Nuclear submarine Arihant completes first deterrence patrol mission

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that India’s first nuclear-armed submarine INS Arihant had successfully completed its first deterrence patrol, heralding India’s entry into an exclusive club of powers with land, air and sea-based nuclear weapons delivery platforms.

At the moment it is dubbed a technology demonstrator, showing the world that India has acquired this technology but that it will take some time before India gets a deployable fleet of such submarines. However, analysts said the 6,000-tonne vessel with a range of about 750km sends a powerful signal to Pakistan and China that New Delhi’s underwater nuclear deterrence is “credible”, potent and functional. This comes against the backdrop of news reports of Chinese submarines repeatedly making their presence felt in the Indian Ocean region, even as India-China ties stabilize.

The Arihant propels India into a club so far dominated by the US, France, Britain, China and Russia, demonstrating India’s technological capability to design, build and operate nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines or SSBNs. The US leads the pack with more than 70 nuclear submarines and is followed by Russia with about 30. Britain and France have 10-12 submarines each.

A ballistic missile submarine is a strategic asset as it can fire missiles from anywhere in the ocean and remain undetected for long. It can creep along the coast of an enemy nation and fire ballistic missiles deep into their territory, which cannot be reached by land-based short-range ballistic missiles.

About INS Arihant:

Arihant was commissioned into service in August 2016. It has a displacement of 6000 tonnes and is powered by an 83 MW pressurised light-water reactor with enriched uranium.

In 1998, India conducted nuclear tests under Pokhran-II and in 2003, it declared its nuclear doctrine based on credible minimum deterrence and an NFU policy while reserving the right of massive retaliation if struck with nuclear weapons first.

No first use (NFU) refers to a pledge or a policy by a nuclear power not to use nuclear weapons as a means of warfare unless first attacked by an adversary using nuclear weapons. Earlier, the concept had also been applied to chemical and biological warfare.

India first adopted a “No first use” policy after its second nuclear tests, Pokhran-II, in 1998. In August 1999, the Indian government released a draft of the doctrine which asserts that nuclear weapons are solely for deterrence and that India will pursue a policy of “retaliation only”.

The document also maintains that India “will not be the first to initiate a nuclear first strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail” and that decisions to authorise the use of nuclear weapons would be made by the Prime Minister or his ‘designated successor(s)’.

Adopting a no-first-use policy enables New Delhi to keep the nuclear threshold high, especially as Pakistan tries to lower the threshold by developing tactical nuclear weapons, the Hatf-9 with a 60km range.

It must also be noted that New Delhi is not bordered by just one nuclear weapon state. China adopts a no-first-use policy and, in spite of calls for Beijing to revise its no-first-use doctrine, it is unlikely to do so. Hence, if New Delhi gave up its no-first-use doctrine, it could give Beijing a chance to adopt a first strike policy and shift blame on India.

In fact, India’s adoption of a first strike policy would be an easy excuse for Beijing to give up its no-first-use doctrine against the United States and Russia as well.

Moreover, India has always promoted herself as a responsible nuclear weapon state. Hence, a first strike policy would severely damage India’s reputation as a responsible nuclear weapon state. This means that while India would not be resilient to any nuclear attack by its adversaries, at the same time, it will not act as a villain who tries to bully its adversaries by threatening to strike first.

Also, it is India’s no first use doctrine that has enabled both Pakistan and India to keep their nuclear arsenal in a de-mated posture rather than a ready deterrent posture. This means nuclear warheads are not mated with the delivery systems. This reduces the chances of nuclear terrorism in Pakistan and also reduces the likelihood of an accidental launch of a nuclear weapon. A first strike policy by India may not have allowed Pakistan to keep their nuclear arsenal in a de-mated posture.

There is also the issue of ballistic missile defence being developed by India which is highly destabilizing in nature and hence, New Delhi would continue to resort to using its no-first-use doctrine in order to prevent instability in the South Asian region. A first-strike policy, coupled with a ballistic missile defence system, could provoke Pakistan to launch a nuclear pre-emptive strike against India.

By adopting a no-first-use doctrine, New Delhi has also made it evident that nuclear weapons are indeed the weapons of last resort. Abandoning this doctrine would make it evident that India considers the option of using nuclear weapons in the initial phases of the conflict. In fact, India’s nuclear strategy is dependent on punitive retaliation. This strategy itself acts as a deterrence against Pakistan.

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