French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embrace at a meeting earlier this year. Photo Credit: Reuters
AUKUS was one of Washington’s best-kept secrets. When the deal between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States was announced in mid-September it caught analysts and politicians off guard. The deal included defense technology sharing agreements and the headline-grabbing promise to transfer nuclear submarine technology to Australia. AUKUS was not without controversy; French President Emmanuel Macron was angered by the last-minute canceling of a conventional French submarine deal, later assuaged by an awkward American apology.[i] New Delhi quickly distanced itself from the new agreement, with Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla telling the press that “From our perspective, it [AUKUS] has neither relevance to Quad [Australia, Japan, India, and the United States], nor will it have any impact on its functioning.”[ii] India’s indifferent response reflects its desire to maintain positive relations with all parties, including France, allowing it to take advantage of any possible opportunities that emerge.
India’s Submarine Woes
The fallout from AUKUS presents India with a strategic opportunity to partner with France to produce Indian manufactured nuclear-powered attack submarines. India’s own submarine force, consisting of 15 conventionally powered diesel-electric attack submarines (SSK) and one ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), is aging rapidly.[iii] The need for an expanded and modern Indian submarine force has become more pressing in recent years, given rising tensions with China. India has a long history of operating nuclear-powered submarines and a shorter history of manufacturing them; during the Cold War, for example, India leased a Charlie-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) from the Soviet Union to acquaint crews with operating nuclear reactors.[iv] India continues to lease Russian manufactured SSNs today and plans to induct an Akula-class SSN by 2025, costing $3 billion over ten years.[v] While the leasing of Russian nuclear submarines has undoubtedly increased Indian proficiency in operating naval nuclear technology, expensive leases do not meet India’s long-term SSN needs.
Additionally, India’s pursuit of indigenous nuclear propulsion has proven wanting. India’s Arihant-class SSBNs utilize Indian-built naval nuclear reactors, but these reactors are based on Soviet-era designs and their small size limits their endurance at sea.[vi] While the United States has increased its conventional arms shipments to India over the past two decades, the United States has proven unwilling to transfer the technology necessary for Indian production of American conventional weapons systems. This reticence to transfer technology also extends to the nuclear domain, with previous Indian attempts to acquire American naval nuclear technology being firmly rebuffed.[vii] Defense technology transfer is a key requirement for India, which has increasingly pushed for Aatmanirbhar, or self-reliance in the defense sector.
France’s Appealing Nuclear Option
France has a history of selling conventional arms to India and transferring naval nuclear reactor technology to interested parties. France has maintained a long-standing defense relationship with India, as witnessed by its recent sale of Rafael fighter aircraft, and has proven willing to transfer the defense technology necessary for domestic production. Furthermore, France has demonstrated its willingness to sell sensitive naval nuclear technology to foreign nations. In 2009, France and Brazil inked a deal that included technology transfer and design support for the construction of Scorpène class attack submarines enlarged and fitted with nuclear reactors.[viii] Prior to the construction of nuclear-powered submarines, Brazil purchased four conventional powered Scorpène attack submarines and learned to manufacture them domestically.[ix]
A similar deal may be on the cards for India. While New Delhi’s 2017 approach for French naval nuclear technology was politely rebuffed by Paris, the fallout of AUKUS may lead France to reconsider its position.[x] While it is unclear what specific platform Indian naval planners envision, India currently produces and operates its own Scorpène-class attack submarines, the same type of submarine that Brazil is modifying with nuclear reactors. Utilizing the Brazilian approach could prove to be an attractive offer to both parties, given existing French manufacturing expertise and a faster delivery schedule for the Indians by leveraging existing submarine designs. Furthermore, concerns over proliferation from outside parties should be relatively muted given the fact that India is already a nuclear power. It is worth noting that if such a deal was reached, it would be expensive and take over a decade to produce results. Brazil’s agreement with the French, signed in 2009, has cost over $7 billion dollars, with the first submarine not set to enter the water until the early 2030s.[xi] Naval nuclear propulsion is not an easy business, but the repercussions of AUKUS could present India with a golden opportunity to acquire foreign naval nuclear propulsion technology and bolster its naval presence in the Indo-Pacific.
[i] Morgan Chalfant, “Biden lauds Ally France, calls handling of sub deal ‘clumsy,’” The Hill, 10/29/21 https://www.france24.com/en/europe/20211029-biden-tells-macron-us-was-clumsy-over-australian-submarine-deal
[ii] The Wire, “AUKUS Has No Relevance to Quad, Nor Will It Impact Its Functioning: India,” 9/21/21 https://thewire.in/diplomacy/india-aukus-quad-harsh-vardhan-shringla
[iii] Krishn Kaushik, “Explained: India’s Submarine Strength,” The Indian Express 11/9/21, https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/simply-put-indias-submarine-strength-7613847/
[iv] Yagesh Joshi, “Angles and Dangles: Arihant and the Dilemma of India’s Undersea Nuclear Weapons, War on the Rocks 1/14/19, https://warontherocks.com/2019/01/angles-and-dangles-arihant-and-the-dilemma-of-indias-undersea-nuclear-weapons/
[v] TheWeek, “Russia to lease Nuclear Submarine to Indian Navy in $3 Billion Deal,” 3/8/21, https://www.theweek.in/news/india/2019/03/08/russia-lease-nuclear-submarine-indian-navy.html
[vi] Joshi, Angles and Dangles
[vii] Sandeep Unnithan, “Why the US won’t give India nuclear submarines,” India Today, 9/20/21, https://www.indiatoday.in/india-today-insight/story/why-the-us-won-t-give-india-nuclear-submarines-1854818-2021-09-20
[viii] The Economist, “Brazil might get nuclear-powered submarines even before Australia,” 10/2/21, https://www.economist.com/the-americas/brazil-might-get-nuclear-powered-submarines-even-before-australia/21805075
[x] Sandeep Unnithan, Why the US won’t give India nuclear submarines
[xi] The Economist, Brazil might get nuclear-powered submarines