Hot Takes: Pakistan’s Test of Babur-3

Pakistan’s Babur-3: Quest for Nuclear Triad

By: Saima Sial

Last week, Pakistan successfully test-fired an indigenously-developed submarine launched cruise missile called Babur-3, with a range of 450 km, providing Pakistan, which thus far relied only on land/air-based nuclear capabilities, a credible second-strike capability. Although the platform on which the system would be deployed hasn’t been publicly announced, conjecture is it would most likely be the Agosta-90 B diesel electric submarines in Pakistan’s naval fleet. The submarines, though conventional, have greater undersea endurance owing to their Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) technology. For Pakistan’s undersea deterrent to be operational, it would require the submarine’s tube, currently designed for Exocet SM39 anti-ship missiles, to be retrofitted for Babur-3. Having already demonstrated its capability to miniaturize nuclear warheads, by testing the Nasr missile, the Babur cruise missile system reliably serves the purpose of completing Pakistan’s nuclear triad.

This nuclear deterrent at sea, patterned along the likes of Israel’s Dolphin class diesel-electric submarine, is not a complete surprise as Pakistan had already established the headquarters of the Naval Strategic Forces Command (NSFC) in May 2012. Owing to its lower acoustic signature, improved battery performance and longer submersion times, the Agosta submarine would have great deterrence value for Pakistan. Armed with Babur, the submarine would be able to target critical counter-value and other strategic targets along India’s coastline as well as make the deployment of an Indian aircraft carrier hazardous.

After India launched its first nuclear-powered submarine Arihant, armed with ballistic missiles, back in 2009, Pakistan’s apprehensions of a possible disarming first strike by India increased, owing to its distrust in India’s declared no-first-use (NFU) doctrine. Policy makers in Pakistan advocated that a ready arsenal aboard nuclear submarines armed with canisterized missiles and aided with ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability would encourage a pre-emptive strike tendency in India and “impact the delicate strategic balance of the region.” Therefore, Pakistan believes that the development of Babur will restore the nuclear balance in the Arabian Sea. This development needs to be seen strictly in the regional context, not the broader context of the Indian Ocean.

With the fruition of the recent deal with China to purchase eight attack submarines, (first four stated to be delivered by 2023), Pakistan would have a fully operational ‘sea-based, nuclear, second-strike triad.’ Not only would this development add another dimension to Pakistan’s maritime deterrence, it would also affect the freedom of Indian naval deterrent operations. History has been witness that in times of war, India has kept its aircraft carrier in bay with significant forces assigned for its defense. Pakistan’s recently-acquired capability would further complicate Indian naval deployment of the aircraft carrier.

Furthermore, the nuclearization of the Indian Ocean highlights the challenges of command and control (C2) as well as communication, which are equally applicable to both India and Pakistan. To mitigate these challenges, Pakistan has reportedly established a very low frequency (VLF) submarine communication facility in November last year, to facilitate secure communication with its submarine force. Needless to say, problems of C2 structure have troubled all nuclear powers that have established the naval leg of the nuclear triad.

The Indian nuclear submarine, armed with K-15 Sagarika submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), is a deterrent currently poised against Pakistan. Hence, a naval nuclear deterrent force, though limited, would still add to enhancing the stability of the deterrence equation between India and Pakistan. Babur-3 is the first step in moving towards developing a nuclear triad by Pakistan. In the long run, Pakistan may well move in the direction of acquiring an assured second-strike capability.


Pakistan’s Babur-3: Impact on the Subcontinent

By: Aditi Malhotra

Pakistan’s test of the Babur-3 missile, its first submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM), comes at the heels of escalated border tensions between India and Pakistan. It was preceded by the successful test of India’s nuclear-capable ballistic missile, Agni-V, at the end of December. As stated in a press release by Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Babur-3 has a range of 450 km, is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, and provides Pakistan with a “credible second-strike capability, augmenting deterrence.” Given the trajectory of Pakistan’s naval-related developments and the narrative surrounding Pakistan’s pursuit of a nuclear deterrent at sea, Indian analysts had predicted this eventuality. The Babur-3 missile will most likely be integrated with Pakistan Navy’s Agosta 90B class (Khalid class) submarines, yet it is likely to undergo more rounds of tests before it finally becomes operational. Once operationalized, the missile will offer Pakistan a sea-based second-strike capability vis-à-vis India.

Pakistan’s Rationale

The rationale behind this quest for a sea-based nuclear deterrent lies in Pakistan’s growing insecurity about India’s naval conventional superiority. Pakistani leadership has periodically acknowledged this naval superiority and its own weaknesses, if India were to flex its naval muscle in a conflict. Therefore, given Pakistan’s limited resources and insufficient maritime capabilities, a sea-based deterrent is viewed as an effective option. Just as Pakistan’s Hatf-IX (Nasr) missile is the Pakistan Army’s nuclear response to the Indian Army’s conventional superiority, the Babur-3 is meant to counter India’s advantage in the maritime domain. The Pakistan military believes that a sea-based deterrent would allow it to dominate all levels of conflict with India and provide much-desired strategic depth in the subcontinent.

Growing Relevance of the Pakistan Navy in the Nuclear Arrangement

Babur-3 aligns with Pakistan’s search for flexible responses to India. For a long time, Pakistan’s nuclear thinking was overwhelmingly focused on its land forces. The development of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) in response to India’s Cold Start Doctrine and conventional superiority underscores this emphasis. The development and eventual integration of Babur-3 into Pakistan’s arsenal will enhance the importance of the Pakistan Navy in the nuclear arrangement. Once operational, Pakistan’s sea-based second strike capability will provide a greater mandate to the Pakistan Navy, which has traditionally played a limited role in the country’s nuclear journey.

Challenges of Command and Control

With the induction of a sea-based deterrent, issues with communications and command and control arise. Although Pakistan’s Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) includes elements of the naval leadership, the command chain is largely dominated by the Pakistan Army. The induction of a naval variant to its strategic nuclear weapons program means Pakistan will need to figure out how to adapt its command and control and communication structures to the sea. The greatest challenge for Pakistan will be managing its command and control arrangement with such a varied nuclear force, which ranges from strategic (land and sea-based) to tactical nuclear weapons.

Conclusion

The Babur-3 missile test is indicative of Pakistan’s pursuit of a sea-based deterrent to compensate for conventional naval weaknesses vis-à-vis India. With the possible induction of Babur-3 into the Khalid class submarines in the future, the Pakistan Navy will play a greater role in the country’s nuclear arrangement. However, induction would also introduce command and control and communications issues, which present a new challenge that Pakistan will need to overcome.

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Image: Pakistan Army

Posted in , BMD, Deterrence, India, Maritime, Missiles, Nuclear, Pakistan, Security

Aditi Malhotra

Aditi Malhotra

Aditi Malhotra is a PhD Candidate at the Graduate School of Politics (GraSP), University of Münster, Germany. Her areas of interest include security issues in Indo-Pacific region, nuclear proliferation and nuclear security. Follow her on Twitter @aditi_malhotra_

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Saima Aman Sial

Saima Aman Sial

Saima Aman Sial is a Senior Research Officer and expert in strategic issues at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad. She is a Nonproliferation Fellow from Nuclear Nonproliferation Education and Research Center (NEREC) South Korea, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Sandia National Laboratories, USA. She has previously worked as Research Coordinator in the Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies, Senior Research Associate in Strategic Technology Resources and with Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division as an Assistant Director – Research in its Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs Directorate for some years. Currently, she is pursuing her M.Phil. in Strategic Studies from the National Defence University. She was an SAV Visiting Fellow in January 2017.

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2 thoughts on “Hot Takes: Pakistan’s Test of Babur-3

  1. This is great achievement by Pakistan considering the limited resources. At least saving national exchequer by doing some productive work rather than wasting energy on building defense societies.

  2. Aditi and Saima:
    This is an important topic; thanks for tackling it on SAV.
    I admit to being skeptical about the “secure second strike” rationale for a nuclear-armed SLCM.
    The protectors of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent, the SPD, is a highly professional organization. I would expect them to make it hard for India to find and target medium-range (or longer) mobile missiles in the event of a crisis. These missiles — or some portion of them — won’t be sitting ducks. Thus, Pakistan’s land-based missiles could serve as a secure second strike in the unlikely (in my view) event of a pre-emptive attack by India’s nuclear forces.
    I don’t deny that Pakistan’s sea-based deterrent could add to retaliatory capabilities, but I suspect there are other reasons for this step.
    Best wishes,
    MK
    ps: Saima: welcome to DC!

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