Russia and India have recently signed two arms deals. The successful conclusion of these deals makes it worthwhile to revisit long-time rumors that Russia might lease one or two Akula nuclear-powered attack submarines to India.
On-again, off-again rumors that Russia might lease India one or two Akula (Project 971) nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) are worth re-examining given indications of potentially improving relations between Russia and India that have emerged in the last month. These rumors have persisted for years, stoked by the occasional statement by an Indian or Russian official. New Delhi has had numerous reasons to be frustrated with its naval procurement from Russia. Major delays (on the order of four years) on the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov emerged in 2007, just one year prior to the vessel's orginally scheduled delivery. Issues with Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines and a second batch of modified Krivak III-class frigates have only heightened tensions. A rumor in late February — adamantly denied by the Pentagon — that the USS Kitty Hawk might be up for sale seems to have jolted Moscow back toward a reconciliation with New Delhi. In the wake of this rumor, a $1 billion Russian-Indian deal for the life-extending refit of 70 MiG-29 Fulcrums came to the fore March 8. India is reliant on Russia for this life extension, as it is for much else in its defense structure. Nowhere is this more true than in the naval realm, where Russian-built Kilos represent the bulk of the Indian submarine fleet. Russia is also one of the few places -– if not the only one — where New Delhi can turn to for submarine nuclear-propulsion technology. Enter the Akula, which represents the height of Soviet submarine craft. It was this design that really began to close the long-time Russian acoustic signature gap with U.S. submarines. Thus, if the Russians were ever to lease the Indians the Akula, Indian engineers would gain important insights into the design of a modern SSN. The complexity of operating –- to say nothing of designing and building –- a modern SSN is not to be understated, however. It took 50 years of massive financial and intellectual investment combined with a high-operational tempo during the Cold War for the U.S. Navy to gain its advantage in submarine design. There is accordingly much more to operating such a boat than simply handing one over. Training of Indian crews by the Russians will not suffice to transfer these complexities, either. (Rumors of the reactivation of a Russian sub training facility for the Indians outside St. Petersburg date back to 2005.) Russian submariners are no longer nearly as skilled or schooled as they once were. Another concern relates to the mechanics of cooling a nuclear power plant built to operate in the Arctic and North Atlantic in equatorial waters. (Issues with the ambient water temperature also arose with New Delhi's first Kilos.) But India has serious ambitions for an SSN program. As mentioned, obtaining a meaningful SSN capability is a long and expensive process, and there is no doubt that the mature Akula design would help Indian engineers significantly along that route. For Russia, the calculus is far more political. With the Akula, Moscow is offering yet another technology for which India cannot turn elsewhere. An Akula lease would both solidify an important training and support relationship with New Delhi — which would create a closer overall relationship and leverage with the Indians — and line Russia's pockets with as much as $2 billion, a sum likely to be fed back into Russia's own shipbuilding efforts. Making the transaction possible from a strategic standpoint, India is not in a geographic position to compete meaningfully with the Russian navy. The Russian Northern Fleet is as far from the Strait of Gibraltar as from the U.S. naval base at Norfolk, Va. On the other side of the world, competition with Japan, South Korea and China overshadows any potential Russian attempt to reach to the Strait of Malacca, much less beyond. (Notably, Russia reportedly has shared only the older and significantly noiser Viktor III sub design with the Chinese.)