More are under construction
The Arihant’s inaugural voyage was a triumphal step forward in India’s long, often tortuous quest to deploy atomic weapons at sea. Until now India has relied on aircraft armed with nuclear bombs, which might struggle to break through air defences, or land-based missiles, which are at risk of being spotted by gimlet-eyed satellites. Hiding missiles in the ocean solves these problems, giving Idia more confidence that its forces could survive a nuclear attack from China or Pakistan, and hit back.
A second hitch is that the k-15 missiles aboard the Arihant can only fly a puny 750 km, which means that the submarine would have to park itself dangerously close to China’s coastline to have a hope of striking big cities. Longer-range missiles, which could be fired from the safety of Indian waters, are in the works. But bigger missiles, and more of them, necessitate a bigger hull. That, in turn, requires that the nuclear-powered subs be fitted with bigger reactors—a fiendish technical challenge.
A third problem is keeping the Arihant safe. Nuclear submarines can only do their job if they can slip silently out of port and into the oceans. They are typically chaperoned by leaner attack submarines. But admirals complain that the navy, whose share of the defence budget has dwindled to 15%, has just 13 of these. The delivery of new French attack subs has been delayed.
Meanwhile India’s nuclear arsenal is swelling. A recent report by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a research organisation, estimates that it has 130-140 nuclear warheads, with enough fissile material for 60-70 more. The stockpile, though smaller than Pakistan’s and half the size of China’s, has roughly doubled since 2010. Many of the new warheads will go to sea. A second nuclear submarine, the Arighant, is nearing completion, and a third is in the works. Others are expected to follow. Indian sailors should enjoy the fresh air while they can.