Point, Counter-Point: Sea-based deterrence

Earlier in this series:

Troublesome Trajectories for Minimalist Strategy



In the next decade, South Asia will emerge as a theatre of sea-based nuclear-weapon deterrence platforms – with India preparing for sea-trials of its first nuclear ballistic missile submarine, and Pakistan eyeing a sea-based missile capability and expanding its interest in tactical nuclear warheads. India’s first SSBN, the 6,000 tonne INS Arihant, is expected to go for extensive “sea-acceptance trials” as soon as its miniature 83 mw pressurized light-water reactor, that attained “criticality” in August 2013, reaches “full power” in a few weeks. The homegrown SSBN will be equipped to carry twelve K-15 (750-km) or four K-4 (3,500-km) ballistic missiles. The launch of the second SSBN, INS Aridaman, is also being accelerated. It will be armed with the 750 km K-15 and later mated with the 3,500 km K-4 SLBMs.  Presently the hull and basic structure of the INS Aridaman is under construction. India is building three more nuclear-powered submarines at Visakhapatnam as part of its programme to boost its second strike capability.

Pakistan has also been working on its sea-based deterrent for some time. In May 2012, Pakistan inaugurated the Headquarters of the Naval Strategic Force Command (NSFC), which is the custodian of the nation’s second-strike capability. The NSFC announced that that the Force will perform a pivotal role in strengthening Pakistan’s policy of Credible Minimum Deterrence and ensure regional stability. Pakistan seeks to achieve its sea-based deterrent by equipping its surface vessels and diesel electric-powered submarines with short-range capable missiles. These missiles can carry tactical nuclear warheads that are relatively smaller and hence easier to transport.

Have the two South Asian nuclear weapon nations – despite being on the same page with advancing sea-based nuclear deterrent capabilities – been successful in assuring regional stability? It can be argued that nuclear-capable India and Pakistan have a distinct doctrinal difference on the no-first-use (NFU) policy. Being an advocate of NFU policy, India can argue that its minimum nuclear deterrent capability needs to be assured of credibility. Hence, India’s minimum nuclear deterrent capability must be bolstered with an assured second-strike capability in terms of land, air and sea-based nuclear forces. Alternatively, Pakistan’s nuclear strategy is oriented towards maintaining “full spectrum deterrence against all forms of aggression.” Pakistan believes sea-based nuclear missile firing capability from naval vessels would provide Pakistan with an assured “second-strike” capability in the event of all its land-based nuclear weapons are obliterated in a potential nuclear exchange.

With both India and Pakistan steadily advancing towards sea-based deterrence capability, achieving second-strike capability for both nuclear capable powers may no longer remain an uncertain possibility. But what remains certain is that this equalizer cannot ensure peace and stability in the region.

In the second nuclear age, second-strike capability cannot be assured merely by sea-based nuclear weapons capability. For effecting strategic depth, second-strike capability has to be invigorated with nuclear-capable cruise and ballistic missiles, cannisterised systems that can launch from anywhere at anytime, anti-submarine warfare capabilities, force posture, communication and a ready arsenal. There are several complications embedded within such a ready posture.

These force postures – far from effecting regional stability – might risk an arms race, trigger escalation between India and Pakistan, and heighten the risks of a potential nuclear exchange. Complicated sea-based nuclear weapons capability raises the vulnerability of command and control. Delegation of control of nuclear weapons to the tactical level severely destabilizes the balance in the region. Moreover, since a sea-based deterrent is based upon a ready posture and not a disassembled state, there remains the possibility of missiles remaining mated to the delivery systems during a patrol. It can be further possible that the vessel remains far from the mainland and disconnected from command and control centres. This can severely affect the stability of the region especially in the event of any miscommunication of accidental launch.

India’s nuclear weapons have a symbolic value that is primarily political. There is sufficient display of restraint in its nuclear force posture. Contrarily, deployment of nuclear-armed sea-based ballistic missiles premised upon a first-use posture (as in the case of Pakistan) can increase the strategic vulnerability of India. This trend will negatively impact upon the stability in the region.

India and Pakistan’s aspirations for sea-based nuclear deterrence constitute a serious setback to the prospect of minimizing the use of HEU. The international community has drawn attention to the potential dangers of expansion of HEU stockpiles in the recent Nuclear Security Summits. Expansion of HEU stocks for naval propulsion opens up pathways for terrorists to access it through potential loopholes. Being a region which is already politically volatile, there remain substantial concerns about nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorists.

Sea-based deterrence capability also holds the potential of encouraging horizontal proliferation in South Asia. Both China and Pakistan know that it would be extremely difficult for Islamabad to develop SSBN capabilities indigenously. Given the all-weather friend, there might always remain the possibility of China assisting Pakistan in developing its sea-based nuclear capabilities. There is already a reigning belief that the Indo-US nuclear deal will free up domestic HEU for India’s naval deterrence. Irrespective of the latter view being subject to challenge, there remains the risk of horizontal proliferation and strategic instability in the region.

Despite the complications, one has to be realistic on the debated issue. Neither India nor Pakistan will refrain from relinquishing their desire sea-based nuclear deterrence capabilities. So what is the middle path? As responsible nations, India and Pakistan must display adequate and appropriate strategic restraint and might pursue their objective for purposes of security, technology demonstration, bureaucratic norms and national prestige.  There must be no posturing at any crisis moment through the sea-based nuclear deterrence capability because any such noise will severely destabilize strategic stability in the region.


Image: Bernard Spragg, Flickr

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