India’s nuclear-powered attack submarines could change the balance of power in the Indian Ocean, offsetting China’s rising power in the region.
In March 2021, the Times of India reported that the Indian Navy had announced its intent to prioritize the development and construction of a force of six nuclear-powered attack submarines, or SSNs, ahead of building a third, larger aircraft carrier. The initial order of three submarines could begin entering service in 2032.
The SSN program, estimated optimistically to cost $12 billion ($2 billion per submarine), could affect the balance of power in the Indian Ocean as India seeks to offset the growing presence and capability of China’s rapidly expanding navy.
Indian Submarine Strategy and China
In the last two decades, the PLA Navy has secured access to bases in the Indian Ocean to the west and east of India, and periodically dispatches warships and submarines to patrol those waters. Long-running tensions between China and India meanwhile have mounted, culminating in June 2020 in a deadly clash on the Himalayan border in which dozens of soldiers were killed.
New Delhi’s decision to focus on submarines concludes a year-long debate between senior leaders of the Indian Navy and Chief of Defense Staff Bipin Rawat. Both projects have been on the Navy’s slate for decades, but progress has been slow.
Rawat favored submarines over carriers because the latter make for large and indiscrete targets, and China has developed a wide variety of long-range air, sea- and land-based missiles to attack carriers.