Written By: Muhammad Azam Khan
The US based influential Foreign Policy magazine recently reported that India is building a top secret nuclear facility in southern state of Karnataka (formerly Mysore) to produce thermonuclear weapons. Located in the city of Challakere, about 260 km from Mysore on the India’s western coast, the facility is expected to be completed by 2017. It will upgrade India’s nuclear weapons but would be “deeply unsettling” for its neighbours, according to the report. The report lists that the project’s primary aim is to expand the government’s nuclear research, to produce fuel for Indian nuclear reactors, and to help power the country’s fleet of nuclear submarines.
Substantiating this report, retired Indian nuclear scientists and military officers disclosed in interviews that India’s growing fleet of nuclear submarines would be the first and foremost beneficiary of the newly produced enriched uranium. Welcome to the maritime arena, the Indian Ocean, one of the two upcoming global battle grounds for geo-political contest, rivalry as well as cooperation in this century. The other being South China Sea in the western Pacific Ocean.
Previously reeling from some enduring security challenges, the Indian Ocean is now confronted with an unwinnable race for military nuclearization duly adding to the regional woes and instability. Through the northern Arabian Sea in the western Indian Ocean huge shipments of fossil fuels and other goods destined for regional and extra regional countries traverse each day. The economic growth of these countries is tied to this area of the Indian Ocean. The chaos in the Middle East and rise of ISIS impinge on the region’s fragile maritime security. The unfolding geopolitical landscape is meanwhile steadily fuelling angst in the region. India’s unfounded agitation on CPEC, the P5+1 agreement with Iran on latter’s nuclear programme and the recent move by Riyadh to forge 34 nation alliance cannot conceal the strategic fissures, the likely triggers for realignments in the Indian Ocean.
Besides conventional naval build up, the intimidating doctrines and bellicose policies aimed at regional domination and overwhelming the small island states, India is in overdrive to subvert strategic, political and economic interest of neighbouring countries. But little does New Delhi recognize that this zeal for absolute mastery is only a recipe that will further cut on the precarious regional stability.
A major reason spawning persistent instability in the Indian Ocean and on its shores, at least in strategic sense, has been the 2007 nuclear accord between Washington and New Delhi. Critics even then warned the United States, it would reward India for its secret pursuits of the bombs and allow it to expand work on nuclear weapons. Almost eight years on, the prophecy has held true.
An unnamed senior official in the US administration recently stated that India’s civilian nuclear programme is profiting from new access to imported nuclear fuel after removal of embargo in 2007 and now requires almost “no homemade enriched uranium”. While India has yet to purchase a single nuclear reactor from Washington, it has already received around 4,914 tonnes of uranium from France, Russia and Kazakhstan and has agreements in place with Canada, Argentina and Namibia for additional shipments.
The International Panel on Fissile Materials, a consortium of nuclear experts from 16 countries, estimates that the Arihant class, India’s locally constructed nuclear submarine core requires only about 143 pounds of uranium, enriched to 30 percent – a measure of how many of its isotopes can be readily used in weaponry. Using this figure and the estimated capacity of the centrifuges India is installing in the upcoming secret site at Karnataka alone, former IAEA analysts conclude that even after refuelling its entire fleet of nuclear submarines (estimated to be 3-5 in next decade or so) there would be 352 pounds of weapon grade uranium left over every year enough for at least 22 Hydrogen bombs.
This, then, is the net result of Indo-US nuclear accord. It serves to demonstrate how the deal has and shall continue to help New Delhi expand its nuclear ambitions of becoming a “regional policeman” in the Indian Ocean. While Washington works hard to promote global nuclear disarmament with one hand, it tacitly supports proliferation with the other.
But “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride." India faces some daunting internal and external challenges before it can assume the mantle of a “regional policeman” or simply put rule through a blue water navy. There is no universally accepted definition of a blue water navy. Generally, however, it refers to the ability of a navy to sustain broad range of maritime operations across the open ocean. A blue water navy is one able to operate in blue water, and thus beyond the coastal or littoral regions and well on the other side of exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles (370 km). Such navies usually have one or more aircraft carriers besides nuclear submarines with power projection capabilities at great ranges. A blue water navy is also able to sustain operations for extended duration without support from the shore or home base. Only few navies in the world today hold true blue water potential. With eleven aircraft carriers, the United States Navy has more than the combined total of all countries.
Regardless, the challenges to accomplish blue water status for the Indian Navy are humongous. The number one internal challenge is uninspiring performance of India’s premier research and development organization, DRDO, which handles bulk of all domestic military production. This is over and above the lamentable lack of strategic culture amongst its political class as well as bureaucracy. International expert Stephen Cohen dissects this issue extensively in his best selling work “Arming without Aiming”.
Numerous major military projects undertaken by DRDO in the past including stealth ships for the Indian navy, Arjun tank, Light Combat aircraft etc. have rusted, hitting snags and resulting in exceptional delays with cost overruns. Consequently, India’s military continues to import about 70 percent of its sophisticated weapon systems from overseas. This foreign dependence is a major internal faultline severely inhibiting India’s rise as a military power. In case of navy the problem further compounds given the wholesale hardware changes required to switch over from the Cold War vintage Russian platforms-technology to local products.
In a recent interview with Times of India, former Chief of Army Staff General V.P Malik maintained that his country’s war preparedness will remain hampered unless DRDO and ordnance factories are made more accountable. In a scathing indictment of India’s bureaucracy, General Malik said, “the Ministry of Defence is a bad organization. Accountability within the Ministry is zero.” He added that if DRDO was not delivering, he would like some secretary, some joint secretary resigning or sacked besides the DRDO head.
On operational side, India’s sole nuclear submarine, Arihant is not yet fully integrated with the fleet. But even once integrated, the more tough business of delegating nuclear command authority to a field commander (officer of the rank of Commander or Captain Lt Col/Col equivalent), commanding the nuclear submarine will have to be resolved. In the meantime, the Indian navy carrier, Vikramaditya (Admiral Gorshkov) brought from Russia after painful delays of several years is still unable to fully support fighter operations from its flight deck.
Externally, the greatest hurdle standing in the path of India’s rise in the western Indian Ocean, if not the entire Indian Ocean, is Pakistan with its small yet resilient navy. With port of Gwadar just next to the Strait of Hormuz acting as gateway to multiple regions, CPEC promises economic boon for both, China and Pakistan. Given its steadily rising stakes in the region, Beijing is set to increase military footprint in the Indian Ocean to ensure security of trade and assets. Washington will do well to lower its mollycoddling with the Modi government. Anything short will only stir up more instability.