NEW DELHI – India on Sunday launched the first nuclear-powered submarine built on its soil, asserting itself as a world power by joining just five other countries that can design and construct such vessels.
The 367-foot (112-meter) -long submarine, named “Arihant” or “Destroyer of Enemies,” was sent for sea trials at a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
It will be capable of launching nuclear weapons, said Rahul Bedi, an analyst with Jane’s Defence Weekly.
That would complete India’s strategic triad for nuclear weapons – giving it the ability to deliver them from the air, ground-based mobile platforms and the sea, he said.
Singh called the project a “historic milestone in the country’s defence preparedness.”
India is upgrading its armed forces as part of efforts to match its military strength with its growing economic and political clout. The plans include a proposed $9 billion purchase of 126 new fighter jets.
Singh insisted that the nation does not seek to threaten anyone.
“Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon us to take all measures necessary to safeguard our country and to keep pace with technological advancements worldwide,” he said at the launching ceremony in the southern port city of Vishakhapatnam.
Previously, only the United States, Russia, France, Britain and China had developed nuclear submarines.
There was no immediate comment from Pakistan, India’s neighbour and longtime rival. The submarine’s development is likely to rattle Islamabad, which has fought three wars with India, two of them over control of the Kashmir region, since they won independence from Britain in 1947.
But India is looking beyond the old rivalry, asserting itself as a power on the Asian and international stage, according to Uday Bhaskar, a former naval commander and director of the National Maritime Foundation.
The U.S., in particular, has encouraged India’s role as a possible counter to China, stepping up exercises with the Indian navy and selling the South Asian nation an American warship for the first time in 2007.
American defence contractors – shut out from the lucrative Indian market during the long Cold War – have been offering the country’s military everything from advanced fighter jets to anti-ship missiles.
“If the U.S. companies are willing or able to share their technology with India in nuclear propulsion, that would give a very significant boost to India’s long-term plan,” Bhaskar said.
Still, it could take three to five years for India’s submarine to become operational, after undergoing sea trials of its nuclear reactor, surveillance equipment and ordnance, Bhaskar said.
India’s state-run Defence Research and Development Organization could take two to three years to develop cruise and ballistic missiles that can be fired from the submarine, said Bedi of Jane’s Defence Weekly.
“India can’t buy them from the international market as these are prohibited weapons,” Bedi told The Associated Press.
India modeled its submarine on Charlie-class vessels that it leased from the Soviet Union between 1988 and 1991, Bedi said.
India is leasing another nuclear submarine from Russia for 10 years. It is expected to arrive by early next year.
The country currently has 16 aging non-nuclear submarines, all purchased from other countries.