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Journey Behind Development of SSBN

News reports indicate that India has test fired a missile from its SSBN, Arihant. With such a news as backdrop, MH Rajesh ruminates how an SSBN came into being as a combination of some core technologies at the end of the World War.

There are media reports which indicate that India has test fired its submarine launched ballistic missile from Arihant, its maiden SSBN. Since no official announcements have been made, the news is presently in the realm of speculation. However, this occasion gives some scope to ruminate on its genesis and gauge what exactly this news will mean if it were true. The SSBN, as we see today, has been a marvelous dovetailing of three core technological developments that occurred in the middle of the twentieth century. These were- the nuclear warhead, the missile and nuclear propulsion.

The end of the World War II saw the development of the atom bomb – a weapon that supposedly could end and deter wars. The bombs were to be delivered by airplanes like Enola Gay did. However, missile had shown its potential as a delivery vehicle of the bomb with the German V2 rockets.  Not only did the bomb contribute in itself to strategy, it also established the extreme end of the nuclear envelope. Therefore, the end of war also laid a path to harness the potential for tapping nuclear energy for myriad purposes. The world was quick to grasp its military potential especially for submarines.

One of the finest dovetailing of tactics and technology happened in 1957, when nuclear power propelled the US submarine Nautilus. Submarines are inherently stealthy platforms. Due to peculiarities in their design, the strength and vulnerability of submarining is stealth. If stealth is lost, submarine is highly vulnerable. If it remains stealthy, it is fairly formidable.  The traditional hybrid propulsion system of submarine involved a diesel generator that uses a snorkel to suck air from the atmosphere whilst it remains partially submerged. The generator charged the battery. Once the battery was charged to its full capacity, the submarine could dive and propel itself underwater. The charge usually lasted a day, after which the cycle was repeated. This had posed a challenge to its stealth. It became highly vulnerable every time it came up to charge its battery. Retrofitting nuclear propulsion to the submarine was therefore a game changer. This was air independent and due to inherently high energy density of the plant, small amounts of fuel could ensure that the plant ran for years. Stealth was rediscovered in a new invincible avatar.

If the former fusion was a rare interlock between technology and tactics, the next marriage between strategy and technology followed quickly. The developments during World War II gave birth to the missile from the German V2 rockets as mentioned earlier. It was one such V2s, which could be fired from a pontoon that unlocked the potential of an underwater launch of a missile. The towed pontoon slung behind that U Boat which launched a version of V2 was, therefore the granddaddy of the present SSBN.

The missile replaced the aircraft as vehicle of delivery and the missile could be deployed  on a submarine.  There are very few weapon developments which have  had an effect as far reaching as the dovetailing of nuclear warhead on a missile to the nuclear submarine. The nuclear submarine could now be deployed, unhindered by the erstwhile stealth problem. This meant that the bomb could be hidden away, and it could be carried pretty close to enemy shores without detection. At the highest plane- it could ensure strategic stability through a threat of second strike.

The report, if true, is a great achievement. It also cites the range of the missile ‘K-5’ on Arihant to be 3500km. If we need to deter our adversaries and give greater latitude of action to the submarine, we will require to incrementally increase the ranges of the missile, bringing more potential targets within its reach and  provide an SSBN large area to deploy herself in. This will help to complicate the detection matrix. After all, the problem that the SSBN solved, revolved around stelath.



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