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Aukus fallout: for years, US told India it couldn’t share nuclear submarine technology. ‘And now this ...’

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The Indian Navy's indigenously built, diesel-electric, Scorpene attack submarine at Mazagon Dock in Mumbai. Photo: Xinhua

Australia’s acquisition of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines as part of a new, trilateral defence pact with the United States and Britain has prompted soul-searching in New Delhi about how India should react.

New Delhi has not officially responded to the Aukus partnership that will see Australia ramping up its deterrence capabilities, at a time when the US and its allies are seeking to counter China’s rising influence in the region.

Shekhar Sinha, a retired vice-admiral and former commander in the Indian Navy, said the nuclear-powered submarines would have a “significant impact” on the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. But former Indian naval chief Arun Prakash, in a Twitter post last week, suggested the partnership may have disgruntled New Delhi.

“For years, the US has been telling India that American laws make it impossible to share nuclear-propulsion tech with anyone, including allies,” he said.

“Even the Indo-US nuclear deal and signing of all four foundational agreements did not seem to matter. And now this,” said Prakash.

In 2008, India and the US signed a deal in which the US agreed to work towards full civil nuclear cooperation with India in exchange for India separating its civil and military nuclear facilities and placing all its civil nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

The deal did not cover military nuclear cooperation. In subsequent years the two countries signed four foundational pacts covering deep military cooperation and access to sophisticated weapons. However, again, the deals did not cover military nuclear technology.

Srinath Raghavan, professor of history and international relations at Ashoka University, said it was unrealistic to expect the US to share military nuclear technology with India.

“Why should we expect the US to share such know-how? India is not an ally or bound to the US by any treaty,” he said, whereas Australia had been a close ally of the US since World War II.

The relationship between India and the US had become closer since 2000 but Washington’s strategic and security ties with London and Canberra were more developed, analysts said.

“It’s normal realpolitik,” Raghavan said, noting that New Delhi had retained strategic autonomy. “The US gave short shrift to an ally like France in the process, [so] it would be silly of India to see this as a snub.”

Raghavan was referring to how the transfer of US technology to Australia had scuppered Canberra’s 2016 deal with French shipbuilder Naval Group to build it a new submarine fleet worth US$40 billion. France reacted angrily to Washington’s decision last week.

Navtej Sarna, India’s ambassador to Washington from 2016 to 2018, noted that previously the US had shared the technology only with Britain and that Australia was part of a security alliance with the US and New Zealand known as the ANZUS treaty.

“I don’t think the two relationships of the US – with India and with Australia – should be compared,” he said, noting the “different history and dynamic”.

Sarna also said India should consider the implications of the Aukus pact in the Indo-Pacific. If it helped to counter China in the region, that would benefit India, he said.

The Indian government has not officially reacted to the announcement. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will leave for the US this week to attend the first in-person Quad summit in Washington. He will also have a separate meeting with US President Joe Biden. Modi was briefed by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison about the new security deal before its announcement.

Indian experts said the announcement of the pact so soon before the Quad summit – which will involve Biden, Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga – sent a clear measure that it would be a “counterbalancing deterrent to China”.

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a joint session of the US Congress in 2016. Photo: EPA

Russian help

Sudarshan Shrikhande, a retired rear admiral in the Indian navy, said that after India’s 1962 border war with China, New Delhi had approached the US to assist in building its submarine fleet but Washington was unwilling to help. As a result, India turned to the Soviet Union.

“In 1963-64 the defence minister led a delegation to the US [seeking] fleet submarines but the Americans turned us down, saying ‘go to the British, your traditional suppliers’,” Shrikhande said. “The British offered us some very old, obsolete [submarines] and then we went to the Russians and the type 641 [Nato Foxtrot class] were bought.”

Former ambassador Sarna said India had sought defence cooperation with Russia because of availability, accessibility, price, diplomatic relations and familiarity with Russian systems and weapons.

“In those years, the US and India were not always aligned on international issues,” he said, referring to the perception among most Western nations that India tilted towards Russia during the Cold War.

India acquired its first nuclear-powered submarine on loan from the Soviet Union in 1988, for three years. In 2012, it again leased a Russian nuclear-powered submarine, this time for 10 years, but returned it to Russia in June 2021 due to technical faults.

It is now awaiting its third nuclear-powered submarine from Russia, which it expects to arrive in 2026. Currently, the Indian navy has 17 other submarines – the INS Arihant, an indigenously built nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, and 16 diesel-electric submarines.

The Aukus deal has reignited debate about the importance of nuclear-powered attack submarines for a country’s defence. Shrikhande said these submarines were useful due to their stealth, reach, endurance and weapons capacity.

P.S. Raghavan, who served as India’s ambassador to Moscow from 2014 to 2016, said that under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) of 1968 the transfer of nuclear technology for military application was prohibited. However, India is not a signatory to the treaty. Furthermore, the leasing of such equipment is not strictly banned under the treaty.

Raghavan said that China had repeatedly breached the treaty by sharing nuclear technology with Pakistan, which also has not signed the NPT.

“The submarine deal with Australia may also be exploring the boundary conditions of the NPT,” he said. “We will know when the full details are known.”

However, Michael Shoebridge, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Canberra would meet its obligation under the NPT.

“The Australian commitments to not have nuclear weapons, along with our strong track record on non-proliferation, are all part of this [Aukus agreement],” he said.

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India has for many years leased Russian submarines, such as this Akula-class vessel. Photo: AFP

Self-reliance

India has become self-reliant for nuclear technology. Work began on the Arihant, its first indigenously built nuclear-powered submarine, in 2009 for US$2.9 billion and it was commissioned in 2016. It also has enough nuclear energy to power such vessels. In 2017, it launched a second nuclear-powered submarine, the INS Arighat, for sea trials. The Arighat is expected to be commissioned this year.

As part of the Project 75 Alpha programme, India plans to build six nuclear-powered ones at a cost of US$17 billion and another 18 conventional submarines. The submarines are being designed and built in India. Construction is expected in 2023-24 and the first submarine is expected to be commissioned in 2032.

India has asked US defence companies to help with technology transfers through joint ventures and investment in the country but Raghavan, the former envoy, said he was not sure if the US would “ever go to the extent of sharing submarine technology” with India.

While US arms sales to India have increased since their 2008 agreement, between 2013 and 2017, Russia remained India’s top supplier, accounting for 62 per cent of arms imports, while the US rose to second position, accounting for 15 per cent. India last year bought US arms worth US$3.4 billion.

Sinha, the former navy commander, said India no longer needed US technology.

“It has moved quite far ahead since [2009].”

Shrikhande added: “India needs to pursue cutting-edge technologies from a few countries rather than continuing to be merely a major buyer.

“A self-reliant India will be a better strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific.”