In an attempt to gain strategic superiority, major powers have sent nuclear submarines into the Indian Ocean for years. Recently, the Indian Ocean has witnessed a new wave of nuclearization, initiated by India, furthering instability in the region as it becomes a battleground for geopolitical contest through military competition among littoral states. As this phenomenon attracts global attention, contemporary discourse largely focuses on the risks of Pakistan’s sea-based nuclear deterrent while disregarding India’s initial decision to develop and deploy nuclear weapons at sea, which arguably triggered this nuclear rivalry in the maritime domain. New Delhi’s nuclear submarine program is perceived as a means to ensure credible undersea deterrence against China, while its implications for the stability of deterrence between Pakistan and India are often overlooked. Given the already fragile nature of deterrence in South Asia, it is important to assess how India’s naval nuclearization further aggravates crisis stability in the region, particularly with regards to Pakistan.
India’s Naval Nuclear Developments
India’s quest to nuclearize its navy dates back to 1985, when it started developing a prototype 90-MW nuclear reactor. In 1988, India leased a Charlie-class nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) from the Soviet Union. Based off of this design, India was able to establish its Advanced Technology Vehicle Program in 1984, which eventually produced India’s first domestically-produced nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), the INS Arihant. According to Iskander Rehman, a prominent scholar of South Asia’s naval nuclear dynamics, India’s justification for its naval nuclearization has been its need for an assured second-strike capability through sea-based deterrence.
India plans to create a fleet of SSBNs in the next few years…This may instigate an arms race in the region, as Pakistan would seek to counter-balance such destabilizing developments.
The INS Arihant can be fitted with up to twelve K-15 Sagarika (750 km range) submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). India has developed K-4 SLBMs (3,500 km range) for the upcoming fleet of five to six SSBNs and plans to produce K-5 and K-6 SLBMs, with longer ranges and Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) capabilities. India has also been developing a sea-variant of its Nirbhay cruise missile (1,000km). Further, the induction of Dhanush missile (350 km) signals New Delhi’s intentions of deploying nuclear missiles aboard surface vessels.
India plans to create a fleet of SSBNs in the next few years, which will require increased production of warheads for its SLBMs and submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs). This may instigate an arms race in the region, as Pakistan would seek to counter-balance such destabilizing developments. This may also raise questions regarding New Delhi’s claims of exercising nuclear minimalism.
Implications on Proliferation
As India develops its delivery systems at a fast pace and progress towards a sea-based nuclear deterrent continues, it becomes clear that India may need to produce dozens of new nuclear warheads to arm its submarines in the future. This will necessitate a increase in fissile material production capacity: in order to develop a large triad of nuclear forces, India would need a vast stockpile of fissile material and sustained production at a fast pace. This is likely why India keeps its entire stock of weapons-usable reactor grade plutonium, and eight of its nuclear reactors, outside of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. This, in addition to fueling needs, is also why India is planning to expand its enrichment capabilities in order to produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) in excess of its naval propulsion requirements, and may even explain why it is reluctant to declare a bilateral moratorium on nuclear testing with Pakistan. Furthermore, scholars have noted that “whatever portion of India’s HEU stocks that is not already weapons-grade can be further enriched further to weapons-grade levels in a very short time.”
Along with its forthcoming fleet of SSBNs, India plans to domestically produce six SSNs and a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Unlike Chinese or French nuclear submarines, India is among those states which use HEU of about 40-60 percent enrichment to propel their naval nuclear reactors. Despite growing international concern regarding the dangers of HEU stockpiles – as HEU can quickly be converted for nuclear weapons-use – India already uses HEU for nuclear naval propulsion. Its plans for expansion of its naval nuclear fleet therefore significantly diminish the prospects of minimizing HEU use and pose larger security and proliferation concerns.
The timeline and the diverse range of India’s naval nuclear developments suggest that Pakistan’s decision to pursue a sea-based second-strike capability is a consequence rather than a cause of instability. Despite the proposal of establishing the Indian Ocean as a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone—a move supported by various regional states like Sri Lanka—India has instigated nuclear rivalry in the maritime domain through its actions in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi’s decision to move towards naval nuclearization had the potential to alter the strategic balance in its favor, compelling Pakistan to follow suit to rebalance deterrence stability. Pakistani officials referenced its Naval Strategic Force Command—that was established in 2012—as early as 2004, but this was almost two decades after India embarked on this path.
Communication between the command center and submarines operating at greater depths can be critical, thus, the deployment of nuclear weapons aboard submarines may pose challenges for ‘civilian supremacy’ over nuclear assets.
As the nuclear undersea competition among India, Pakistan, and China in the Indian Ocean intensifies, there will be increasing challenges to regional security. Due to geographical contiguity of Pakistan and India and the latter’s aspirations to expand its reach to the Strait of Hormuz, there is a higher likelihood of frequent interactions between Indian and Pakistani naval platforms. In a crisis situation, any possible confrontation – like the collision between INS Godavari and PNS Babur – may trigger the conflict. Moreover, difficulty in ascertaining the intentions and capabilities of maritime aircraft or a ship operating at close range could also heighten chances of escalation. This is furthered by India’s decision to conduct test firings of Dhanush-class short-range ballistic missile from offshore patrol vessels. If India intends to deploy these missiles aboard conventional vessels as some have speculated, the commingling of strategic and conventional assets risks endangering deterrence stability.
Another danger of crisis lies in the lack of communication between rival navies. A crisis scenario in which India may deploy its SSBNs closer to Pakistan’s coast—to target with K-15 missiles—could be dangerously escalatory. Pakistan’s anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations, involving capabilities like ATR-72 aircraft, could place junior Indian submarine commanders in a “use-it or lose-it dilemma,” increasing their propensity to strike first. It is important to note that these developments are taking place against the worrisome backdrop surrounding the possible erosion of India’s No First Use nuclear doctrine, raising questions regarding India’s command and control structure.
India does not currently possess completely reliable communication systems with its own navy, as pointed out by Indian Navy Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar. Communication between the command center and submarines operating at greater depths can be critical, thus, the deployment of nuclear weapons aboard submarines may pose challenges to “civilian supremacy” over nuclear assets. Once the SSBN fleet becomes operational, the navy could acquire greater operational control over nuclear forces in order to bolster the credibility of its sea-based deterrent, thereby making it more difficult for central military command to ensure assertive command and control, especially during crises.
Reducing the Risks of Crisis Escalation
As the two archrivals in South Asia have begun developing the sea-leg of their nuclear deterrent, norms that encourage responsible behavior at sea and reduce the risk of unintended escalation should be developed.
To conclude, India’s naval nuclearization of the Indian Ocean has affected strategic stability with Pakistan. Traditionally, it is believed that the second-strike capability strengthens deterrence stability between the two nuclear rivals. However, this element complements stability only if both adversaries possess second-strike capability and robust institutions to actualize that capability. If either of the states under question lacks any of these aspects, it results in strategic imbalance that ultimately undermines deterrence stability. The South Asian nuclear imbalance should be seen in this regard where Pakistan’s pursuit of sea-based nuclear deterrent is a reaction to India’s naval nuclearization. Further, the likelihood of an ambitious or irresponsible use of sea-based nuclear assets directly challenges crisis stability in South Asia. Since the chances of collateral damage are minimal in naval warfare, the maritime domain offers an ideal setting for aggressive powers to carry out proactive operations. As the two archrivals in South Asia have begun developing the sea-leg of their nuclear deterrent, norms that encourage responsible behavior at sea and reduce the risk of unintended escalation should be developed. A confidence building measure related to the Prevention of Incidents at Sea, as already agreed upon by Pakistan and India in the Lahore Declaration, should be considered to strengthen crisis stability.
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