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Sambit Patra asked: Is the lease of the Russian Nerpa class submarine, with its non-combat clause, justified? Should India have gone for either a Borie or Typhoon class?

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  • S.S. Parmar replies: To understand the rationale behind the leasing of the Russian Nerpa class submarine (renamed INS Chakra), a look at the time line of India’s nuclear submarine programme and some treaties like Non Proliferation and Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is essential.

    India had earlier leased and operated a Charlie class Russian nuclear submarine from 1988 to 1992 for training its personnel on nuclear powered submarines. This submarine was also called INS Chakra. Construction of the Nerpa class submarine commenced in 1993 and it was scheduled for delivery in 2007 on lease to India. However, various reports indicate that issues related to equipment and an accident at sea resulted in the delay. The Typhoon class submarines have been in service since 1981 and are due to be decommissioned (removed from service) reportedly due to restrictions imposed on Russia by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. However, as per reports, no such decision to remove from service has been made and the submarines would remain with the Russian Navy. Given this situation, taking the Typhoon class on lease would not have been beneficial to India. The Typhoon class is scheduled to be replaced by the Borei class. Construction of the Borei class began in 1996. By that time, in all probability, the deal between India and Russia for the Nerpa would have been concluded.

    It is surmised that no matter which submarine India would have taken on lease, the non combat clause would have been applied. As per reports, the Russian submarine (Nerpa) can carry strategic weapons but they are not being transferred to India because of the MTCR. Out of the 10 tubes, four are blank, while six are open. The MTCR prevents the transfer of missiles above the range of 50 nautical miles, and Russia has never flouted the MTCR. The four blanked-out tubes are for bigger weapons with a wider diameter.

    Apart from the international treaties the cost factor of acquiring, maintaining and operating a nuclear powered submarine is also a consideration. Admiral Arun Prakash, India’ former Chief of Naval Staff, had remarked, “The problems with acquiring a foreign nuclear submarine on lease are obvious: the current sources are limited (until the Nuclear Suppliers Group looks more benignly at us), it will carry a conventional weapon load, and it will come at a huge cost.”

    Therefore, the taking on lease of the Nerpa class submarine by India is mainly to gain expertise and experience before India develops its indigenous nuclear powered submarines. In this respect, the deal for the Nerpa, given the circumstances and time line mentioned above, could be considered optimal.