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Hemant Chand asked: Is India working on a submarine-based unmanned system and can it be used as a wingman for SSNs?

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  • Roby Thomas replies: The unmanned underwater systems (UUSs) are divided into two categories: remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). ROVs are linked and controlled by a person or crew on either land or neighbouring craft via a tether that houses energy and communication cables and a related tether management system, as well as built-in sensors for video (camera and lights), thrusters, a flotation pack, sonar and other instruments. AUVs, on the other hand, are untethered in every sense of the word: they operate without an umbilical cord or a human “in the loop,” often pre-programmed with waypoints and a designated task.

    The UUSs have been in service with foreign militaries for decades. The United States Navy has developed a family of surface/submarine launched UUSs, the latest of which is the Snakehead Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (LDUUV) which is capable of Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment (IPOE) missions and reportedly carries payloads for electronic warfare, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, and mine integration warfare (MIW).  Similarly, the Chinese have a slew of AUVs which includes the Qianlong III and Haiyan, said to be part of its underwater ‘great wall’.

    The Indian Navy started operating SSNs (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the NATO hull classification for nuclear-powered submarines) from January 5, 1988 when it took on lease for a three-year period the nuclear attack submarine INS Chakra I from the erstwhile Soviet Union.  In 2012, the Indian Navy leased the second nuclear-powered attack submarine from Russia, INS Chakra II, for a period of 10 years. This is now to be followed by the lease of a third nuclear attack submarine from Russia, to be christened INS Chakra III, in 2025. This also is for a period of 10 years. Meanwhile, India is looking at developing its Indian-made nuclear attack submarine fleet. The construction of six of these was sanctioned by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in 2015. 

    Alongside the progress of India’s nuclear submarine acquisitions and operations, the Indian Navy has also been exploring the possibility of inducting unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) over the last two decades and has tested a few over the years. These include the Naval Science and Technological Laboratory (NSTL) AUV, which has seen trials with the Indian Navy and Larson & Turbo’s Adamya AUV, which can be operated from a submarine’s torpedo tube.

    Nothing available in the open domain suggests that the Indian Navy has put any submarine launched UUS to operational use till date. However, when made operationally available, it is expected that India would prefer embarking them on Indian-made nuclear attack submarines. When this happens, in all probability, the Indian Navy is likely to use them for missions such as intelligence collection, electronic warfare, mine laying/hunting and anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare.

    Posted on January 13, 2021

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.