India launched a 6000-ton nuclear powered submarine a few hours ago joining a select group of countries– United States, Russia, France, Britain and China – with the knowhow to do so.
The 367-foot sub made with Russian help will become operational after trials lasting three to five years and will carry missiles with a range of about 450 miles. It will be able to fire nuclear warheads.
This is both good and bad news. India lives in a tough neighborhood and almost all of its territories are coastlines of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Faced with China’s rising power and long-standing Pakistani belligerence, having effective capabilities to patrol oceans and defend coastlines is essential.
Its 16 very old conventional submarines are almost useless for its modern defense needs. They have diesel power and must surface regularly to charge their batteries and refuel. Nuclear propulsion that allows the submarine to operate over many months is an asset.
The bad news is that the world will now have one more military power, like the current five, capable of launching a nuclear warhead from sea, land and air. Pakistan is likely to strive hard to match this capability adding a seventh undersea nuclear warrior, but a very unstable and neurotic one.
Potentially, this blows a bigger hole than Iran or North Korea in the nuclear non-proliferation regime that President Barack Obama is trying to impose. He is focusing on stifling the ability to make warheads but the skill of delivering them without detection is more dangerous for the world.
Iran and North Korea are novices. Iran is still mastering the nuclear fuel cycle and North Korea has weapons so crude that they are dirty nuclear devices rather than reliable warheads. Dirty devices cause radiation deaths through exposure but are not usable with missiles.
Among developing countries outside the big five, India is the most advanced in its warhead technologies and delivery capabilities using fairly accurate missiles. Now it is starting on the road to submarine launches using both conventional and nuclear missiles similar to cruise missiles.
Battery powered submarines fuelled by diesel motors are more effective as war machines because they are smaller and almost utterly silent. Nuclear subs are much larger and make detectable noise but can carry heavier missiles over long distances.
Discouraging India from perfecting nuclear propulsion would be unjust since its vast coastlines cannot be successfully defended without submarines capable of staying underwater for long periods of time. Its competitor is China, which is not known for predictability and is growing its military capabilities exponentially.
But in my book acquisition of the ability to launch a nuclear attack from a submarine is not a happy event for the world. Hopefully, India will never lose its moral compass sufficiently to use its technological prowess for catastrophic purposes.
Hopefully, it will also rethink its doctrines of military deterrence to figure out whether nuclear weapons actually deter the enemy knowing that they are unusable on a battlefield.
In any case, the current wars of insurgency and terrorism require completely different approaches, weapons and training. These are the wars that the US and India appear to be losing while they arm for nuclear Armageddon.