India has become the world’s sixth country to put a nuclear-armed attack submarine, INS Arihant, into operation.


Arihant, meaning “Slayer of Enemies” in Snaskrit language, was officially confirmed to be fully operational on February 23. The move certainly gives the South Asian nation a leg up on neighbouring Pakistan, thus, intensifying the race for more underwater weapons in the region. The deployment of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine also completed India’s nuclear triad, as it could now deliver atomic weapons from land, sea and air.

Currently, the US, the UK, France and Russia are considered as full-fledged nuclear triad powers. Although Pakistan and North Korea are developing similar technologies, China and India’s capabilities remain untested.

Arihant, the 6,000-tonne and 110-metre-long submarine powered by an 83MW pressurised light-water reactor with enriched uranium fuel, is armed with 12 short range K-15 missiles (with a strike range of 700km) and four K-4 ballistic missiles (with a strike range of 3,500km). It can launch nuclear weapons from underwater, completing the nuclear trial – the ability to launch a nuclear strike from land, air or sea.

It has been a long nuclear journey for India, as New Delhi had sanctioned the project way back in 1970. The Indian government finalised the design and technology of the submarine before approving the project in 1984. The work on Arihant started in 1998 with heavy involvement of private sector, with Larsen & Toubro and Walchandnagar Industries Limited being major partners. The reactor onboard the Arihant went critical in 2013, pushing the submarine to its final stage of tests. Finally, the submarine was commissioned in February 2016 after extensive trials. Currently, two more Arihant class submarines are under construction in India. It will be harder to detect Arihant (than other submarines which are loud), giving the submarine a “second-strike” capability to powerfully retaliate against an enemy.

Defence experts are of the opinion that India’s move will definitely trigger a dangerous arms race in Asia, where territorial disputes have already contributed to a naval build-up. Iskander Rehman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Programme, has expressed serious concern over the development, saying: “You will probably see more friction in maritime sub-regions, such as the South China Sea or the Bay of Bengal, which China and India increasingly view as their future bastions for nuclear ballistic-missile submarines. Tensions will no doubt arise from subsurface encounters in such areas, particularly as both conventional and nuclear submarines continue to proliferate throughout the Indo-Pacific region.”

However, India has rejected Rehman’s claim. Despite adopting a “no-first-use” policy on nuclear arms, both India and China are making efforts to arm their submarines with atomic weapons mainly to prevent the outbreak of war by discouraging enemies from attacking. During the Cold War, ballistic-missile submarines played such a deterrent role. Unlike India and China, Pakistan and North Korea have not adopted the “no-first-use” policy, thus, posing a real security threat to the region. They also pursue cruder methods of deploying nukes at sea.

Koushik Das, based in the Indian capital of New Delhi, is a senior news editor with more than 15 years of experience. He also runs a blog - Boundless Ocean of Politics. E-Mail: [email protected]