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INS Arihanth - A Giant Stride for Nation

Arihant, which translates as the 'destroyer of enemies" from Sanskrit, now has a new "heart" to take the battle to enemy shores. The miniaturized atomic reactor on board India's first indigenous nuclear submarine INS Arihanth as "gone critical", in a big leap towards making the country's long-awaited "nuclear weapons triad" an operational reality.

Sources said the 83mw pressurized light-water reactor, fuelled by enriched uranium, achieved "criticality" late on Friday night after months of "checking and re-checking" of all the machinery, systems and sub-systems of the 6000-tonne submarine at the heavily-guarded ship-building centre at Visakhapatnam.

The green signal for the reactor to be "finally switched on" was apparently given by the top-secret meeting of the Nuclear Command Authority, chaired by PM Manmohan Singh and attended by Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) members, among others, on July 31.

On Saturday, congratulating the Navy, Department of Atomic Energy and DRDO for the milestone, the PM said it marked "a giant stride" towards enhancing the country's security. Only the Big-5 — the US, Russia, China, the UK and France - currently operate nuclear-powered submarines armed with nuclear-tipped missiles.

To be followed by INS Aridhaman and another similar vessel already being constructed under India's "most secretive strategic project" for which over Rs 30,000-crore have already been sanctioned, INSArihant was so far being powered and tested in the harbour with high-pressure steam from the shore.

The umbilical chord has now being cut. With the submarine now powered by the self-sustained, fission reaction in the reactor fitted inside a containment chamber in the hull, it will eventually head for open waters for extensive "sea- acceptance trials" with a 95-member crew led by Captain Sanjay Mahendru.

"The pipelines in INS Arihant went through multiple sets of flushing and cleaning. The first step has been taken. Even if everything goes well, the submarine will still take a minimum of another 18 months to become fully-operational and go on deterrent patrols," said a source.

Another reality check is that the 110-metre-long and 11-metre broad INS Arihant will initially be armed with the K-15 ballistic missiles that have a strike range of just 750-km. They, too, will require testing during the extensive sea trials. They dwarf in comparison to the well over 5,000-km range missiles of the US, Russia and China. The Chinese JL-2 SLBM , for instance, has a 7,400-km strike range. But INS Arihant, which has four silos on its hump to carry a dozen K-15 or four of the under-development K-4 missiles (3,500-km range), is still critical for building India's "credible and survivable" nuclear weapons triad - the capability to fire nukes from land, air and sea - like the Big-5.

The first two legs of the triad - the rail and road-mobile Agni series of ballistic missiles and fighters like Sukhoi-30MKIs and Mirage-2000s capable of delivering nuclear warheads - are already in place with the armed forces.

It has taken India more than quarter of a century to come close to achieving the most potent sea-leg of the triad. The capability to deploy submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) is crucial since India has a declared "no first-use policy" for nuclear weapons, and hence needs a robust second-strike capability. The country's nuclear doctrine, after all, itself lays down that "nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage".

SLBMs provide the most effective and difficult-to-detect nuclear weapons since they are difficult for adversaries to take out in "a first or pre-emptive strike". Nuclear-powered submarines can operate underwater for virtually unlimited periods of time, limited only by the crew's mental health, food and other supplies, unlike conventional diesel-electric submarines that have to resurface every few days to get oxygen to re-charge their batteries. Consequently, even the US and Russia, under their strategic arms reduction treatises, are ensuring that over 60% of their nuclear weapons are retained as SLBMs.

Key highlights 

1970: India's hunt for a nuclear submarine began when Indira Gandhi asked BARCDRDO and others to build one. There was no progress for many years till the late-1990s, when the actual construction of the first hush-hush advanced technology vessel (ATV) began. 

2009: The first ATV, named INS Arihant (destroyer of enemies), launched into water on July 26 by flooding the dry dock at the shipbuilding centre at Visakhapatnam. Since then, it has undergone extensive harbour trials on shore-based high-pressure steam. 

2012: India inducted a nuclear-powered submarine, INS Chakra, last year on a 10-year lease from Russia, but it's not armed with nuclear-tipped missiles due to international non-proliferation treaties like the Missile Technology Control Regime. 

2013: Arihant's reactor goes critical in the early hours of August 10. It will now head for sea-acceptance trials before becoming fully operational.


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