Nuclear-powered submarines: a new challenge to strategic stability in South Asia

India has acquired this capability to indigenously develop nuclear-powered submarines it has provided India a strategic edge over other countries in South Asia.
Image courtesy: Defence View

Since the partition of the subcontinent both Pakistan and India have traditionally and non-traditionally confronted each other many times. Whether it is operation Gibraltar, 1965, 71, or the 1999 Kargil war both shared a long history of animosity with each other. In the region, India always wants to dominate the region by maximizing power as much as it can. Whether through conventional weapons or nuclear capability it always initiated an arms race in the region. In the 1960s it started its nuclear program because of domestic pressure including its bureaucrats, scientists, and politician to come into the limelight of Indian history. It lobbied for the Indian nuclear program by securitizing its narrative of Chinese nuclear capability as a threat to it’s national security and the country’s existence.

Also read: Hybrid Warfare: A new face of conflict in South Asia

Before the initiation of the nuclear program, India was part of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) and also took part in the negotiations of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). But later on, it exited from it by calling its membership status discriminatory in the treaty. After knowing India’s response Pakistan also withdrew from negotiations of NPT. Because Pakistan couldn’t afford to become part of that treaty if India wasn’t willing to sign it because later’s status as a non-NPT member in the region could pose a serious strategic threat to Pakistan in the future. In 1974 India did a nuclear explosion named “Smiling Buddha” at the Pokhran test site. It rang the bell in the region and Pakistan responded to it by initiating its nuclear program in opacity until 28 May 1998.

Also read: Pakistan’s commitment to strategic restraint regime

Though India has a no-first-use policy of nuclear weapons against Pakistan there are still some concerns about its cold start doctrine in which it shifted its attacking corps formations on the Pakistan border showing its offensive posture towards Pakistan. Now after showing an aggressive posture on land it has shifted its focus toward nuclear-powered submarines. This new step in India is becoming a threat to strategic stability in South Asia.

Project 75 Alpha:

Indian navy planned a nuclear-powered submarine program in the 1990s but due to some reasons, it was delayed. During this period it acquired the Russian Akula-ii class SSN nuclear-powered submarine in 2012 on a ten-year lease before it had already taken Charlie-class nuclear-powered submarine (SSN). In 2016 India’s first indigenous nuclear-powered submarine the INS-Arihant SSBN code name S2 commissioned. It can carry 24 K-15 Sagarika missiles, each with a range of 750km, or eight K-4 missiles. These K-4 missiles are currently in service and since 2020, have a range of 3,500km.  While INS Arighat another Ballistic missile Submarine SSBN is under sea trial. In Feb 2015 project Alpha has been approved by the Indian cabinet committee on security. This project has significance for the Indian navy as the Indian navy is going to produce 6 indigenous Attack SSN-type nuclear-powered submarines by 2025. These submarines will be built by a shipbuilding center (SBC) in India. The submarines will be powered by a miniature pressurized water reactor (PWR) being developed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre which has already supplied a similar 83 MW miniature reactor for the Arihant-class submarine SSBN.

The issue with Indian Submarines:

Since old manufactured nuclear-powered submarines were using High enrich uranium which has more radioactive isotopes than low enrich uranium. It has more concentration of radioactive uranium U235 which can be used to make a nuclear weapon. Though it doesn’t power by HEU like the USA and U.K which has a 90% concentration of U235. But still, 40% concentration is enough to make a nuclear weapon from that high enrich uranium.

This high enrich uranium can create doubt about India’s compliance with IAEA safety measures as India hasn’t signed many additional protocols of IAEA. Moreover, it has also created the chances of horizontal proliferation in the case of submarine technology. India is also willing to become a non-nuclear proliferation treaty (NPT) member of the nuclear supplier group (NSG). But these authorities must keep in view these developments in India so that it doesn’t go against the rules of the nuclear supplier group. The technology that India has acquired has become alarming for the nonproliferation regime because of India’s history of theft cases where uranium has been captured from criminals.

South Asian region strategic stability:

Since India has acquired this capability to indigenously develop nuclear-powered submarines it has provided India a strategic edge over other countries in South Asia. Specifically its long-distance border-sharing neighbor, Pakistan. Pakistan has long been having the capability of diesel-electric powered non-nuclear Agosta class French submarines. But this strategic move of India has outplayed Pakistan in nuclear deterrence terms and strategic terms. Pakistan has been working toward a sea-based deterrent and has successfully tested a nuclear-capable submarine-launched cruise missile from a submerged platform twice, once in January 2017, and again in March 2018. Once this missile is fully developed and tested on board a submarine, Pakistan will have a nuclear triad, with air, sea, and land capabilities. As India has got the triad second-strike capability in which it has sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), land-based, and aircraft launch ability. While Pakistan has only land-based and air-based nuclear attack capabilities. This move of India will ultimately lead to nuclear arms proliferation once again and threaten the peace of the region as both countries in the region always try to deter each other strategic moves through conventional or nuclear means.

Also read: Ballistic Missile Defence System in South Asia

As a nuclear power, India needs to ensure its nuclear safety as well as watch its actions which will ultimately push the region toward nuclear conflict. We have seen uranium theft cases in India though it was not in radioactive form these kinds of actions question their ability to handle these capabilities. India also has a history of nuclear submarine incidents where human error led to submarine hatch unopen. In 2018 INS Arihant SSBN hatch was left open on the rear left side of the ship, allowing seawater to rush into the propulsion area while the Arihant was in the harbor has caused much damage to it. Arihant was out of action for ten months as water was pumped out and pipes were cut out and replaced. India wishes to join NSG but it must need to take necessary precautionary measures and protocols to secure its nuclear assets.


  • Muhammad Ali Raza is an undergraduate student of peace and conflict studies at the National University of Modern Languages. He is a research intern at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad. Raza has an interest in Arms control and disarmament, global power politics, and conflict resolution.


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