In a 2014 article titled “To Sea or Not to Sea: A Nuclear Triad in South Asia,” I had argued that nuclear weapons at sea would help strengthen deterrence stability in South Asia–quoting Professor Mario Carranza, the article highlighted that acquiring a second strike capability would ensure “stability of the balance of terror.” In light of recent developments in the Indian Ocean region, it is important to revisit the article to examine whether sea-based nuclear weapons have actually helped stabilize deterrence in South Asia.
Both countries are moving towards acquiring an at-sea nuclear deterrent. India’s first indigenous nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) the Arihant, the first of an expected five SSBNs in the fleet, was secretly commissioned in late 2016 though its induction is not officially acknowledged. In November 2017, India conducted sea trials of its second nuclear submarine. Likewise, Pakistan’s successful test of its nuclear capable submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) Babur III in 2017 and 2018 also confirmed speculations that the country was working towards achieving a nuclear triad. Contrary to my previous assertion that weapons at sea would help stabilize deterrence, the emergence of a nuclear triad has complicated the nature of arms competition and crisis stability in South Asia.
Strategic Stability and Sea-based Deterrence
In my 2014 article, I had highlighted that both India and Pakistan would benefit from revisiting their respective nuclear doctrines, especially by defining the concept of “credible minimum deterrence.” It can be argued that for India, credible minimum deterrence was never a static concept and was instead based on the evolving capabilities of its adversaries. For example, a 2001 report by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency had predicted that if India’s nuclear strategy and forces evolve as per the criteria envisaged by its National Security Advisory Board, it “would not constitute a ‘minimum deterrence’ posture, as that term is generally understood.” The report also warned that given the China factor in India’s threat assessment its “rhetorical commitment” to minimum deterrence would be “no more than a pacifier for the international community.” India’s threat perceptions vis-à-vis China ultimately led to its 2017 Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces, which called for the need to maintain “credible deterrence” instead of “credible minimum deterrence” proposed by India’s draft nuclear doctrine.
The notion of credible deterrence has led to calls for India to keep its nuclear development open-ended to enable it to deal effectively with emerging threats. Such changes in India’s policy prompted a similar change in Pakistan whereby its policy of Full Spectrum Deterrence (FSD) now guides the development of its nuclear capability. Approved in 2013, Pakistan’s FSD vis-a-vis India had remained incomplete in the absence of a sea-based deterrent. Given the threat of India completing its nuclear triad, many in Pakistan believe that FSD “remains unsustainable so long as the sea-based reserve is also not available.” India’s at-sea deterrent compelled Pakistan to not only pursue its own triad, but also improve its conventional naval capabilities. The emergence of ambiguous concepts of deterrence alongside a worsening nuclear and conventional arms competition after the emergence of sea-based nuclear weapons therefore places deterrence stability at a precarious point in South Asia.
Even as deterrence in South Asia becomes increasingly unstable, there remain various other factors that beset India and Pakistan’s quest for a nuclear triad. For instance, a nuclear triad would create several issues related to communication as well as command and control for both countries. Submarines generally have one-way communication to ensure their location remains secret. In such an environment, both countries would have to deal with the “always-never dilemma,” i.e. the challenge of ensuring that an authorized launch is possible at all times while also ensuring against an unauthorized launch. For a command and control system to work effectively, predelegation of launch authority will be necessary, which could potentially lead to the misuse of nuclear weapons. Constant communication remains undesirable for submarines because they become more susceptible to being detected, but absent such communication, the assurance of continuous civilian supremacy over the at-sea nuclear deterrent remains questionable. For these reasons, both India and Pakistan have come under question about the nature of their respective nuclear command and control structures at sea. For example, a fall 2017 Washington Quarterly article by Christopher Clary and Ankit Panda questions the efficacy of Pakistan’s triad on this basis.
Another concern is the vulnerability of nuclear weapons at sea to theft, sabotage, and accidents, thereby increasing the existing threat of nuclear terrorism. I had identified coordinated efforts by employing surface, air, and subsurface forces, as well as a suitable command structure in both India and Pakistan to ensure the protection of naval vessels both on and offshore. However, recent incidents like the one involving Arihant in 2017, the Sagar Bhushan in 2018, and several others before them reinforce the argument that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to ensure the safety and security of nuclear weapons at sea. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the threat of non-state actors will subside with the addition of sea-based nuclear weapons, and both countries remain unable to eliminate that threat. Costs associated with modernizing and expanding submarine systems are an added economic burden that neither country has the ability nor demonstrated desire to deal with.
A third element that the previous article missed is the China factor in the nuclearization of the Indian Ocean region. India believes that its SSBN fleet could help bolster its conventional naval deterrence vis-à-vis Beijing, while its undersea deterrent is widely perceived to be intended to deter China. From the Pakistani perspective, however, India’s military remains poised towards Pakistan. On the naval front for example, the K-15 Sagarika submarine-launched ballistic missile has a range of 750 kilometers and is Pakistan-specific. For Pakistan, a second-strike capability is important given the country’s lack of strategic depth. These triangular dynamics involving India, Pakistan, and China complicate both deterrence stability and arms competition.
Finally, though overlooked in the previous article, another factor to consider is how the presence of a sea-based deterrent has led to a blurring of conventional and nuclear forces, thus influencing the threat perceptions of China, India, and Pakistan. The interaction between conventional naval capabilities and strategic systems at sea complicates crisis stability, as anti-submarine or anti-ship warfare in this context can be likened to counterforce capabilities. A crisis scenario involving nuclear-armed naval forces could create a potential confusion in terms of interpretation. For example, there is an Indian tendency to view all Chinese naval movements, whether nuclear-armed or conventional vessels, as part of a creeping monolithic advance. It is also widely believed in India that the country’s SSBN fleet could have significance for conventional naval deterrence.
Similarly, there have been suggestions in Pakistan that it should enhance its naval capabilities to offset India’s conventional naval advantage in the Indian Ocean. According to analyst Iskander Rehman, Pakistani commanders have discussed the possibility of placing nuclear-tipped cruise missiles aboard conventional submarines in order to emulate “Israel’s alleged decision to place nuclear-tipped cruise missiles aboard conventional submarines.” For strategic stability to endure in such a situation, it is important that both countries develop operational concepts and build robust command and control processes.
Avoiding Deterrence Instability
Pakistan and India are equally vulnerable to the dangers of nuclear weapons in the Indian Ocean. In the absence of a bilateral mechanism between the two navies, minor naval incidents could easily spiral out of control. Given the geographical contiguity between the two countries, frequent interactions between naval platforms are imminent. In such a scenario, the difficulty in ascertaining the intentions and capabilities of maritime vessels, especially those operating at close ranges, would undoubtedly increase the chances of escalation. Decisionmakers in both countries could benefit by evolving bilateral mechanisms to control incidents at sea. Ultimately, the vulnerability of a sea-based deterrent or ineffective command and control mechanisms may well lead to deterrence instability in South Asia.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a retrospective series that SAV is running to commemorate its fifth anniversary this September. In this series, contributors will revisit old analysis and debates on strategic issues that are still relevant today, and assess whether their argument still holds in light of recent developments in the region.
Image 2: Pakistan Army