Chakra, the filler of strategic space

January 25, 2012 12:00 am | Updated October 24, 2016 06:00 pm IST

A strategic posture of a nation is a declaration, more by deed than articulation, of its orientation, will and intent. It purports to mould and shape a future that would benefit its larger objectives. The process is fraught with the hazards of conflicting interests and therefore it demands the weight of the nation's comprehensive power both soft and hard.

In an era when the face of soft power is that of an Assange and its voice, that of Gandhi, Gibran, Che and Osama; a critical instrument to uphold posture is the State's military power and the talent to distinguish between the maintenance of armed forces and their use.

The operational canvas is a transient that abhors futuristic force planning. So it was, year-after-every-five year the planner was condemned to an exercise that perceived threats and building force structures to cope.

‘Intimidation and accretion'

It was, therefore, the ‘instantaneous intimidation' that drove plans and consequently resulted in ‘a tail chasing' accretion of forces. Unfortunately to some, this inspiration continues to be the pretender that fills strategic space. The case of our strategic maritime posture as a function of the declared ‘Look East' policy is a study in point. Here the need for a theory to make transparent the complexity of the problem and invite the necessary intellectual rigour to not just ‘chart a course' but also to analyse and cater for the hurdles that may beset policy is the first imperative.

As Julian Corbett so eloquently put it, theory may not be a substitute for judgment and experience, but is a means to fertilize both.

Significantly, the recent acquisition on a 10-year lease of the ‘Chakra' (Russian Akula II class nuclear attack submarine) is an extremely perspicacious departure from the past for it is a concrete step towards the translation of the theory and realisation of the larger strategic maritime posture that serves policy.

Long gestation

Admittedly, the gestation period has been long; it is recognised the process has been challenged by a fragmented approach (the Chakra in its first avatar came to us in1988) and plagued by the economics and the geopolitics of the times. But these are challenges that any strategic project must expect to face and defy.

The nuclear attack submarine (SSN) being completely independent of air for propulsion frees it from the need to surface frequently, the enormous power generated permits a bigger hull to operate at high speeds with large payloads for durations that is limited by human fatigue and replenishment of consumables only (reactors require refuelling at intervals of 25 years). In real terms, it is critical to understand what the Chakra represents. Working the submarine to our operational challenges and demands is just the tip of the iceberg, training and building a bank of specialised personnel; creating the necessary infrastructure to maintain nuclear submarines; unique logistic management practices; development of doctrines and procedures; generating design feature for the indigenous programme and, most importantly, building an ethos of efficient and safe nuclear submarine stewardship and exertions, these are the 8/9th submerged part of the iceberg. Strategically SSNs in numbers provide a vital element of a riposte to any “sea control strategy” that an adversary may contemplate or a “denial strategy” that we may plan.

State of art

In terms of the platform, the Akula II represents the state of art in SSN design, the programme having been launched in the mid 1990s. The nearest in terms of design vintage is the British ‘Astute' class also of the mid 1990s,but in terms of capabilities it is smaller and less accomplished; while the American Los Angeles class predates the Chakra by a decade. Also, the design philosophy harmonises with the orientation of our strategic nuclear submarine project.

As far as the economics of the matter is concerned, $920 million for a 10-year lease with certain support features attached must be viewed in perspective of what the SSN represents and the fact that a new SSN of similar capability with a 30-year life would have a price tag of about $3billion and a through life cost of (thumb rule) $9 billion would suggest that the deal is a sound one.

As any nation that has committed to operating maritime nuclear force will fully appreciate that kudos are due to our planners who visualised a theory, saw a form and translated it to a force plan and now have given substance to each step of the way.

(Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar PVSM, AVSM is the former Commander-in-Chief of the Andaman & Nicobar Command, Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Forces Command and Flag Officer Commanding Western Fleet. Email:

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