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Karthik Reddy asked: What are the challenges and merits/demerits of making a transition to an all-nuclear submarine force in India?

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  • Abhijit Singh replies: While nuclear submarines (SSNs and SSBNs) have certain distinct advantages over conventional submarines (SSKs), the idea of an all-nuclear force ­- in an Indian context - seems rather stretched. This is because conventional submarines, though constrained by operating endurance, have other benefits that their nuclear counterparts do not provide. A diesel-electric submarine's biggest advantage is that it is smaller, harder to detect and much cheaper to build. The fact it costs a fraction of the price of a typical nuclear vessel, makes it an irresistible proposition. Its attractiveness is further enhanced by its ease of operation and the absence of the risk of dangerous nuclear leaks.

    That said nuclear submarines confer an edge to a fighting force that SSKs find difficult to match. The fact that SSNs are bigger, tougher, more heavily armed and longer-ranged than conventional submarines makes them indispensable assets. They can also do things that diesel-electric submarines generally can’t – like crossing an ocean underwater and at high speed and travelling for weeks at a time under ice in Polar Regions. The powerful weapons and sensors they host cannot be matched by conventional submarines.

    Notably, barring some top-tier navies such as the US Navy, Royal Navy and French Navy, no other submarine operating force has completely done away with conventional submarines. While the SSKs simple advantages like ease and quietness of operations have been a factor of interest, the past few years have seen technological advances that have helped diesel-electric submarines overcome their traditional disadvantage of less submerged time before surfacing to charge batteries. Air independent propulsion technology and fuel cells have made it possible for conventional submarines to remain underwater much longer that earlier.

    Most powerful navies today prefer a mix of nuclear and conventional submarines – each meant to perform specific roles. Many contemporary maritime forces use non-nuclear submarines like the German Type 214 that can travel long distances without surfacing. In fact, many - like the Norwegian Navy, which patrols the Arctic’s fringes – have prioritised procurement of non-nuclear submarines. India’s emphasis on building the Scorpene class and the proposed P-75I (both conventional submarines), while inducting the Arihant (SSBN) at the same time into the fleet, reflects a preference for a mixed fleet of submarines.

    Posted on July 31, 2014