Russian Navy

Reincarnation of Chakra

Source:, author: RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik

The leasing by India of a Project 971 nuclear submarine built in Komsomolsk-on-Amur is the latest hot news.

The agreement, whose significance for Russian-Indian cooperation has yet to be assessed, could have a profound impact on the balance of forces in the region.

Russia's role in creating the Indian submarine fleet is hard to overestimate - Soviet/Russian-built vessels have been its core since the 1970s. Of the current 16 Indian submarines on duty, 12 were built in the Soviet Union or Russia, including two 641 Project and ten 877EKM Project submarines (NATO reporting names Foxtrot and Kilo). The four other submarines are German Project 209 diesel SSs, which India built under license.

Combined with a strong surface force and aircraft, this submarine fleet gives India control of the adjacent seas and makes it the strongest naval power in South Asia. But, with broad ocean expanses to cover, the Indian top brass have always wanted a force capable of operating away from home. Its surface component must have large combat ships, such as aircraft carriers, and its submarine fleet must include nuclear-powered vessels.

The Indian Navy got its first nuclear submarine in January 1988. It was the Soviet K-43, a Project 670 type ship built in 1967 (NATO reporting name Charlie). The boat, equipped with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles, was leased out to India and renamed the Chakra. It stayed within the force until March 1991. India asked for an extension of the lease but the U.S. forced the Soviet leadership to refuse the request.

Chakra had a seminal effect on the Indian navy, producing a generation of senior naval officers, including several admirals. The experience gave India tactical and technical expertise essential for a national nuclear submarine project.

Such a project, code-named ATV (or Advanced Technology Vessel) and involving Russian engineers, got off the ground 30 years ago. The construction of India's first SSN, sources say, began in the mid-2000s and is expected to be completed by 2010. India is reportedly planning to build between three and six SSNs in the next decade, with a displacement of 5,000 to 6,000 tons each, and fitted out with a combination of missiles and torpedoes.

However, even if the ATV type craft is fitted out by 2010, it will need between three and four years to gain sea experience. This prompted the Indian leadership to raise the lease issue once again, focusing negotiations on a multi-role SSN, Project 971 Shchuka-B, known in the West as Akula, then under construction in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. Like the previous Indian SSN, it was re-christened Chakra. On June 11, 2008, it started dockside trials. The submarine is expected to be handed over to India in the autumn of 2009.

The lease contract was signed in 2004 by Russia's then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov during his visit to India. The price of a 10-year lease was fixed at $650 million. A special training centre was built at Sosnovy Bor and has since produced three Indian relief crews. The centre also looks to a busy future: it will train crews for Indian-built SSNs.

The deal gives India a credible combat unit and reinforces its navy appreciably. All experts, including Western ones, agree that Project 971 boats have a low noise profile and run quietly. In that respect they are considered the equal of the improved American Los-Angeles class SSNs and, according to some specialists, even surpass them and compare with the more modern Sea Wolf and Virginia class.

Apart from a low acoustic profile, Project 971 submarines also pack a hefty punch. Their armaments consist of four 650mm torpedo tubes, with 12 torpedoes, and four 533mm tubes, with 28 torpedoes. Torpedoes can be replaced with submarine mines, cruise missiles, rocket-assisted torpedoes, and a variety of other submersibles. The exact complement is not known. The main mystery is whether or not India will receive Shkval rocket-assisted torpedoes and long-range cruise missiles. Some sources say the submarine carries Club missiles.

Will Russia benefit from the transfer? Views are divided, but the general consensus seems to be positive. If we give the official rhetoric on Russian-Indian relations a rest, and concentrate on the real state of affairs, we'll see that India is Russia's strategic partner, and the positions of both on a great many international issues coincide. India's closest neighbor and rival of long-standing, Pakistan, is allied with the United States and has been supported by it militarily for a long time now.

The stationing of an Indian submarine in the region will require a further strengthening of both Pakistan's naval forces - with reinforcements from the U.S. - and of the U.S. presence in the Indian Ocean, which will divert U.S. forces from other areas. The Indian-built nuclear submarines expected to go into service in the next few years will further contribute to that trend.

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