Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Nuclear submarine India’s best second strike bet:Indian Vice Admiral (Retd) MK Roy

By Shashank Chouhan

On July 26 this year, India joined the select group of five nations to have its own nuclear propelled and nuclear armed submarine called Arihant. Code-named Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV), the submarine is a project conceived in the 70s and initiated by Indira Gandhi in the 80s.

It was a secret project so no one knew whether India was definitely making such an advanced weapon. Vice Admiral (Retd) MK Roy was the naval officer who was the first chief of this project and was there when it all began. He spoke with Shashank Chouhan and told him about how this almost impossible dream was achieved and how India has become safer now.

Shashank: In what ways does Arihant make India safer?

Roy: The last century saw major developments in space and underwater realms. This submarine is a product of the higher end of that phase. It is the biggest and best possible platform that India has got to defend itself. The salient features of Arihant are that it does not need to surface for months to recharge its batteries since it runs on nuclear fuel. With a speed of upto 25 knots, it can easily chase fast enemy ships. It has unlimited endurance and completes the three dimensional aspect of security.

Targets on land can be easily detected, jets are not that fast and radars can pinpoint them. But Arihant remains 200 mts underwater so no one can ever know where in the vast ocean it is. It’s our best bet at second nuclear strike.

Shashank: What was on the mind of the policymakers when they asked you to build this submarine?

Roy: Well they said ‘we want to have a three dimensional force with nuclear power which is a deterrent for the enemy.’ The only target we had was defending India from any attack. Also, it was the next natural step in the technological development of our armed forces.

Shashank: Did you get to meet Indira Gandhi? What did she tell you?

Roy: (looks on with quiet wonder) Next question please...that’s a secret.

Shashank: How important was Russia’s contribution to the development of the submarine?

Roy: Marshal Ustanov, the Soviet Defence Minister, and Admiral Gorshkov, the Commander-&-Chief of Soviet armed forces, offered to transfer technology to India for the construction of a nuclear submarine as well as for training and operating it. A Russian delegation visited India for the same and they reported to their bosses that India had met all the requirements for such a transfer. Dr Raja Ramanna, the country’s top nuclear scientist who was my classmate from Madras college, broached the subject with me as I was the chief of Eastern Command then. I said we wanted a nuclear propelled submarine that could also fire nuclear missiles and we used to discuss this issue in detail. Eventually these conversations took the form of the ATV Project as I accompanied Ramanna and other officers including Admiral Ganesh, Nigam etc. to Moscow.

The Russians arranged to train our officers for operating nuclear submarines and also leased us the Charlie nuclear submarine for practical training and use. But there was no import of technology- only transfer of knowledge.

Shashank: Why did the project get delayed?

Roy: The delay in the ATV project was primarily due to political, industrial, technological and social changes in Russia from 1985 onwards. Supplies were delayed, factories had closed and the initial contract (in roubles) changed to hard currency (US dollars) which required time-consuming checks and balances.

But our work never stopped. While the Russians were away, there was a great cooperation between the PSUs like BHEL, BEL, DRDO and private companies like L&T, Walchandnagar, Tata, Kirloskars etc. It was a unique learning period for the Indian defense administration.

Shashank: What do you have to say about Admiral Sureesh Mehta’s recent observation that we are not competing with China and that only three submarines are enough?

Roy: Only one good submarine is enough for effectively responding to any misadventure. It is the quality of weapons that matters and not quantity and the nuclear submarine is the most sophisticated piece of war technology.

We shouldn’t be China obsessed as far as seas are concerned as they are not a threat in the Indian Ocean and ours is a regional Navy. Yes they have submarines, but so do we so that’s not a problem. The two countries have growing trade relations and we protect their oil route in Malacca Straits.

Shashank: What about Pakistan’s charge of Arihant triggering an arms race in the subcontinent?

Roy: Look who’s talking? There is no race here. Pakiatan Navy is nowhere near to ours. That is a country which has been importing technologies from dubious sources. India has the right to look after its interests. But we are not aggressive in our approach.

Shashank: What problems did you face in this project?

Roy: The problems were basically in building the technology- the design, reactor, hull design, periscope, electronic warfare system, sonar etc. But because private and public sector had joined hands, we could sail through.

Finance and red tape was never a problem. The Defence Minister headed the group and he cleared all problems in a jiffy. Bureaucracy always helped us- they never created any roadblocks. PM Rajiv Gandhi, Dr Arunachalam (Security Advisor to Defence Minister), Venkatraman and others were very keen to see the submarine made quickly.

Shashank: What is your take on the Gorshkov deal?

Roy: We have said many times we need three aircraft carriers to defend India from all three ocean sides. I myself commandeered the INS Vikrant and know that it is enough. Who is going to sell us a fully operating machine like that in open market? The Russians are ready to ‘gift’ it with Kamov copters and MiGs.

The problem is that we have to pay for the refit in dollars. But it is not and should not be a question of price. It’s about India’s security. It’s expensive, but look at the expense the Army and Air Force are indulging in. Navy does not ask for much in this country. And there is no basis of saying we did not negotiate properly. With every passing year the cost will escalate, but we will pay only that with which we are okay.

Shashank: In age when air superiority is considered the defining edge with any armed force, what is the importance of Navy?

Roy: You see the Mughals neglected India’s vast marine borders and had to pay the price as the British crossed Bombay, Goa and Calcutta and marched up to Delhi. Don’t forget that the Earth is basically an island in the oceans. The sea connects all countries and having a viable sea monster at disposal is absolutely essential to protect our sovereignty.

Shashank: When you were made the in-charge of the project, what did you think?

Roy: We don’t think! Everything is scientifically calculated and dexterously planned in advanced. We just followed what had been laid on paper with full commitment.

Shashank: How did you feel when the submarine was launched finally?

Roy: (with a mild smile) There was absolute silence. They say I had tears in my eyes when Arihant touched water. I missed Raja Ramanna the most. He was a great man, a great scientist and a great musician too. I don’t think our country has honoured such people enough. This was a very difficult, multi-technological project. Many were involved in it. Not enough has been done for all.

Shashank: Did your family ever know you were heading the ATV?

Roy: I never discussed my work with family, much less talk about state secrets! But they were really happy when they came to know about it this year and were surprised.

Shashank: You have been there done that. What is the one thing India needs today to become an impregnable fortress?

Roy: Forget sea, land or air power. We need comprehensive security for the individual- clean water, sanitation, health, opportunities. If these things come, automatically the rest will follow. We can’t go on making tanks after all. Individual in the society should feel secure on all fronts. Our education, health systems need urgent changes. Forty percent of our countrymen are below the poverty line. I am glad that I have lived to see today’s time- there is a lot more freedom and opportunity today. My grandson has a rockband and is cool about his career. That’s all good, but it’s not enough for the millions.

Of course that doesn’t mean we leave our borders for the enemy. For development, we need to be secure from outside too.


Can someone please clarify if that submarine has a functional power pack installed on this sub? While it was clear that the reactor was not in critical state when it was introduced to the world through a grand ceremony and great fanfare. What is not clear to date is if the reactor was really installed on the sub. If not, how it will be done later and how long it’s going to take? What was the rationale to launch it in water without having a power plant on it?

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