India’s ‘Annihilator of Enemies’ Submarine Begins Sea Trials

The Buzz

India’s first indigenous ballistic missile nuclear submarine (SSBN) began its maiden sea trials today, a senior Indian defense official announced.

On Monday, Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar announced that INS Arihant--which roughly translates to “annihilator of enemies”-- pulled out of Visakhapatnam Harbor this morning to begin its long awaited first sea trials. The Hindu described in the scene in unusually poetic language, writing, “INS Arihant, with a helicopter flying over it, emerged from the breakwaters into the Bay of Bengal even as low hanging mist made it difficult to view the submarine. The submarine glided in [the] Bay partially submerged as part of its sea trials. INS Arihant majestically sailed north in the Bay along the coast, partially submerged. After about an hour later it disappeared into the mist.”

In some ways, the event was decades in the making. India first began discussing the potential of nuclear powered submarines back in the 1960s, and officially launched its Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) submarine program in 1984. It wasn’t until 2009 when the ATV program finally bore fruit with the launch of INS Arihant.

Since then, Indian officials have repeatedly promised the vessel would soon begin sea trials, only to be followed by further unexplained delays. In January 2012, for instance, the Times of India cited numerous “top defense ministry sources” in reporting that the sea trials would begin the following month. The same report suggested the Indian Navy could actually commission the vessel as soon as six months after sea trials began.

In July of the following year, Indian media outlets again began reporting that Airhant would begin sea trials shortly. “The nuclear reactor that will power the submarine can be formally declared ‘critical’ anytime now, while the nuclear-tipped missiles to be launched from underwater are in place,” an “informed insider” told reporters. These reports suggested that the Navy was only waiting for the annual monsoon rains to end.

Then, in February of this year, Indian officials again suggested that sea trials would begin within one to two months. At the time, Avinash Chander, chief of India's Defense Research Development Organization (DRDO), which spearheaded the submarine program, confidently predicted that Arihant would be commissioned by the navy sometime next year.

In any case, once it is commissioned, the vessel should provide a significant boost to India’s strategic deterrent. INS Arihant is 6,000-ton ballistic missile submarine powered by an 83 megawatts pressurized light-water reactor. It is modeled off of the Russian Akula-1 class submarines, and its nuclear reactor was built with “significant” Russian assistance, according to local media reports. Its hundred person crew was also trained by Russian specialists.

Although India has operated Russian-made nuclear submarines, these are reportedly not equipped with nuclear-armed missiles due to international treaties prohibiting this. By contrast, Arihant is the lead ship in a class of SSBNs of the same name that will give Delhi a nuclear triad. Delhi is hoping to build 3-4 Arihant-class submarines.

Each submarine will be equipped to carry up to 12 K-15 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), which have a range of 700-750 km. Ultimately, India hopes to equip them with 4 K-4 SLBM, which have ranges of up to 3,500 km. It just began testing K-4 SLBMs this year, however, so it’s unclear when those would become available.

The Times of India reported on Monday that the current sea trials will take at least 18 months, although some Indian officials have suggested much shorter times. We’d hedge our bets on both.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia/Government of India

TopicsmilitarySecurity RegionsSouth Asia

Climate Change and the Meaning of Leadership

Paul Pillar

Much gets said in foreign policy debates in Washington about world leadership, and how the United States should, is, or isn't exerting it. Most often one hears reference to the subject in criticisms of the current administration, to the effect that it is not exercising leadership that it should. The topic especially comes up in connection with the soup of messy issues in the Middle East, amid calls for more use of U.S. military force and allusions to “allies” being unhappy about the United States not doing more to advance causes of particular interest to them.

Consider the key elements of leadership. It has to involve some shared interest or objective, just as leadership exhibited by a key player on a football team is exerted on behalf of the team's shared interest in winning games. It also does not involve the leader doing everything, or even most things, himself. Instead it consists of the leader, by gaining respect through some combination of persuasion and setting a favorable example, getting others to do their necessary part as well.

Now consider the attitudes toward the United States exhibited at the current negotiations on climate change at Lima Peru, as reported by Coral Davenport in the New York Times. An important part of the context, one that has made a huge difference from how the United States was regarded in earlier multilateral negotiations on the climate problem, is that the United States has recently reached a path-breaking agreement with mega-polluter China on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, and the Obama administration has not just talked the talk but also walked the walk with new regulations to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants. A result has been “cheers, applause, thanks and praise” for U.S. negotiators. “The U.S. is now credible on climate change,” says the French ambassador who is his country's lead diplomat on the subject. Says a leading United Nations official with responsibilities on the subject, “Countries got weary of negotiations with the U.S.; it got tough in negotiations, but it didn’t deliver. Now the U.S. has policies in place to deliver on its word.” Delegates praised the personal involvement in the current talks of Secretary of State John Kerry.

This is true leadership in action. There certainly is a shared interest. Keeping the planet habitable is an interest that is as widely shared, and as important, as one can get. The United States is leading both by setting an example in doing its necessary part and through active diplomacy aimed at persuading others to do their parts. That leadership has changed the political and diplomatic climate in a way that, as indicated by the atmosphere at the Lima conference, significantly enhances the chance of meaningful multilateral action to slow the deterioration of the earth's climate and atmosphere.

Back here in Washington, some of those who are quick to criticize the administration in the name of calling for more U.S. leadership are revealing how inconsistent they are by retreating into a small-minded focus on next year's financial returns for coal mines in Kentucky. If such people use their voting power in the next Congress to overturn what the administration has done regarding restrictions on emissions, they will have struck a blow against U.S. leadership.

And on some of those other issues in the messy Middle East, they are not actually talking about true leadership. They are more often referring to matters where there are not shared interests but instead where countries in the region are complaining about things on which their interests differ from those of the United States. Nor are the people in Washington who claim to be talking about the need for more U.S. leadership really talking for the most part about getting others to do their part through the United States using persuasion (which internationally means diplomacy) and setting a positive example. Instead they just want the United States to do something more, especially something more forceful, itself.           

TopicsClimate Change RegionsUnited States

Iranian Drones May Soon Fly Over Mexican Skies?

The Buzz

Iranian drones may soon be flying over Mexican airspace.

At least that’s according to Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the influential chairman of the Foreign Policy and National Security Committee in Iran’s parliament, who recently led a delegation of Iranian lawmakers on a 4-day trip to Mexico. The trip, which reportedly was the first of its kind since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, came at the invitation of Gabriela Cuevas Barrón, head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Mexican Senate, who herself visited Iran on a couple of occasions this year.

The most concrete result of the trip was the signing of a memorandum of understanding promoting stronger economic, cultural and political ties between Iran and Mexico. The two sides also reportedly agreed to expand their cooperation in the oil sector.

Upon returning, however, Boroujerdi also said that Mexican officials had expressed interest in purchasing drones from Iran to use in its war against drug cartels.

“During my recent visit to Mexico they announced that [they] want Iranian drones,” Boroujerdi was quoted as saying by Fars News Agency, a media outlet close to the Revolutionary Guards, according to BBC Monitoring and Trend News Agency, an Azerbaijani-based private news outlet that regularly reports on Farsi-language Iranian news reports.

The English-language Iranian news reports on the visit did not mention drones. A review of some Spanish-language news found some articles referring to drones, but these too cited the Fars News Agency article as their source.  

Without confirmation from Mexico, it’s important to view Boroujerdi’s claim skeptically, especially given that the parliamentarian also said that the “two sides stressed that the Americans have played the biggest role in the creation of Takfiri groups [Sunni extremist terrorist groups like ISIL].”

Still, the claim that some Mexican official-- particularly a potential member of the Senate-- expressed interest in Iranian drones, isn’t as outlandish as it might seem at first. Mexico has long struggled to root out the powerful drug cartels in the country, and drones have become an increasingly integral part of its counternarcotics strategy. In fact, according to some sources, “the Mexican market for drones jumped seven times from 2013 to 2014.”

Mexico’s interest in using drones to fight the drug cartels long predates 2013, however. Long before then Mexico secretly agreed to allow the U.S. to operate unarmed surveillance drones over Mexican airspace to collect intelligence on the cartels, as long as the intelligence was then passed on to Mexican officials. This agreement eventually became public setting off some outrage in Mexico where there are persistent concerns about U.S. violations of its sovereignty.

Although this practice continues, Mexico has also sought to build up its own UAV capabilities in recent years. In 2009, for instance, the Mexican Air Force secretly purchased Israeli-made Hermes 450 surveillance drones to use to spot narcotic smugglers in hard to reach parts of Mexico. Hermes, which are a popular UAV among Latin American countries, have a maximum altitude of 18,000 feet and can loiter for up to 20 hours. Mexican police also operate Israeli-made Skystar 300 surveillance aerostats and small Orbiter UAVs.

Besides Israeli-made drones, there is a nascent indigenous UAV market in Mexico. The Mexican Navy was the first institution in the country to premier a UAV, but others-- including companies like Hydra Technologies and SOS Global-- have done so in more recent years. Still, the capabilities of Mexico’s indigenous drones remain limited.

Bordering on the opium capital of the world, and strategically located to drug consuming markets, Iran-- like Mexico-- has also long struggled with narcotics smuggling.

Unlike Mexico, however, Iran has a fairly robust indigenous drone program. In fact, the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College has noted, “Iran has one of the oldest drone development programs in the world.” Iran’s interest and deployment of UAVs actually dates back to its war with Iraq during the 1980s, but it has become much more pronounced more recently. In April 2013 alone, it rolled out four new drones: the Azem-2, Mohajer B, Hazem 3 and Sarir H110. The next month it unveiled the Hamaseh High Altitude Long Endurance drone. The Shahed 129 UAV Iran first unveiled in 2012 is a larger version of the Hermes 450 (It is widely believed that Iran has stolen UAV technology from Israeli firms on numerous occasions) with an alleged range of 2,000 km and an endurance of 24 hours.

Nor is Iran bashful about sharing its UAVs with other countries. There have been reports that Iran has sold or helped develop drones for numerous other countries and groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Sudan, among others. Of particular note with regards to Mexico, Iran helped Venezuela develop a UAV.

Thus, it’s certainly plausible that some Mexican lawmaker or policymaker expressed interest in purchasing an Iranian UAV. And, Iran would undoubtedly sell Mexico UAVs were the latter interested as this would allow Tehran to relish in the fact that its drones were flying along the Mexican border. That being said, don’t expect Iranian drones to be flying over Mexico anytime soon, at least if Washington has anything to say about it.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

TopicsSecuritymilitaryDiplomacy RegionsAmericasMiddle East

How Iranian Oil Became Irrelevant

The Buzz

The recent OPEC decision not to slash production is a major setback to Iran’s fiscal health. Beset by sanctions, Iran’s most important source of revenue is under attack not by Israeli or American war planners but by market forces. The price of Brent crude, the benchmark, has sunk by 40 percent since June. North American production and Saudi Arabian insistence to maintain current levels of supply has led to a surplus of 1.5 to 2 million barrels a day. While the steep drop in oil prices is a blow to all exporters, the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf have sufficient cash reserves to weather the storm. Iran does not.

Years of war, sanctions, lack of proper investment as well as mismanagement and corruption within the Iranian oil industry—particularly under the stewardship of former President Ahmadinejad—have had the profound and long lasting effect of putting Iran behind other major crude producers.  This is in sharp contrast to where Iran stood in the 1970s when the world looked at her oil exports with envy. At the time the late Shah was dubbed the “Emperor of Oil” by Time magazine as Iran held as much sway within OPEC as the Saudis do today. Iran was the second largest exporter in the cartel and the fourth largest producer in the world. At its peak, before the revolution, Iran was producing 6 million barrels a day.

Iran’s fall as a global player in energy markets has been steep and fast. Today, Iran is the 8th largest net exporter of crude in the world, and it has fallen behind many OPEC countries like Iraq, the UAE and Kuwait. To be sure, those countries have structural advantages that Iran doesn’t. Most significant, a smaller population base that consumes less of the oil they produce. Estimates vary, but of the 3.5 million barrels of oil a day that Iran produces, nearly half is refined and used domestically.

Also hurting Iran are sanctions that have forced traditional European buyers, such as Germany and Italy, to halt all Iranian crude purchases. This was not done all at once but rather over a period of six months whereby the European Union (assisted by United States using its threat of extraterritorial sanctions) managed to get long standing customers of Iran’s crude to purchase less and less oil every month. This strategy allowed other OPEC producers, particularly Saudi Arabia- to make up for the shortfall of Iranian crude that was no longer being purchased.

What made this strategy particularly effective was that it was not sudden, but rather phased in over time.  As a result, crude importers didn’t feel a price shock. With Gulf Arab states producing at or near capacity and new production coming from North American shale oil, downward pressure on crude prices persisted. Consumers never felt the pain of Iran’s crude being replaced.

Iran’s crude exports were marginalized. The math is simple: What’s 1.5 million barrels of crude per day, in a world that’s currently over-supplied by 2 million barrels per day?

Some argue Iran should have withdrawn its crude from the market all at once, so as to shock the global market and cause a rise in crude prices. That argument falls flat for a country whose primary source of income is oil exports. It was telling that the Iranian oil minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, a respected industry veteran, came to the OPEC meeting in Vienna determined to see a production cut, but left stating the Iranian position was “closer” to that of Saudi Arabia. Iran’s leverage to sway other OPEC members to its position was limited, with the collective might of its GCC neighbors (which account for more than half of OPEC’s daily production) unified under the Saudi position.

In the future, Iran could again play a significant role in international oil markets as it holds the fourth largest known crude reserves in the world. However, it can only return to relevance if it is able to fully realize its export potential and ramp up production. This can only happen with a deal on its nuclear dossier that lifts restrictions on its energy sector and allows for foreign investment and the inflow of technology that it lacks. It will also need to make its fiscal regime more attractive for Western companies (the world leader in oil field extraction and services) to justify their return to the Iranian market.

With international exploration and production hit hard by bearish prices and excess production, Iran must play for time until markets stabilize and recover. In the interim, it must do everything it can to break out of its international isolation so its energy sector can recover and become relevant again.

Amir Handjani is an Energy Expert and Managing Director of Pt Capital an Arctic Resource Asset Manager. He may be followed at @ahandjani.

Image: Wikimedia/CC by SA-3.0

TopicsEnergyOil RegionsMiddle East

The Reason for North Korea's Big Diplomatic Blitz: China?

The Buzz

Over the past few months North Korea has undertaken a large diplomatic effort. It has reached out to traditional opponents like the United States, Japan and South Korea. Contemporaneously, it has pursued a warmer relationship with Russia. But one nation has been missing from that charm offensive: China.

The border between China and North Korea is the focus of a significant amount of investment activity. But when one looks more closely at that investment, a pattern begins to emerge: Chinese spending along the border isn’t replicated within North Korea.

Emblematic of that spending—and perhaps also of the wider relationship—is the new bridge over the Yalu River at Dandong. The bridge itself is no small feat of engineering as it spans nearly 1.5 kilometres. Complementing the bridge, is a new high-speed-rail link to Dandong, from Shenyang, intended to feed into the new Yalu River crossing point. On the North Korean side of the bridge, there’s nothing but dirt.

The port in Rason in northeastern North Korea has also been developed as part of a trilateral effort on the part of North Korea, Russia and China. The port, for its size, is remarkably empty. A seaside hotel, which dwarfs the surrounding infrastructure, sits vacant at the end of a dirt road.

The size of the investment is obvious but the results are not so easy to identify. For all of its spending, Beijing has not been able to convert the effort into stronger diplomatic relations. The North, for its part, is clearly baulking at the possibility of being so heavily dependent upon China. As a result it’s reaching out in an apparent effort to diversify the sources of its relationships.

Pyongyang has reached out to South Korea and Russia. In October, a senior North Korean delegation made an unannounced visit to Incheon for the closing ceremony of the 17th Asian Games. And after receiving a high-level mission from Pyongyang, Putin seems receptive to developing the relationship further—he’s written off significant debt from the Soviet era and pledged another billion in infrastructure investment.

Russia already has a presence on the ground in North Korea’s Special Economic Zones (SEZ) but it’s dwarfed by China’s. During my visit to the Rason Trade Show in August 2013, there were a dozen Chinese companies operating stalls for every Russian or South Korean one. Still, it would seem logical for Pyongyang to seek an expansion of that investment if its intent is to reduce its dependence on Beijing.

North Korea has also reached out to Japan. Relations between the two states face inherent difficulties due to the large part history plays on both sides. For the Japanese, the issue relates to the North’s nuclear program and its abduction of Japanese citizens. On the other hand, Japan plays a large role in the historical narrative of Pyongyang’s propaganda. Pyongyang has signalled a willingness to compromise on the issue of abductions and it seems possible that could be the basis for developing a more stable relationship between the two.

Finally, although the position of the United States towards North Korea has not markedly altered, Pyongyang has signalled that it’s open to improving their relations. A major stumbling block to any future relations was the imprisonment of two US citizens. Prior to their release, the North Koreans signaled to the Americans that they would be interested in welcoming a cabinet-level official to their country to facilitate the prisoners’ release.

A wary US sent James Clapper—a cabinet-level official, but not a member of cabinet or a diplomat—to Pyongyang to retrieve the two citizens. Interestingly, the North Koreans were puzzled when, upon Clapper’s arrival the US was not prepared to resume more high-level talks.

Taken together, this recent bout of activity paints a picture of a North Korea clearly operating from a different diplomatic playbook to the confrontational one it had been using for the previous two years. It doesn’t follow, however, that the North Korean leadership has altered its underlying strategic aims. All of those negotiations have essentially pursued a similar objective—that of diversifying relations and reducing the North’s diplomatic reliance on China.

Those actions are neither unique to the region nor unprecedented for Pyongyang. During the Cold War North Korea relied upon the support of the Soviet Union and since that time it has played a successful game wherein it seeks the support of outside powers to leverage its position for a maximum advantage and independence. To that end it has—at various times—embraced the South (during the days of the ‘Sunshine Policy’), China, Japan and the US.

For the Kim dynasty, exploiting the North’s weak position for maximum gain has long been a hallmark of their foreign policy. As such, although the means of pursuing survival have altered, for the time being, Pyongyang has not shifted internally. The rise of China may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle but the Kim dynasty is deploying its traditional means of resisting interference in order to maximise its own freedom of action.

Robert Potter is currently assisting with research at the Kennedy School. Previously he was a visiting scholar at Columbia and a student at Cornell. He took part in a research  program in North Korea and China in 2013. This piece was first posted on ASPI’s the Strategist here.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth Korea