(NSI News Source Info) NEW DELHI, India - July 30, 2009: India joined an elite club of six nations last week with the launch of its own nuclear-powered submarine, but experts say it could be years before the prototype is transformed into a strategic asset. INS Arihant (Destroyer of Enemies) begins trials this week with its builders slating 2015 as the date for the commissioning of the 6,000-tonne vessel with a 85-megawatt nuclear reactor. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described Sunday's launch as a "historic milestone," and experts here agreed that the Arihant lays down an important military and strategic marker. Militarily, if the trials go according to plan, it offers India an underwater nuclear launch option to match its existing land and air launch capabilities. Strategically, India's ability to built its own nuclear sub -- albeit with substantial Russian input -- adds an attention-grabbing dimension to its growing global stature. "In one respect, this represents India's coming of age," said Alex Neill, head of the Asia security programme at the independent, London-based think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). "A nuclear submarine is a badge of honour -- a benchmark, if you like, for any aspiring great power," Neill said. First to react was long-time rival and nuclear-armed neighbour Pakistan, which warned that the launch was "detrimental" to regional stability and vowed to take "appropriate steps" to maintain a "strategic balance" with India. Indian analysts, however, said Pakistani concerns, as well as the tub-thumping welcome the Indian media gave to the launch, were both premature. "We agree it is a very symbolic first step," said Uday Bhaskar, director of the National Maritime Foundation, set up to sharpen India's coastal security after last year's attacks on Mumbai. "But chest thumping is not valid at this stage as the launch of such a submarine is a very arduous task," Bhaskar said, noting neighboring China took 12 years to set up a credible nuclear submarine force in 1986. "Arihant's builders will first need to achieve criticality of its reactor and then propulsion and the real challenge will be when it goes for full sea trials," he told AFP. Finally, there will be more tests of plans to put 12 nuclear-tipped short-range missiles on the 111-metre (367-foot) Arihant, which can hit a top underwater speed of 44 kilometres an hour (24 knots). "We should hope for the best but we should also be cognisant that there can be some challenges that may take a little more time than the timeline we are looking at," Bhaskar said. The Arihant is a key part of a highly ambitious military modernisation programme by India, which hiked its military budget in the current financial year by 24 percent to 28.4 billion dollars. The submarine launch came two months after India became the first South Asian power to own Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) and just before it starts testing 126 warjets it wants to acquire. India plans to build five nuclear submarines as part of a 2.9-billion-dollar project to reinforce its 16 diesel-powered fleet of Russian and German origin. It will also acquire six Franco-Spanish Scorpene submarines between 2012 and 2017, and plans to lease one nuclear-powered Russian submarine soon. While Pakistan was the first to react, many analysts feel development of the Arihant is aimed more at countering the threat from the region's undisputed naval power, China. "The sea is increasingly becoming relevant in the context of India's security interests and we must readjust our military preparedness to this changing environment," Premier Singh said at the launch. Bharat Karnad, an analyst with the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research think-tank, said Arihant was a long way from matching the potency of its Chinese counterparts. "The Arihant will have a small range of missiles and compared to China's nuclear armament these are fire-crackers," Karnad said. "India needs to develop inter-continental ballistic missiles fitted in submarines," he said, while also stressing the importance of developing more powerful nuclear warheads. RUSI's Neill said the key question was how India intended to use the Arihant and others like it, given a nuclear fleet's potential for force projection beyond the Indian Ocean. "I think India will find itself under the magnifying glass over its intentions, particularly from Pakistan and China, and I'm sure it's a question we will see raised prominently in commentaries in the official Chinese media," he said.
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