The nuclear-powered submarine INS Arihant will put India in a different league

By Syed Nazakat  in Delhi

A complex at Visakhapatnam’s Naval Dockyard is home to one of the newest and potentially the most lethal weapons in the Navy’s arsenal. If everything goes according to plan, the floodgates of the dockyard will soon be opened for the INS Arihant, a homemade nuclear-powered submarine designed to launch nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, and India will become the sixth country in the world to possess a nuclear sub. Only the US, Russia, Britain, China and France have produced such vessels.

“This is a historic and big step forward,” said Dr P.K. Iyengar, former chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, who was involved in the early stages of the Advanced Technology Vehicle project to develop the INS Arihant. “Nuclear submarines are far better than the conventional diesel-electric submarines which spend most of their time on the surface,” he said. According to him, the new submarine’s engine needs no air and can operate at full power underwater.

The INS Arihant is built by the scientists of the Navy, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Department of Atomic Energy, and it took more than three decades and $2.9 billion to complete the project. The submarine uses a pressurised water reactor, is 124 metres long and said tohave a 9,400 tonne displacement when submerged. The highly enriched uranium fuel for the reactor was supplied by the Rare Materials Project, Mysore, and the hull of the vessel was built by Larsen & Toubro at its Hazira dockyard facility in Gujarat. The submarine will undergo trials for two years before its induction into the Navy.

The INS Arihant is expected to carry the short-range ballistic missile Sagarika and fulfil New Delhi’s goal of possessing the nuclear triad: air-, land-, and sea-based nuclear weapon systems.

Nuclear submarines are very effective in counter attacks, and are quiet thanks to the special propellers and sound-insulated engines. “It is a super and surprise weapon,” said  a Naval officer. “It is hard to track down nuclear submarines.” Though India had operated a submarine fleet, it was the acquisition of INS Chakra, a Soviet-made Charlie class nuclear-powered submarine, on lease in 1988 that put Indian naval programmes into the limelight. It was interpreted as a major change in India’s capabilities and evidence of its intention to develop naval superiority in the Indian ocean.      

Though the Navy is yet to divulge any details, sources at the DRDO said that the Arihant was faster than many US submarines when submerged and the top-speed was in the range of 40 knots. “Facing a nuclear submarine is a nightmare; it has unlimited endurance and mobility and there’s no place for a surface ship to hide,” said Debi Mohanty, naval analyst at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. “It will put the Indian Navy in a different league.”

Submarines surface for two purposes―to recharge batteries and to send and receive messages. Diesel submarines surface at least once a day to recharge batteries and as often as they want to send and receive messages. The Arihant can remain submerged more than 100 days, as nuclear submarines do not have to recharge batteries. Does it have to surface to send and receive messages? “No,” said a Naval officer. “The Arihant can remain underwater and receive and send communications,” thanks to the very low frequency (VLF) technology developed by Indian scientists 15 years ago. Only five countries in the world have this technology.  

The Arihant will give India a “colossal advantage” over its neighbours, said a DRDO scientist. “You need submarine-based arsenals to retain a second strike capability, since all land-based arsenals can be detected through satellite surveillance,” said Uday Bhaskar, director of the Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation and a military analyst. “If they’ve been detected, you have to assume that they can be targeted.”

Bhaskar said New Delhi was seeking to attain a sea-denial capability in the Indian Ocean. In its vision document, Maritime Doctrine, the Navy also underlines the massive strides taken by China, the only Asian country with submarine-launched ballistic missiles, to strengthen its navy. “The mission of the armed forces is not only to be prepared to fight wars,” said Bhaskar,  “but also to deter or prevent their outbreak.” Interestingly, the Navy considers Pakistan navy a mere “irritant”. Said a Naval officer, “The mission is to watch China.”

Interview of Dr P.K. Iyengar, former chairman, Atomic Energy Commission

By Syed Nazakat

Dr P.K. Iyengar is one of India’s brightest brains that worked behind the country’s ambitious nuclear projects. He played an important role in Pokhran I on May 18, 1974,  and in the design and manufacturing of the INS Arihant. He worked  at the Department of Atomic Energy for 40 years. In 1984, he was appointed director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, and in 1990, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Excerpts from a telephonic interview:

You must be proud that India’s own nuclear submarine is all set for trials.

It is a great moment for all of us who worked on the project.  

Are you optimistic about the trials?

We [at Indira Gandhi Centre For Atomic Research] tested the nuclear reactor two years ago at Kalpakkam and according to my knowledge, it passed the test satisfactorily.

The Advanced Technology Vessel project began in the 1970s. What took so long for its completion?  

There are several reasons. After 1974, India developed cold feet in the face ofinternational pressure and put its weapons programme on hold. Since then, government operated the project on the sidelines. Then there were technical glitches. I must also tell you that it was a complex project.

Who all have cooperated in the design?

It is a joint project of the DRDO, the Navy and the Atomic Energy Commission. There are private Indian companies involved in the manufacturing of the submarine.

How fast is the submarine underwater?

Submarines are not needed for speed. They are needed for the fighting. The strength of the submarine is its endurance; how long it can remain under water and how capable it is to carry missiles. Its endurance is world class, better than many submarines in the world.

The Regional Equation


55,000 troops

16 submarines, all diesel powered


Troops – 22,000

8 Submarines, none N. powered.


255,000 troops

62 submarines, 10 of them Nuclear powered


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