NEW DELHI: For the first time India has options when it comes to finding a partner to build a military nuclear asset. Besides Russia, ship builders from France and the US have started initial conversations with the defence ministry on participating in an Indian effort to build a new class of nuclear-powered attack submarines.
Russia has been the traditional ally of India when it comes to sensitive technology and strategic systems.
But a Navy plan for constructing six new nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) to patrol the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and beyond has prompted ‘discussions’ with the two western nations, sources familiar with the development told ET. The Cabinet Committee on Security had cleared Navy’s proposal in February.
The Indian SSN project — expected to cost over Rs 1 lakh crore — is an ambitious plan to design and produce a nuclear attack boat with the help of the private sector. If this materialises, it will propel India into a select league of the five nuclear powers that have such a capability. SSNs are nuclear powered submarines, but do not carry nuclear warheads, relying instead on conventional weapons and stealth to hunt ships and other submarines. The last country to enter this club was China in 1974 with its Han class boats.
Sources told ET that senior representatives from the submarine branch of a leading US conglomerate have met key Indian defence ministry officials regarding the project. The efforts included a top level meeting in July. The discussions have been kept low key given the sensitivity of the project and details are not available.
Similarly, French representatives have also approached the Indian side for exploring avenues for cooperation on the project in the past few months. While the French submarine manufacturer has not commented on the project, the Indian side is interested in the new ‘Barracuda’ SSN being developed by French ship builder DCNS. A senior DCNS representative refused to take questions on the matter.
The new nuclear submarine for the French Navy is currently under construction and is expected to start sea trials by next year. The Barracuda was also showcased at the Defence Expo held in New Delhi last year. As reported by ET, India is also in talks with Russia to lease a nuclear attack submarine — a newly built, customised boat that could give engineers a first-hand look at construction technology and process.
Unlike a nuclear missile armed submarines (SSBN) that is designed to carry out a nuclear strike, nuclear propelled attack boats (SSNs) are considered less sensitive, with their primary role being hunting vital enemy naval ships and submarines. While foreign assistance on SSBNs is a complex matter, there have been examples of nations sharing non-nuclear technology for SSNs. France is at present assisting Brazil with its first nuclear submarine project. The deal involves France helping Brazil with the non-nuclear components of the submarine, with the South American nation using its own reactor and fuel.
India’s first SSBN, the INS Arihant, is currently undergoing sea trials in Vizag. It is expected to carry out a weapons test shortly. The only SSN in service with the Navy at present is the INS Chakra, an Akula class submarine on a 10 year lease from Russia to train Indian crew for such operations.