Chinese Submarines in Indian Ocean

Exclusive: Indian Navy headless as Chinese nuclear sub prowls Indian Ocean

Sandeep Unnithan  New Delhi, March 21, 2014 | UPDATED 14:12 IST
A Shang class nuclear-powered attack submarine.

A Chinese nuclear powered attack submarine (SSN) made its first declared operational patrol for two months in the Indian Ocean. The Foreign Affairs Office of China’s Ministry of Defence informed India’s military attache in Beijing of the deployment on December 3 last year “to demonstrate respect for India.”

Top secret intelligence assessments preapared by R&AW and Naval Intelligence terms, term the two-month deployment of the Shang class SSN between December 13,2013 and February 12, 2014, as ‘seriously aggravating India’s security concerns’.

India’s security establishment is still assessing the impact of the deployment that comes at a time when the Indian Navy has been headless for over three weeks. Defence Minister AK Antony swiftly accepted Admiral DK Joshi’s resignation on February 26-he quit owing moral responsibility for a string of naval accidents – but is yet to appoint his successor.

The assessements circulated among the highest levels of India’s security establishment last month, predict the Chinese SSN patrol will be followed by the deployment of a Carrier Battle Group (CBG) in two or three years.

Intelligence reports say the Chinese deployment aims to ‘demonstrate its ability to protect its interests in Africa and West Asia as well as Sea Lanes of Communications’ and ‘to send a message of persuasion to Indian Ocean Rim States.’

Naval sources say the Shang class submarine left its bastion on Hainan island in the South China Sea on December 3. Ten days later, on December 13, the SSN reached the Gulf of Aden via the Ombai Wetar Straits near Indonesia. It remained on patrol in the area for nearly two moths. China has deployed two warships on anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden region since 2008.

The deployment of the submarine armed with land attack and anti-ship cruise missiles and torpedoes, has ominous consequences for the Indian Navy’s ability to project power into the Indian Ocean. The navy considers the region it considers its primary sphere of influence but suffers from a short-legged undersea fleet. Only seven of India’s fleet of 13 conventionally powered submarines are operational. One Kilo class submarine exploded and sank in Mumbai harbour on August 14 last year. The navy operates a solitary Akula class SSN, INS Chakra, leased from Russia in 2012.

The Arihant, the first of three indigenously built nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) is yet to commence sea trials, five years after it was launched. The government is yet to okay a 2010 proposal by the navy to build a fleet of four indigenous SSNs to escort the Arihant SSBNs and protect Indian aircraft carriers.

“China has credibly demonstrated a formidable capability in our backyard,” says Vice Admiral KN Sushil, veteran submariner and former Southern Naval Command chief. “We are yet to sail the Arihant, we are nowhere near starting our own SSN programme and we have no strategic capability yet to deter China.”

Vice Admiral Sushil says the deployment of SSN screens with the Chinese CBGs will give the Chinese “awesome power” and seriously challenge the Indian Navy’s sea control strategy.

China’s Ministry of Defence informed five other nations- the United States, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Russia – of the submarine’s deployment in December. Naval officials say this was done possibly to prevent adverse reactions in case their SSN encountered technical problems. Older Chinese ‘Han’ class SSNs have been plagued by reactor troubles. Analysts say the glitch-free deployment of the submarine seems to indicate the Chinese have overcome the reactor troubles in the Shang class. China has two Shang class second-generation boats and is building four more.

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