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INS Arihant: Assessment of India’s SLBM Capability

INS Arihant Partial Image Courtesy Wikipedia

On October 14, Indian Ministry of Defence issued a press release declaring successful training launch of a Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) on October 14, 2022 from INS Arihant, India’s active nuclear powered submarine.

The test was carried out to a predetermined range and impacted the target area in the Bay of Bengal with very high accuracy as per the release validating all operational and technological parameters of the weapon system as per the release.

This was a successful “user training launch of the SLBM,” thus indicating that the INS Arihant, “crew competency and validate the SSBN programme,” is proven

“INS Arihant is armed with the shortrange K-15 missiles. Developmental trials of the K-4 SLBM (with a 3,500-km range) have been completed but it is yet to be fully inducted,” a source was quoted by the Times of India.

The Ministry went on to add the validation of, “robust, survivable and assured retaliatory capability,” as per India’s Doctrine of ‘Credible Minimum Deterrence‘ which is in line with the country’s, ‘No First Use’ commitment.

Clearly the last few remarks appear to be an overkill given the limited capability of the INS Arihant being the only nuclear powered submarine with the Indian Navy so far as well as the range of the K 15 SLBM that was purportedly fired being 750 kms.

Never the less to the lay audience this is a mark of validation of the nuclear triad where the undersea leg the most viable was missing.

For the initiated a deliberation on the strategic deterrence capability may be in order.

The Submarine - INS Arihant

INS Arihant is a 6000 tonne nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, launched in 2009 and commissioned in 2016 with the first active patrol for over 30 days carried out in 2019. The crew was at that time felicitated by the Prime Minister. The submarine is powered by 83 MW pressurized light-water reactor at its core which may have limitations. INS Arihant has the capacity for 12 K-15 missiles.

Building up on INS Arihant, the second INS Arighat launched in 2017, is likely to be operational by 2023 which will be followed by the much heavier 7,000-tonne SSBNs, currently called S-4 and S-4*

The third in the class was launched in December last year though there has been no official confirmation of the same.

The S5 and S 6 [unconfirmed] are slated to be 13,500- tonne SSBNs 190 MW reactors as per the Times of India.

The Missile – K 15

Times of India and multiple media sources reported that the missile that was fired by INS Arihant on October 14 was SLBM B-O5 or K-15missile with a strike range of 750-km. Thus the SLBM has limited range and can at best be seen as a deterrence against Pakistan. For a viable deterrence against China, missile with a longer range will be necessary which is under development.

The follow up of K 15 is the K-4 with 3500 kms range and is said to be in advanced trial stage after two tests having been carried out from a submerged platform in January this year.

K4 will be followed by the K-5 and K-6 missiles having 5,000 to 6,000-km class.

Assessment of Strategic Deterrence

As highlighted with reference to the capability of INS Arihant and K 15 Sagarika SLBM, the strategic deterrence is limited and submarines with longer endurance and missiles with extended range up to 5000 kms will be necessary for a conveying a viable strategic deterrence against China.

The Times of India places the issue in perspective stating that, “much more capable SSBNs will give India’s deterrence posture greater credibility because they are considered the most secure, survivable and potent platforms for retaliatory strikes after a surprise first-strike by an adversary.”

Given this premise, it would have been more prudent for the Ministry of Defence to have merely announced the successful test while keeping the nuance of the same being a credible deterrent ambiguous, for vagueness is the essence of deterrence.

Possibly the aim was to shape public perception whereas in the strategic scenario shaping the adversary’s decision maker is what counts.

Timing of Tests

In the strategic deterrence domain, timing is an important facet. Thus a reviewed of timing of the SLBM test assumes importance. The K 15 test is in line with a number of missile tests planned by India during the period from October 14 to October 23.

Damien Symon at his twitter handle @detresfa_ states, “#AreaWarning #India issues notifications for no fly zones over the Bay of Bengal region indicative of upcoming missile tests. Launch Window | 19-20 & 21-23 October 2022.”

The range arc shown is of 300 Km and 1680 Km indicating short and medium range ballistic and cruise missiles being tested.

There are several events that are occurring in tandem with these tests in the geopolitical and the national sphere.

20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is being held in Beijing today [16th October] where President Xi Jinping is expected to be awarded an unprecedented third term. This comes even as the India China standoff at the Line of Actual Control is continuing with at least two friction points on the radar.

Internally the birth anniversary of India’s “Missile Man,” and former President Abdul Kalam also fell on October 14th while the Def Expo 2022 starts in Gujarat on October 18th and extends to 21st. Inauguration by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is slated for October 19th.

With large number of defence ministers, senior military commanders and officials due to attend th event, signaling nuclear and missile capabilities will be a marker

To the Prime Minister in his home state Gujarat, demonstration of the governments’ hard security approach will come in handy with elections slated in the State during the winters.

While not timed as such but coincidentally, US President Joe Biden shamed Pakistan a day after the K 15 test calling it a dangerous nuclear capable country. Analysts will put in place a comparison with India no doubt.

More about strategic implications of the K 15 test linking with US NSS 2022 and combined strategic deterrence later.


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