India, Russia to sign $3bn lease for Akula-class submarine: Deal shows despite new partnerships, old ties hold strong

India is set to sign a deal on Thursday with Russia to lease an Akula-class submarine for the Indian Navy. The nuclear submarine — that is being called INS Chakra III — is likely to be ready, after refurbishment, by 2025.

According to The Economic Times, the deal worth $3 billion deal entails the lease of a nuclear attack submarine "that will be customised and fitted with indigenous communications systems and sensors". The report adds, "While the mothballed nuclear submarine had been shipped to the Russian port town of Severodvinsk in 2014, sources said that it will be akin to a new vessel once ready, given the extent of work required to make it operational." As reported by Sputnik News, it was in November last year that naval chief Admiral Sunil Lanba had "discussed with Russian authorities the co-production of a conventional submarine at Indian shipyard and leasing of an Akula-class submarine".

It may be recalled that the first INS Chakra was a K-43 Charlie-class nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine that was in the Indian Navy's service from 1987 to 1990. INS Chakra II is the Nerpa (K-152), an Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, that has been in active service under the Indian Navy since April 2012.

The Akula — Russian for shark — submarines were widely credited as being a game changer in the Cold War era, as a post on defence technology and policy blog Foxtrot Alpha points out: "With the Akula's arrival the American submarine fleet would no longer enjoy the dramatic undersea advantages they had possessed since the end of the World War II... [It] stunned NATO with its high-level of stealth, especially compared to any Soviet submarine before it... [the] ability to make their submarines as quiet, or nearly as quiet, as American subs had long eluded them. The Akula dramatically changed that."

India, Russia to sign bn lease for Akula-class submarine: Deal shows despite new partnerships, old ties hold strong

File image of an Akula-class submarine. Screen grab from YouTube

Impact

So how much of a difference will the 2025 arrival of the latest 'shark' make to the Indian Navy and indeed the country's aspiration for greater sea power?

At first glance, the arrival of Chakra III will provide a robust enhancement to India's deterrence capabilities. While Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) — both of which include Russia, but not India, as a signatory — compulsions mean Moscow will not fit the vessel with nuclear missiles, the submarines are believed to be capable of carrying and launching missiles with nuclear warheads.

However, it's worth also bearing in mind that in six years, or by the time 2025 rolls around, if Chakra III does arrive on time, it will need to undergo sea tests. And by the time it is finally commissioned, a handful of India's older submarines — including four Sindhughosh-class (Russian Kilo) and two Shishumar-class (German HDW) submarines — will be undergoing upgradation and refitting work. While there may be other new submarines in India's naval arsenal midway into the next decade, the direct benefits to be gained by Chakra III's presence will not be massive by any means.

Messaging

The more pertinent message to draw from this deal that is set to be signed in three days is in terms of the geopolitical messaging. Over the years, and over political regimes, India has been expanding its strategic and defence relations with a handful of western countries, with whom relations were cordial at best in the Cold War era. One of the biggest strides forward in India's foreign policy has been the expansion — real and notional — of India-US relations.

So much so that the fate of the $5-billion deal for India to procure the S-400 Triumf missile defence system from Russia hinged on whether or not Washington would waive clauses of its Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for  New Delhi. As it stands, the Akula deal is set to be the biggest India-Russia deal since the S-400.

Simultaneously, there has also been a thaw between Cold War rivals Russia (then USSR) and Pakistan, with Moscow demonstrating some openness to striking defence deals with Islamabad. The effect of these two not-completely-unrelated developments has led to the questioning of India-Russia ties in the modern era, opining that as a non-aligned partnership, it worked in the past, but it may be time for New Delhi to look to other partners in today's world.

This is where context is useful. Barring, to an extent France — and the modifications being made to the Rafale jets to accommodate Indian concerns, no other western country is willing to sell India with nuclear-capable weapons platforms. A desire not to fall afoul of the NPT and CTBT is at the heart of this reluctance. With India and Russia, there is history, and the recognition of that history is reflected in defence ties between the two countries.

The message sent out is clear: New partnerships are fantastic, but trust takes time to build.

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Updated Date: Mar 04, 2019 15:32:32 IST

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