Saturday, May 19, 2007

LiveFist Special: The ATV Unbound - Part I

Starting today a LiveFist series, The ATV Unbound. The series is based on the unpublished notes and writings by a handful of retired Navy officers (some of whom are currently collaborating on a possible book on nuclear submarines, the Advanced Technology Vessel or ATV project and attendant issues), both of who have worked with the nuclear submarine programme itself, and on detachment to some of the scientific laboratories involved. They have been kind enough to let me in on some of their notes. And with the news that Vice Admiral AK Singh is tipped to head the programme, a background on the project as a whole seems in order. My only contribution to this series was to put the inputs together in readable (hopefully!) form and it is written from the perspective of the contributing officers. Words in quotes (apart from quotes of Minister etc) are taken directly from their notes. Hopefully a book by the retired officers will be out soon! For now, Part I.

Part I: History and Beginnings of the ATV

India's efforts to embark upon an indigenous nuclear submarine project hark back to 1971, a time when the a tast force from the US Navy's Seventh Fleet, including the USS Enterprise nuclear-powered aircraft carrier projected unignorable power from the Bay of Bengal as India continued to deliver liberty to Bangladesh. Strategically, this was a profoundly disturbing period for the government and military planners -- it was an open admission then, as it is now, that had the American not quietly withdrawn from the theatre, India would have had no reasonable way to deal with them. It was after this that the terse exchange of letters between Indira Gandhi and President Nixon ensued.

She was well-advised at this time that if India had had a small fleet of nuclear submarines, the government would not have been, as it were, at sea. Mrs Gandhi is known to have thrown a small tantrum with the three military chiefs, fuming at having been "bullied" and saved by the bell of the Pakistani surrender. Analyst Dr. Eric H. Arnett of SIPRI wrote, "The history and implications of the nuclear attack submarine for Indian maritime strategy suggest that the US presence in the Indian Ocean was a strong motivation for the nuclear attack submarine program." But neither then, nor now, did the government fully comprehend the complexity and enormity of the task at hand.

It was the sincere belief of all Naval ranks at the time that it was a splendid, indeed indispensable, idea that the country needed its own nuclear submarines. But Mrs Gandhi's advisors had her sanction the establishment to embark upon something for which the Indian defense research and development industry or the laboratories were just not prepared or equipped.Submarines had come to occupy an important place in Indian maritime strategy.

Ian Anthony, the author of The Arms Trade and Medium Powers—Case Studies of India and Pakistan 1947-90 writes that in December 1968 the arrival of submarines of Soviet origin was announced as part of a new plan for naval expansion and modernization by Navy chief Admiral AK Chatterji.

The decision to buy six Foxtrot-class submarines from the USSR was a new departure in naval strategy which indicated the pattern of Indian naval thinking, particularly as it related to technology change. Admiral Chatterji was one influential voice arguing that the growing vulnerability of surface ships inevitably led to the development of submarines and air forces. Chatterji was also of the belief that India should seek to build nuclear-powered submarines by the late 1980s.

In 1983, Defence Minister K Venkataraman and BARC's former Director, Raja Ramanna, decided to make veteran submariner Vice Admiral MK Roy chief of the ATV project. But official denials, not unreasonably at the time, about the very existence of the programme continued. In December 1983, answering questions in the Indian Parliament, Defense Minister Venkataraman said, "I have already said that we keep our options in this matter, if necessary we will go in for it. But then a nuclear-powered submarine is different from the nuclear submarine with nuclear warheads. I have already said that we are not going to use atomic energy for anything but peaceful purposes. Therefore, we will use it for power. It will be only for propulsion."

But one of the reasons a handful of retired Naval staff have begun to collaborate to bring out the real story about the ATV is that over the years, the ATV Project has become what they call become a "self-perpetuating monster". The "singularly monumental bungling" is something that has come to preclude patriotism and engender a culture that threatens to destroy the one good relationship left in the ugly world of relations in the armed forces and industrial complex -- that between the Navy and the scientific establishment, a historically strong and healthy relationship that shines even today in myriad systems and construction projects, including but not limited to the magnificent indigenous aircraft carrier.

Taking a political decision to build or acquire a nuclear submarine was easy, but implementing it was difficult. Problems cropped up from the word go. The shipbuilding expertise, shore-based support facilities and manpower needed to build and operate nuclear submarines could not be acquired quickly. The Cold War was very much on and things were not coming by easily. The USSR was apparently and understandably reluctant to transfer either nuclear-powered submarines themselves or the technology required for their construction in India. In 1980 and 1982 the only submarines offered seem to have been refurbished Foxtrot Class boats. As a result, India began evaluating the possible alternative of conventionally powered submarines to replace the Foxtrot submarines in service. At this point it was decided that at least some units of the design which was chosen would be built in India, and that the ultimate objective of producing nuclear-powered submarines would not be abandoned. So far so good.

From the mid 1970s, a number of submarine designs were under consideration from Western Europe and the Soviet Union. The European countries involved were France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and Sweden, with the FRG and Sweden the clearly favoured options by 1980. The Indian establishment was actually looking for a design which could offer a chance to learn the production and operating skills relevant to nuclear-powered submarines. The Type-209 design offered by the West German company HDW met some of these criteria. In 1981, HDW won the order based on a 'stretched' and heavier version of the Type-209 weighing 1500 tons (and consequently designated the Type-1500). West Germany also gained an advantage in negotiations by offering as a package a new generation of torpedoes supplied by the West German company AEG. The initial order covered the sale of two submarines to be built in Kiel and included an option to produce up to four subsequently in India. The signature of the contract was held up, as officials in the FRG were unhappy about a clause in the contract, insisted upon by India, which would guarantee deliveries of spare parts in wartime. However, the option on the production of the submarines at the Mazagon Dock Limited in Bombay was exercised in December 1981. Construction began in early 1982 and the West German-built vessels were delivered in 1986-7. Production of the submarines on the other hand, ran into problems, finally getting underway in 1984, and delivery of the first of these (originally expected in 1988) was delayed until 1991.

By this time some people had started becoming nervous. Looking back in retrospect, it appears certain, at least to us, that the scientific establishment had misled the government from the beginning. They had boasted of delivering something quickly which they were not to deliver even decades later. "The naiveté of the political establishment and the Navy lay in the fact that they implicitly believed in the tall, outrageous claims of the scientific establishment. While the scientific establishment betrayed the nation by boasting of an expertise which they never had, the political and the military establishment failed the nation in believing in their feverish hallucinations."

In early 1984, there were reports of discussions with the Soviet Union on the supply of more advanced, possibly nuclear-powered, vessels and the training of Indian crews in the Soviet Union. By late 1984, the Soviet Union was apparently prepared to offer India submarines of more modern design in considerable numbers. Vice Admiral Tahiliani, then Vice Chief of Naval Staff, took a leading role in talks in Moscow in September 1984, after which official sources stated that the defense relationship had taken on "a new dimension". This has subsequently been interpreted to have meant that the Soviet Union agreed not only to supply more modern types of conventional submarines, but also to allow India access to nuclear-powered submarines. The formal agreement to lease a nuclear-powered submarine from the Soviet Union was signed in 1985.

Hopes were kindled even as our indigenous scientific establishment kept the nation in dark about what they had been able to achieve or not achieve so far. In mid 1987 reports began to surface about Indian negotiations with the Soviet Union to transfer one or more nuclear submarines. It was at this stage that international observers, for the first time, got a hint that India had already started a nuclear submarine reactor program of its own at BARC a decade ago but with highly unsatisfactory results. The ATV had run aground in the first decade itself of its inception. No one in India was allowed to learn what exactly had gone wrong. The lack of coordination and focus, besides sheer technical incompetence marked the ATV project out as a failure from day one. The first ten years of the programme were wasted in debating what reactor would suit the vessel. Ten years. Think about that for a minute.

Comparisons with other nations are always thrown in the face of criticism. But the ATV programme crosses all bounds. Compare it with what the others had done at the time. The world's first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile 1, was made by Enrico Fermi on December 2, 1942. It was the most elementary nuclear reactor imaginable. The world's first nuclear submarine, Nautilus, was launched in January 1954 itself. Within 12 years of inventing the nuclear reactor they could make a reactor for a nuclear submarine. Those were the early years — it was pioneering work with very few reactors in the world to guide them or acquire experience. What the scientists of the world could achieve in just 12 years, our entire scientific establishment has not been able to do in 32 years in spite of having reactors in India since 1955 and the experience of operating power reactors for long. The taboo word incompetence rears its head.

Nuclear power was still in its infancy when the decision was made to use an atomic reactor to power a submarine. Chicago Pile 1 had been built only six years before Argonne's Naval Reactor Division was formed in 1948. Over the next six years, the division helped turn the atomic ship engine from a concept into a reality. The first prototype, Submarine Thermal Reactor Mark I, was completed in 1953 by Westinghouse Corp. at what is now the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. STR Mark II was installed in the Nautilus, launched the following year. In fact, the ship's reactor and its operating procedures became the prototype for most of world's commercial nuclear power plants. The Naval Reactor Program also inspired efficient safety and control methods -- essential with the limited crew in a submarine. Former U.S. Navy "nucs" operate many of the USA's nuclear power plants today.

We, on the other hand, have had the experience of operating large power reactors and yet we have not been able to make a ship's reactor in 32 years of dedicated effort. It indicates a frightening prospect — our scientists haven't done their job. This is not to indulge in a sweeping condemnation of the scientific community -- India can still boast of some of the best minds -- but the facts of the ATV programme speak for themselves. And in this case, it has to be admitted that the Navy is also to blame. "The scientific community cannot be allowed to hide its epic incompetence under the guise of secrecy."

The Navy, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and the DRDO could simply not come to a consensus on several crucial issues. The navy, again it has to be admitted, knew little else besides the fact that nuclear subs used nuclear reactors, the BARC knew little else besides the physics of nuclear reactors, and the DRDO thought it could coordinate their making without knowing anything specific. Amongst them they could not fathom the design of the nuclear reactor used on submarines. The DRDO and the BARC claimed it could be built indigenously. It is said that Ramanna and others at an apex board meeting said we'd produce it in no time and all that they needed was a Soviet nuclear submarine on lease. The intention was apparently to copy the design and to train Indian officers to operate the indigenous version as soon as it was ready. All the manuals and detailed documentation were studied but nothing much came out of it. Left with no other viable option, India decided to import the capability from the Soviet Union, initially in the form of Soviet nuclear-powered submarines, with Indian personnel already in training in the Soviet Union to handle the equipment. In early January 1988, All-India Radio announced that the Soviet Union had 'leased' a nuclear-powered submarine to India with India taking delivery of the sub in the Soviet port of Vladivostok.

(NEXT: Part II The Wasted Leasing of INS Chakra)


Anonymous said...

my God what details about ATV

shiv can I have your cell number


Shiv Aroor said...

sheena: uh, you can write to me at thanks.

Srirangan said...

Thanks for posting, bookmarked for later read.

- Sri

Sniperz11 said...

And what is your recommendation Shiv??? shut down the project? Open it up and release all info, so that our enemies know what they are up against?? Buy Russian nuclear subs???

I suggest that you immediately write a new post- your Manifesto and views about our defence, and what you want to do about it. I for one think you are being paid to write these propaganda pieces.

Again, Shiv, you give no reason or scientific explanation about the hyperbolic conclusions that you come to.

For example, I cannot find any place in your article that has elaborated on how the scientists had misled the leadership. No facts, no explanation, nothing. You just state them and slip them into the piece.

You have used ("quoted", as a shield, of course) words like "self-perpetuating monster" & "singularly monumental bungling", without giving any explanation or elaboration... and all your sources are 'retired officers', never the scientists who you lambast repeatedly. While what the offrs. say may be partly correct, you could have at least shown a little decency by getting the other side of the story as well. Perhaps we should set up a phone bill fund to pay for your calls to DRDO and the AEC.

Firstly, When you talk about how the "public was kept in the dark", do you honestly think that the estabishment would give out status reports on such a sensitive project, one that they have refused to confirm even now? And what gives you any authority to ask for such reports? Such programs are kept secret- both their successes and failures alike, and should and will remain as such.

Secondly, What about funding, something that all our programs have to fight to death for. How about the fact that all their funding would have been strangled by the economic crisis and reforms in the early 90s? do you think the US faced that? I doubt it.

Thirdly, when you talk about how easily the US could make these reactors, you forget that they had all the money they wanted, the enormous expertise needed, and the had enough experience in building reactors. When did we build our first reactor??? TAPS was american, CIRUS Canadian. Kalpakkam was our first indigenous reactor, and went critical only in 83'. Dhruva went critical only in '85 and faced severe problems till '85.

Fourth, Naval reactors are absolutely nothing like the normal ones- they run on HEU- at least 20%- weapons grade Uranium. making them compact and keeping them stable is a huge leap, and requires a lot of research, something no nation will help us with.

Coming to the technological gaps in our knowledge, which we have had to painstakingly build up over the years. We had zero sub-building knowledge, no knowledge about naval reactors, no know how about Nuclear-sub operation, nothing about integration and testing, and almost no knowledge about how those reactors worked. All these have been painstakingly built up over the years, in the absence of outside help, in a vacuum.

The ATV is like the LCA, Arjun and IGMDP projects. The technology and expertise gained are essential to us and are the foundation stones for further developments. Just as you see the IJT, Su-30MKI and MCA projects building on the LCA, you will see other projects building on the ATV. If bean counters like you recommend shutting down these projects,you forget these obvious and needed spinoffs that they bring, and i'm thankful that you people are not in the position to stop them.

Anonymous said...

Oh Aroor ....

What you are upto ? Your potshots against scientist and scientific established are taking a new turn.

Do you have any personal problem with scientist? Or, just you hate science becoz of your low grades in your academics in science subjets ? Then, why such a silly potshots ?

I can understand your likings for doing devil's advocate. But if you combine that with your obsession against scientist and its establishment, it founds no bounds of idiotism. Forgive me for saying this.

>> The first ten years of the programme were wasted in debating what reactor would suit the vessel. Ten years. Think about that for a minute.

Before commenting like this...first try to understand the magnitude of the problem in choosing the reactor. Then you can come to the conclusion whether the ten years is waste or not. Second, pls tell us exactly whether they just debated or did something more than that. You are making yourself silly, Aroor.

Buddy..You always start from the gross conclusion that anything happening in India/ gov insitution is not worth the salt.

Scientist in India are *alteast* more intelligent than average Indian. You and me are just average Indian. Keep this in mind before delivering another sermon.

Shiv Aroor said...

anon: before another sermon of a comment (!), do read the introduction to this piece. this was not written by me. these are inputs compiled by me from the two officers mentioned in the intro. these are their views, not mine. having said that, i actually don't think this is a one-sided piece -- do read it carefully. as for me, it's getting old defending the same old stuff and hitting a stone-wall, so this time anon, i'm not going to bother! but feel free to let your sermons keep coming! second, not that i need to clarify this, but i actually was a science student till class 12. that should satisfy your theories about my saboteur instinct?

zippo said...

anon: that's uncalled for. dont bring personal stuff into this space. if you want to flame aroor, flame him on the right turf. i do that all the time! but since you brought it up, let's be fair here -- it was aroor who walked out of his marriage with shaili chopra, because he was involved with a girl called anita tripathi, who's now an anchor with IBN (quite a looker too, i'm told). not that any of this matters, but just! i worked with aroor in his DDM express days.

Shiv Aroor said...

sniperz11: could you please read my reply to the first anon. i have only compiled this post. everything in it, the language for most part, is from the officers who're writing a book. this is just part of it. i just strung it all together, that's all. wow, another raw nerve!

Shiv Aroor said...

zippo: this is all totally unnecessary on this blog. can we not get into people's personal lives? i mean, come on!

Sniperz11 said...


What you say may be true. That may probably be why the whole piece looks disjointed and out of context at places.

But washing your hands off it because you didn't write it is just escapist, and allows you to say what you want, without taking the stick for it.

Plus, it is your responsibility to make sure that what you say is not only accurate but objective as well, preserving the context. After all, I'm sure that your sources would have written much much more about the ATV project and not just about the DRDO and AEC failures.

And yet, if you chose only to post the parts that you identified with, that is not the mistake of the writers, its the mistake of the editor- you. Thats just like Yudhistira's reply to Drona- Aswatthama(the elephant) is Dead.

As for the raw nerves, I dont think so. Any person who lives on defence forums must have pretty strong nerves. Strong feelings, maybe. Certainly not raw nerves. I'm eager to read the next part of this series... and, if necessary, tear it apart.

P.S.: I think you really should write a manifesto of your beliefs and recommendations for DRDO and the Services. That would really help clear a lot of stuff up, and help us pin you down. :>


Anonymous said...

Something totally out of the topic, if people want to get personal, they should have the b@lls to sign their own name rather than some anon call sign.

Anonymous said...


I doubt if you were any good at science or as a science student. Because what you are doing is contrary to any scientific approach. You attribute stuff to nameless sources and then print them without using ANY brains at all. A science student, or anyone who has worked in engineering wouldnt be as cocksure and as silly as you are on a consistent basis.


Thanks for the update- had heard differently, I guess its a matter of perspective. Either ways, this dude is one frustrated chap and it can be seen from his rant(writ)ings.


thanks for being anon yourself and saying hey dont be anon!

Gee wow, brilliant saar! U must be working for indian express

I am anon coz I cant be bothered with signing up with this website and service navigate some half a dozen pages. I get paid for each minute every day. Thats more important to me. Slamming Aroor for his stupidity (and general lack of ethics, personal and professional BOTH) is just a public service.

Anonymous said...

what is funny is tht i just came back from an army bash, with fair sprinkling of army waalahs, old foggies, and young turks. i turned the topic to drdo, mixed opinions, but generally said it is doing a job which is hard and is not all bad like media says. the signals ppl are happy with drdo and so is the army artillery air defence fr some electronics war stuff and radars/

coming to arjun, the recent tests went well, so i really think shiv aroor makes a lot of stff up or just uses masala for mirchi to make the report spicy

that is ok for reporting on shilpashetty bt to report on defnece you need to have more ethics

like all this stuff on ATV frm rtd officers..till now whatever he has printed is stuff i can get from 15 minutes of google!!!

but he says to believe him coz he is ...shiv aroor.

cmon boss, why are u fooling people.

u really just copy paste stuff from GOI reports or google stuff. really unsure wheter you know anything about the atv or any serious project. i know drdo treats you with contempt.

also last thing, i mentioned ur name amongst my buds and asked about ur rep--reply" woh jorunalist hain, saale sab ko chutiya banate hain",,, i guess that is indian publics experience with ur breed!

Anonymous said...

Not wanting to sign up on the site is a pathetic excuse to be anon.. you can still sign your actual name under your comment rather than some stupid nickname tha tno one knows about.

Anonymous said...

anon, the last one: First you had your signature/name undersigned then you can give lectures to others.

Mihir Shah said...

Sheesh! Anon v/s Anon! You could be the same person for all we know!

Anonymous said...

ROTFLMAO...tell me about it..

Yet another anon!! I'd take ur comments seriously u sanctimonious twit, if you werent anon yourself.

Jai (anon)

PS :I hope you knocked yourself out, and gave your privates a good going over in excitement now u know my name

Mihir Shah said...

This made for interesting reading. Nuclear-powered submarines are as "black" as military projects can be. If the scientists managed to mislead the Navy on this one, it would be child's play for them to mislead a journalist or some people on an internet forum. A plant here, a leak there... and the ATV is anything they want it to be. So I'm going to take every report about it with a pinch of salt... nothing is clear until an ATV takes to the sea.

Second, I believe you fail to appreciate the engineering challenges that come along with a project like this. Comparison to the United States' success would be unfair. For one, the Americans had the kind of funding that Indian scientists dare not dream about. They also had immense experience in submarine design and development - something India still doesn't have. Then there is the reactor itself. Like Sniper said, India's first reactor went critical only in 1983 - more than a decade after the ATV was envisioned. So the question of which reactor to install was severely compounded by the fact that the scientists didn't know which reactor they were capable of making. Add to that the problems of reliability, shielding, and miniaturization, - problems that designers of land based reactors never face – and you might better appreciate the situation of the scientists. Maybe they set their goals too high, maybe they were too confident of their own abilities, and maybe they didn’t deliver the goods on time, but I would say that they didn’t even know enough about this business to even provide a rough estimate of the completion date. And we have no option but to continue funding and other forms of support. Phoren help will never come the way it did for other projects like the LCA. India is well and truly alone on this one.

I would like to add that Soviet experience with nuke submarines has been painful to say the least, in spite of the kind of resources they had at their disposal. Their earlier designs were flawed, dangerous, and unreliable – leading to the loss of many subs and their crews. The USSR could stomach that failure. If such things happen to the ATV, the media and politicians will roast everyone even remotely attached to the project alive. his is something Indian scientists have to think about, I’m sure.

Anonymous said...

Shaili left you. Great. That chick is classy.

Anonymous said...

It is Shaili walked off on Shiv. His only claim to fame.

Anonymous said...

anon totally unwarranted bud. what all this you are bringing here. keep this stuff for BR and other such places. btw shiv's new gf is a chick called amrita tripathi in cnn.ibn. he obviously has a fetish for classy hot anchor type women.

uint32 said...

Wait and watch.
DRDO (except for agni/prithvi)
has a great record of failures.

Remember much hyped about
project ARJUN MBT (kalam).


So the proverb
Operation success.patiend died.
suits DRDO as of now.

So wait till the nuclear sub
is induced after trials.

Anonymous said...