In March 2019, India signed an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with Russia to lease another of its Akula-Class attack nuclear submarines (SSN). The nuclear submarine will join the Indian Navy in 2025, after a major refit of the hull in Russia’s Arctic port of Severodvinsk.
India had earlier leased an Akula-class SSBN from Moscow in 2012. Rechristened as Chakra in the Indian fleet, it will continue to serve the Indian Navy until the commissioning of the new Akula submarine, most likely by 2025.
The agreement has invited serious concern from Washington over New Delhi’s defence relationship with Moscow. Estranged democracies during the Cold War, Indo-US relations have strengthened significantly in the last quarter of a century. Washington has also made significant inroads into India’s defence market which was once an exclusive preserve of the Russian defence industry.
Market competition notwithstanding, the rising tensions between Washington and Moscow have pushed New Delhi into a corner. As Washington attempts to punish Russia through sanctions, it has increasingly become intolerant of India’s arms deals with Moscow. The US’ disapproval, however, will only marginally affect India’s decision-making. Indo-Russian defence cooperation, especially in the naval nuclear domain, will continue to prosper irrespective of US concerns.
In early 1966, India’s Atomic Energy Establishment started a feasibility programme on naval nuclear propulsion. Homi Bhabha initiated the programme on the expectation that the US Atomic Energy Commission (USAEC) would assist in India’s quest to develop marine propulsion. Marine propulsion, as Bhabha told USAEC officials during a February 1965 visit to Washington DC, “would demonstrate India’s impressive capabilities in the field of nuclear energy.”
Bhabha’s request was however denied by President Johnson’s Office of Science and Technology mainly on account of Admiral Rickover’s unhappiness in sharing naval reactor technology with other states. Washington’s non-proliferation policy was an additional factor. Thereupon, the programme languished for almost 15 years as India’s nuclear scientists and the Indian Naval engineers struggled to design and develop a viable reactor system for naval propulsion.
Notwithstanding the severe shortcomings of India’s atomic energy establishment, the sanctions regime imposed after the 1974 Peaceful Nuclear Explosion made the job equally tricky. As the indigenous effort hit a technological bump by late 1970s, the Indian government turned to Moscow for assistance. In the early 1980s, Moscow agreed to help India’s indigenous nuclear submarine programme. It also acquiesced to leasing India its first nuclear submarine. It led to the beginning of Indo-Russian cooperation in naval nuclear submarines. As the fate would have it, the idea and inspiration for naval nuclear propulsion for the Indian Navy did come from technological strides made by the US; its implementation, however, was done with the help of Moscow.
Washington was never happy with the collaboration between Moscow and New Delhi on nuclear submarines. As the Indian Navy prepared to take over its first nuclear submarine from the Soviet Union in 1987, the US put immense pressure upon Moscow to defer the lease. In September 1987, the Indian naval crew arrived in the port of Vladivostok to take command of a Soviet Charlie-class nuclear submarine.
In November 1987, even when the process of transfer of the boat was almost complete, Soviet naval high command barred the Indian crew from boarding the submarine and even ordered the crew to go back. It resulted in a major diplomatic standoff between New Delhi and Moscow. TN Kaul, India’s then-Ambassador to Moscow, told Soviet Premier Ryzhkov that the “return of 100 of our personnel would not remain hidden” and this would be “injurious for Indo-Soviet relations.”
Moscow relented only after Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s direct intervention. However, the effect of American opposition on Soviet policy was palpable. Soon after, President Gorbachev retracted from his earlier promise to provide technical assistance to India’s indigenous nuclear submarine programme. The Charlie-class nuclear submarine was returned to the Soviet Union in early 1991 even when the Indian Navy wanted to retain the boat.
However, the US’ disapproval of the Indo-Russian nuclear submarine cooperation during the Cold War was based upon its broader policy of nuclear non-proliferation and arms control, and the need to maintain a strategic balance in South Asia. As Indo-US relations entered into a period of strategic embrace after the end of the Cold War, Washington DC largely ignored the technological partnership between New Delhi and Moscow.
In fact, during the Indo-US nuclear deal, India’s nuclear submarine programme and its relationship with Russia did not appear to have figured into American decision-making at all.
More so, because there was also a realisation in Washington DC that if it cannot provide India with such technological wherewithal, New Delhi had legitimate reasons to find other avenues.
America’s current concerns are, therefore, merely a spillover of its fractured domestic debate over Russia. Even when this puts New Delhi into an awkward position, it is unlikely to give in to the US demands for revising its defense relationship with Moscow especially in the domain of naval nuclear propulsion. Continued Russian assistance is vital to India’s indigenous nuclear submarine programme. Leasing Russian nuclear submarines not only ascertain continuous technological assistance from Moscow but also provides the Indian Navy necessary operational experience.
India also has a more considerable geostrategic interest in the fray. Relentless US pressure on Russia may lead her to enter into an entente with Beijing. An independent Moscow is essential to keep Asia’s geopolitics in balance. American pressure has forced Russia to seek some alignment with China. If India gives in to American demand, it will further push the Russians into Beijing’s lap.
The writer is a Stanton Nuclear Security Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), Stanford University. This article is by special arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.