Home / Opinion / Whose finger on the nuclear trigger at sea?

On 17 January 1955 when the USS Nautilus—the world’s first nuclear submarine—sailed out deploying the rector for propulsion for the very first time its captain, Commander Eugene Wilkinson (who died last month at the ripe age of 94), radioed the historic message: “Underway on nuclear power".

Nearly 60 years later INS Arihant—India’s first nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarine—will accomplish a similar feat in coming weeks and its commander, Captain Sanjay Mahendru may well mark the epoch-making event with his own memorable message.

India has taken its own sweet time to imbibe the skills and technology that have been around since at least the 1950s. The nuclear submarine programme was reportedly conceived in 1970 (even before the 1974 nuclear test) but gathered momentum only in the 1980s. It took another thirty years—and several dramatic twists and turns worthy of a Bollywood potboiler—before INS Arihant was launched in 2009 (and not without a little help from Russia).

In contrast, the keel of Nautilus was laid in 1952 and within three years it was sailing on nuclear power. Even China, which began its programme in 1958, was able to get its first nuclear propelled submarine underway by 1971.

Its belated arrival notwithstanding, INS Arihant marks a sea change in India’s nuclear arsenal and strategic reach. First, it completes the nuclear triad—the ability to launch nuclear weapons from the air, land and subsea. Second, the sea-leg of the triad also strengthens India’s second-strike capability (i.e. the ability to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike if an enemy first strike takes out the air and land launch capabilities). This lends greater credibility to India’s nuclear deterrence; assuming, of course, that the submarine is quiet enough to remain undetected. Finally, it provides India with a truly global reach. With its ability to traverse the oceans without having to surface or refuel, the “boomer" puts almost every country of concern (even with the limited 700km range of the present K-15 submarine-launched ballistic missile—SLBM) within range.

However, the operationalization of INS Arihant’s nuclear weapons also raises a crucial question: whose finger is on the nuclear trigger at sea? A related issue is the so-called “always/never dilemma" which on the one hand is concerned that nuclear weapons always detonate in a prescribed manner when directed by the political leadership and on the other that nuclear weapons never detonate when their use has not been authorized by the political leadership.

In the case of India’s land-based and air-deliverable nuclear weapons this concern has largely been dealt with by keeping the nuclear warheads separated from the delivery systems—aircraft and missiles. The former are under the custody of Defence Research and Development Organisation officials while the latter are under the control of the armed forces. This de-mated state of the arsenal ensures that these weapons can never be used without the proper authorization.

However, it will be nearly impossible to keep the SLBMs and the warheads de-mated on INS Arihant. This raises the prospect of unauthorized use of the nuclear-tipped SLBMs, in addition to the danger of inadvertent or accidental launch and highlights the never dilemma. All other nuclear weapon states with SLBMs have resolved these concerns through various means. The US initially followed a two-man rule, similar to India’s, but replaced it with a technological fix—the permissive action links. Similarly, British prime ministers gave “beyond the grave" pre-planned instructions to their submarine commanders in case all communication ceased.

India will have to address this crucial issue to ensure the credibility of its nuclear deterrence. Hopefully, it will not take as long getting INS Arihant underway on nuclear power.

W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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