private sector to play a bigger role in the nation's defense, and India's largest engineering and construction firm Larsen & Toubro has announced plans to build defense warships and paramilitary vessels at a proposed facility in Tamil Nadu.

After the rude awakening of the Mumbai terror attacks, others branches of the military are also now pushing for more upgrades and additions.

The Indian Air Force, for example, is seeking 42 fighter squadrons up from the current 32 or 33 squadrons (each with 14 to 18 jets), to offset the phasing out of older Russian planes. The army, which has been allocated a large piece of the military outlay, is seeking more tanks and howitzer field guns.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com.

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