The prospects of France assisting India in developing and constructing six nuclear-powered general-purpose attack submarines or SSNs for the Indian Navy (IN) are believed to have brightened following a meeting between PM Narendra Modi and President Emmanuel Macron in New Delhi on the sidelines of the recently concluded G20 summit.
Discussions between the two leaders — who were meeting for the second time in two months following Modi’s July visit to Paris as the chief guest at France’s Bastille Day parade — were centred on the “joint development, manufacture and testing of advanced military platforms and technologies”, said officials in Delhi. French assistance for the IN’s continuingly deferred SSN programme has long been on the anvil, with hush-hush discussions over it at an advanced stage.
Earlier, the joint Horizon 2047 document agreed upon during Modi’s Paris visit to mark 25 years of the bilateral strategic partnership between Delhi and Paris referred to both sides agreeing to “explore more ambitious projects to develop the Indian submarine fleet and its performance”. Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited in Mumbai had already licence-built six Kalvari (Scorpene)-class conventional diesel-electric ‘killer-hunter’ submarines under transfer of technology from France’s Naval Group, and is poised to begin constructing three more to further boost collaboration in more advanced underwater platform production.
India had approached France for assistance with its then putative and floundering nuclear-powered missile submarine (SSBN) programme after Paris had robustly backed New Delhi’s 1998 ‘Shakti’ nuclear tests. And though this support, when India was globally isolated and under US-led sanctions, had led to the two inking the bilateral strategic partnership, France had declined to be involved in India’s SSBN programme as, at the time, such assistance contravened prevailing global nuclear protocols. This negation had left India no choice but to turn to Russia as a default option, but senior industry officials conceded that the impending SSN project in the overall transformed security environment presented Paris and Delhi yet another collaborative opportunity to be exploited productively.
SSNs are employed for sundry missions such as anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, while SSBNs perform specialised strategic nuclear deterrence missions. The latter’s principal operational objectives are to safeguard a nuclear force’s second-strike capability by offering a safe and undetected location from where missiles can be launched when required.
Earlier this year, France reportedly offered to jointly develop SSNs with India, under the aegis of Delhi’s Atmanirbharta initiative designed to enhance self-sufficiency in materiel requirements, by transferring technology based on its Barracuda-class SSNs, the first of which — Suffren — was commissioned into the French Navy in mid-2022. Designed by the Naval Group, the 4.765-tonne and 99m-long Suffren was the first of the six SSNs scheduled to join France’s Marine Nationale by 2030 at an estimated cost of over $2 billion each.
France was eager to clinch this prospective SSN deal with India to compensate for Australia summarily scrapping in late 2021 the multi-million-dollar deal with the Naval Group to supply the Royal Australian Navy 12 conventional submarines, for which the latter paid $585 million as compensation. Instead, Australia entered into a $268-368-billion deal with the US and the UK for eight SSNs between now and around 2050 under the AUKUS strategic pact.
The IN, for its part, is keen on partnering the Naval Group for its SSN needs as the technology it offered is more advanced compared to that of Russia, the only P5 country amenable to such sensitive cooperation with India. Industry officials and analysts are of the view that French involvement in India’s SSN programme would, in all likelihood, be ‘endorsed’ by the US, whose strategic, defence and military technology ties with India are proliferating in a bid to challenge Chinese hegemony in the strategic Indian Ocean Region.
The IN’s SSN project, worth an estimated Rs 60,000 crore, was approved by the Ministry of Defence in early 2015, with the first of the 6,000-tonne boats scheduled for completion by 2032-33. These platforms comprised part of the Navy’s revised 30-year Project for the Series Construction of Submarines (till 2030) that envisaged the induction of 24 submarines, including six SSNs. These SSNs would supplement and operationally support the four or five 6,000-7,000-tonne Arihant-class SSBNs built with Russian knowhow and technical assistance, particularly with regard to miniaturising their 82.5MW pressurised light water reactors.
Meanwhile, India’s SSBN programme, undertaken jointly by the Defence Research and Development Organisation, the Department of Atomic Energy and the IN, is proceeding apace at the secretive Ship Building Centre (SCB) in Visakhapatnam. The third such platform — simply designated as S4 — was launched in late 2021 after INS Arighat, the second SSBN, was undergoing further fitment. These SSBNs comprise a vital component of India’s nuclear triad, aimed at sustaining its nuclear deterrence and no-first-use posture.
INS Arihant, the lead SSBN boat, was constructed at the SCB, drawing upon design elements of Soviet-era and Russian submarines from the Project 670A Skat-series (‘Charlie I’) and Project 667 (‘Delta I’) to the more recent Project 885 Yasen-class nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines (SSGNs). It was launched in July 2009; four years later, its on-board nuclear reactor attained criticality, enabling sea trials to begin in 2014 and weapon tests before its unannounced and low-key commissioning in August 2016. Two years later, Arihant completed its first deterrence patrol, confirming India’s three-tier retaliatory nuclear deterrent capability by adding maritime strike competence to its existing land and air-based capacity for delivering strategic weapons.
The IN, however, which acknowledged the SSBN programme’s existence only in December 2007, continues to claim that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had ‘exclusive’ management of the confidential programme. Funding for it was also confidential, supervised by the PMO via the National Security Adviser, it claimed. But having taken ownership of the SSN programme, it now behoves the Navy to imminently kickstart the project and stall the severe drawdown in its underwater assets.
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