About this series

I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

twitter: @SahajSankaran, email: sahaj [at] honestyisbest [dot] com.


July 5, 2020

The First Indian Submarine Arrives

On 5 July, 1968, the Indian submarine INS Kalvari sailed into the dock at Eastern Naval Command, Visakhapatnam. The submarine had undergone a long voyage from the port at Riga, Latvia (then in the Soviet Union) when it arrived in India, but its arrival went unnoticed by most of the country. For the Indian Navy, however, it represented a fundamental change in strategic doctrine; for the first time in its brief history, independent India possessed a submarine of its own.

The Indian Navy in its first decade was a fairly traditional organization, still led at its highest levels by British officers and using purchased or leased British warships. In 1961, the Navy saw action fighting Portuguese warships during the liberation of Goa, with relative success. During the 1965 conflict with Pakistan, however, the Pakistani Navy successfully attacked the Indian coastal town of Dwarka, inflicting some damage. While the operation was minor, and had little effect on the war, the Indian Navy was unhappy with its performance. Some Pakistani sources would later claim that India was threatened by the presence of the Pakistani submarine PNS Ghazi, an American-built vessel that was the only submarine possessed by either side during the war. Whether or not this is true, after the war the Indian Navy grappled with the unfortunate fact that, without their own submarines, India couldn’t operate at will in the waters around South Asia.

Thankfully, some of the groundwork had already been laid before the war, when a small number of Indian naval officers trained at the British submarine school, HMS Dolphin. Throughout the later 1960s, India and the Soviet Union drifted closer, and their military relationship developed quickly. The Soviets, after all, were willing to take payment in goods or Indian rupees, and to let India buy technology and manufacture its own copies of Soviet military equipment. After negotiations, the Soviet Union offered up its Project 641 design. The first of these meant for Indian usage, designated B-51 by the Soviet Navy, was to be called INS Kalvari.

After intense training, in the winter of 1967 an Indian crew travelled to the Soviet Union, where the submarine was commissioned on December 8. Over the following months, the submarine took a long shakedown cruise towards India, arriving at Visakhapatnam on 5 July, 1968. The achievement was remarkable, not only because India had successfully operated its first submarine, but also because it had built an entire submarine organization - officers, training procedures, equipment, specialized docks - from scratch. The resilience of the new submarine arm was tested over the next two years, as three more Soviet-built submarines - Khanderi, Karanj, and Kursura - arrived. Slowly, the Indian submarine force was taking shape.

In 1971, India and Pakistan went to war yet again. The naval conflict was more intense than it had been in 1965; the Pakistani submarine Hangor sank the Indian frigate Khukri, while the feared Pakistani submarine Ghazi sank under disputed circumstances after a confrontation with the Indian destroyer Rajput. While Indian submarines took no direct part in the conflict, they were instrumental in enforcing an effective naval blockade of both West and East Pakistan throughout the war, highlighting their strategic value in securing Indian waters. But something else happened in 1971. An American naval group, Task Force 74, was sent to the Bay of Bengal to threaten India into withdrawing. In response, a Soviet task force - including, purportedly, a nuclear submarine - arrived to stalemate them. Though both sides retreated shortly after, the episode told the Indian Navy what they already knew - India needed a powerful deterrent.

The first nuclear-powered submarine was deployed by the United States in 1955. The advantages were immediately obvious; a nuclear submarine could travel the world undetected indefinitely without needing to resurface, giving it unparalleled strategic value. By the 1960s, both the United States and Soviet Union had deployed nuclear submarines armed with ballistic missiles; America deployed several during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961. Late to the game, India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974, at which time its only delivery mechanism was aircraft. Indian planners dreamt, however, of one day possessing the comprehensive system of deterrence known as the ‘nuclear triad’. The triad involves maintaining three different types of nuclear weapon delivery systems - aircraft, land-based missiles, and nuclear missile-armed submarines. Submarines in particular form an effective deterrent since they ensure retaliation even if their nation were entirely destroyed by a nuclear attack before the other two methods could deploy.

In 1988, the Indian Navy leased the ageing Soviet nuclear submarine K-43, designated the INS Chakra, for three years, in the process gaining valuable experience in running and maintaining nuclear submarines. Further progress stalled with the breakup of the Soviet Union shortly afterward, leaving many half-constructed submarines abandoned at former Soviet naval yards. Finally, after years of negotiation, in 2004 India agreed to help Russia finish construction on one such nuclear submarine in return for a 10-year lease. The submarine entered service in 2012 as, again, the INS Chakra.

Leasing these submarines gave India, for the first time, an operational nuclear triad. More than that, they gave Indian crews the chance to train on nuclear submarines and explore their technologies and capabilities in depth. The reasons for which these were important soon became clear. Ever since the 1970s, India had been looking into building its own nuclear submarines indigenously. By the 1990s, the Advanced Technology Vessel project took shape, bringing together nuclear physicists, submarine engineers, and rocket scientists in a bid to create a line of Indian nuclear submarines - the Arihant-class. Under conditions of relative secrecy, reactors were tested, missiles developed, and the submarine itself built until, in 2014, the Arihant launched for sea trials. The indigenous nuclear triad was complete.

The process that began on 5 July, 1968, had reached its apex with the Arihant, an advanced strategic asset and nuclear deterrent. With the Indian Navy steadily ceding ground to the Navy of the People’s Republic of China in the Indian Ocean, such deterrence and force projection may well be necessary in the near future.

Sahaj Sankaran

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