India has launched its first indigenously built nuclear-powered submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles. The submarine, once in service, will give the country the capability to fire nuclear weapons from sea besides land and air.
The Indian navy flooded a dry dock in the southern port city of Visakhapatnam to send out the nuclear-powered submarine named Arihant, for extensive sea trials in the Bay of Bengal.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who launched the submarine, called it a "historic milestone in the country's defense preparedness.
It has taken India nearly two decades to develop the Arihant, which means "Destroyer of Enemies." It has been built with technical assistance from Russia.
Defense officials say Arihant is powered by a nuclear reactor, and will be armed with ballistic missiles. It will carry a crew of about 100 men.
New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation director Uday Bhaskar says the launch is an important technological step putting India in a small group of nations capable of designing and building nuclear-powered submarines.
But he stresses that it could be several years before the submarine is inducted into the Indian navy.
"My sense is that it would take India anything between three and five years if everything moves as per plan and design to have a submarine that would be deemed operationally credible with nuclear propulsion," said Bhaskar. "What is significant about the launch is that India now has publicly acknowledged its quest to acquire a nuclear submarine and has shown it has the ability to design and build such a platform."
India already has fighter aircraft and missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. If all goes well with the trials, the Arihant will give India an underwater ballistic missile capability after the tests are conducted.
After launching the submarine, Prime Minister Singh said "we do not have any aggressive designs nor do we seek to threaten anyone." But he said that the sea is increasingly becoming relevant in the context of India's security interests, making it necessary to "re-adjust our military preparedness to this changing environment.'
The Arihant puts India in a small group of five nations which have built nuclear submarines. These are the United States, China, Britain, France and Russia.
India plans to build a fleet of five nuclear-powered submarines. Defense experts have estimated that India has between 50 and 100 nuclear warheads.