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India seeks nuclear submarine from Russia

By BRAHMA CHELLANEY

NEW DELHI, India -- The Indian defense minister will express interest in buying a nuclear-powered attack submarine when he meets Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow next week, an Indian official said Friday.

Defense Minister Sharad Pawar was scheduled to leave for Moscow Sunday to discuss the disruption in supply of Russian components to India's military production complex, which manufactures Soviet-model weapon systems under license.

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The disruption in military supplies has seriously affected India's defense industries, forcing some to cut back on production.

Pawar also will carry an arms shopping list that will include a sophisticated nuclear-powered submarine, submarine-launched missiles, electronic warfare equipment and the latest version of the MiG-29 -- one of the world's most advanced fighter-jets -- said the official, who asked not to be identified.

India in 1988 leased a nuclear-propelled submarine for three years from the old Soviet Union for training purposes with the plan that by the time the contract expired it would have built its own submarine.

The Indian nuclear submarine program, however, is running several years behind schedule, according to nuclear officials.

The Indians faced serious technical problems with the vintage Charlie I-class Soviet submarine and were glad to get rid of it at the end of the lease, according to Defense Ministry officials. The problems were said to have been connected with the submarine's reactor, and one Indian crewman died in mysterious circumstances.

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The official said India now was interested in buying an advanced nuclear submarine model, but gave no further details.

Analysts say a nuclear-propelled attack submarine, known as an SSN, is much better than a conventional diesel-electric attack submarine in speed, maneuverability and survivability -- qualities that have made the SSN attractive to countries with long coastlines such as India, Brazil and Argentina.

The 1982 Falklands war testified to the might of an SSN, armed with conventional torpedoes, in modern warfare. All U.S. submarines now are propelled by nuclear power.

India was a major client of the Soviet defense industry, and Yeltsin recently offered Russian technical collaboration in setting up factories in India for manufacture of military components.

A Western diplomat, who asked not to be named, said it appeared doubtful that at a time when Moscow needs Western credit assistance, Yeltsin could risk angering the United States by selling a nuclear- powered submarine to India.

The United States had strongly protested to Moscow over the 1988 submarine lease to India, saying it undermined the international nonproliferation regime.

India, a major opponent of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, demonstrated its nuclear-weapons capability in 1974 by detonating an atomic device in the northwestern Thar desert.

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It says it has no nuclear weapons and plans to arm indigenously built nuclear-propelled submarines with conventional torpedoes.

During his tour of Russia, Pawar is scheduled to view some of Russia's advanced SSNs at the headquarters of the northern submarine fleet in Murmansk along the Barents Sea.

Russia's crisis-plagued military industry is eager to sell weapons for hard cash.

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