Indian media reported early Sept. 11 that India had successfully tested a medium-range submarine-launched ballistic missile. The Ministry of Defense, which has no such capability, denied the reports. However, some preliminary subsystem development in that area appears to be under way.
The Indian Ministry of Defense was forced to deny reports in the country's press Sept. 11 concerning the successful test of a medium-range submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). No such test was conducted, and the false reports appear to be exaggerations of current tests on relevant subsystems. An SLBM capability is still on the distant horizon for New Delhi — but it is on the horizon. Much work toward the technical ability to launch missiles from submarines is indeed under way. Indian Defense Minister A.K. Anthony announced Sept. 5 that the submarine-launched variant of the BrahMos supersonic anti-ship missile was ready for testing, but it is too large to be launched from the 21-inch torpedo tubes found on all of India's submarines. (The BrahMos began as a joint venture with Moscow, and Russia could assist with this testing although the project has matured to the point where Russian assistance is not required.) Of course, launching an anti-ship missile out of a torpedo tube is hardly the same thing as developing an SLBM. And while India has significant missile technology experience (including a pair of domestically designed and built satellite launch vehicles), SLBM development is a different animal. Russia continues to struggle with its latest SLBM, the Bulava, and Moscow has far more experience than New Delhi in the matter. Even the United Kingdom relies on the United States for its SLBMs (U.S. assistance with both London's first SLBM and the ballistic missile submarine that carried it was instrumental in the Royal Navy's sea-based deterrent). Meanwhile, the other half of the system — the submarine — is no further along. India's Advanced Technology Vessel — the proof-of-concept vessel for domestically designed and built submarine nuclear propulsion — has been plodding along for more than two decades. Cramming a nuclear reactor into a submarine is no small task. But the real trick, as the Chinese have discovered, is making it run so quietly that it functions as more than an extremely pricey underwater noisemaker. There are concerns about the acoustic signature of China's second generation of nuclear submarines, and Beijing started two decades before New Delhi, which has yet to produce its first generation. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that India does intend to move in this direction. A navalized variant of the well-established Prithvi missile, the Dhanush, has been tested at sea from the modified stern flight deck of a destroyer since 2000. A far more practical and operationally viable variant — using solid propellant — began testing in 2004. This may very well mature into a poor-man's sea-based deterrent. There are also persistent rumors that a Russian Akula nuclear-powered attack submarine whose construction began in 1986 is slated to be completed this year and could be leased — perhaps with one of her sister ships — to India. The Akula, though not a ballistic missile submarine, would teach the Indians a great deal about nuclear propulsion. The improved Akula is thought to be about as quiet as an improved Los Angeles-class sub. This leasing would provide not only valuable design insight, but also operational experience with a nuclear reactor at sea. Ultimately, an Indian ballistic missile submarine fleet is, speaking optimistically, at the very least a decade away. But as a strategic objective for a country that intends to maintain a credible and survivable nuclear deterrent over the long term, the development of that fleet is not only prudent, it is necessary.