Point, Counter-Point: Sea-based deterrence

Earlier in this series:

Troublesome Trajectories for Minimalist Strategy


Sea-based nuclear deterrent – a strategic stabilizer?

“Diversification is advantageous for defensive reasons. Lacking experience with nuclear conflict, nations cannot know which weapons will prove most effective or most vulnerable on the battlefield. Emphasizing a particular nuclear platform increases the risk that nuclear forces will become vulnerable to enemy counterforce targeting or other measures or even to unforeseen or accidental logistical or maintenance problems. This is one of the fundamental justifications for the nuclear triad.”    

Gartzke, Kaplow, and Mehta

In the words of Professor Mario E. Carranza, “To reproduce US-Soviet nuclear relations, India and Pakistan would have to produce, even if in miniature, a nuclear triad (nuclear forces simultaneously deployed on land, at sea and in the air) that would provide them with truly second strike capabilities making real the notion of mutually assured destruction (MAD) and the stability of the balance of terror.” This quote aptly describes the implications of the notion of a nuclear triad in South Asia and how it is likely to affect deterrence stability.

Nuclear pessimists, however, remain skeptical of the ability of nuclear weapons at sea to act as a stabilizer, especially in the South Asian context. They argue that both India and Pakistan have a tendency to oversimplify things in their efforts to liken the South Asian case to the US-USSR relationship during the Cold War. In their opinion, “the implications of new sea-based nuclear weapons for deterrence, stability or instability will not be determined by those weapon systems alone.” Other capabilities comprising ballistic missile defences, anti-submarine warfare and technologically advanced missile systems could make the situation murky. Strategic doctrines, “the professionalism of personnel,” perceptions and communication of and between the two states also have the potential to influence this scenario.

For deterrence to be effective, it is necessary that each side realize that nuclear forces of its adversary will survive an attack and be able to deliver a successful retaliatory strike. According to experts, “offsetting nuclear capabilities and secure, second-strike capabilities would induce special caution, providing the basis for war prevention and escalation control.” Sea-based fleets provide stability because of their relative invulnerability to surprise attack thus providing a secure second strike capability. A sea-based deterrent seeks to strengthen deterrence. Paradoxically, it also provides an alternative framework if deterrence fails.

India envisaged a nuclear triad in its draft nuclear doctrine of 1999 as it deemed submarine forces necessary for deriving an assured survivable deterrent capability. Accordingly, India’s draft nuclear doctrine proclaimed the development and maintenance of credible minimum deterrence based upon a strategic triad of nuclear forces (land-based, air based and sea-based), second strike capability and punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons if deterrence were to fail.

For India, achieving the nuclear leg at sea was essential because India was the only NFU nuclear power without a credible nuclear triad.  The minimal time it would take for a Pakistani short-range ballistic missile to reach India and its relative inability to react in time to ensure the safety of both its leadership and command and control structure prompted India to work towards a triad. India’s quest for under sea weapons was initiated early upon realizing the importance of an under sea deterrent. From the Indian point of view thus, “placing nuclear assets at sea puts them at a safer distance from decapitating strikes; their mobility and (in the case of a nuclear-powered submarine) discretion provide a greater measure of survivability.”

Similarly Pakistan is also on its way to adding nuclear weapons to its fleet. For Pakistan’s strategic forces to be able to attack time-sensitive and hard targets in India and also ensure its survival it needs to move its nuclear assets to sea. Accordingly, Pakistan inaugurated its Naval Strategic-Force Command (NSFC)” in 2012 to create “robust, effective, secure and credible nuclear” deterrent through “its Naval Custodians.” The nuclear capable Hatf-VII Babar cruise missile has also been tested which can be launched from a ship and has a range of approximately 700 kilometers. According to sources the cruise missile’s ability to be launched from both the land and sea has augmented the deterrent value of the country’s nuclear weapons.

South Asia is currently experiencing the proverbial “second wave” of decision- making deterrence theory characterized by rational thinking. Both Indian and Pakistani strategists are convinced of the destructive powers of nuclear weapons and neither wishes to use them. The trouble arises, however, due to a failure on the part of both South Asian nations to define the notion of credible minimum deterrence. For example, a July 2014 Foreign Policy article contends that it is time for change in the South Asian nuclear realm and it is therefore necessary to answer certain questions in order to bring India’s nuclear doctrine up to date. Firstly India’s notion of credible deterrence is no longer valid and there is a need to get rid of this particular phraseology in order to make India seem a more trustworthy actor. The article also suggests clearer references to the ability of India’s nuclear triad to deal with emerging threats. The existing scenario makes it necessary for both India and Pakistan to clarify their respective doctrines, as they remain crucial for the command and control of nuclear forces.

There are also arguments about the possibility of accidental use of nuclear weapons. On their part both India and Pakistan are confident of the safety and security of their nuclear weapons whether on land or at sea. In order for the two countries to ensure the safety of their weapons at sea, a precedent exists in the conduct of the US Navy during the Cold War. In order to minimize the possibility of an accidental nuclear war, US policymakers sought to bring the naval forces operating in the vicinity of the adversary under stricter control of the national command authority. Both the commanders and their subordinates were constrained by strict rules of engagement. Similar rules coupled with an outstanding system of communication have the ability to decrease the chances of accidental war. To this end the agreement to prevent incidents at sea involving naval vessels envisaged in the MOU that accompanied the Lahore Declaration needs to be revisited.

Finally, critics have also argued that nuclear weapons at sea in the South Asian arena make them ever more vulnerable to theft, sabotage, and accidents, and increase manifold the existing threat of terrorism. The protection of naval vessels would require coordinated efforts by employing surface, air, and subsurface forces, as well as a suitable command organization both on and off shore in both India and Pakistan. This kind of command and control system could be similar to the New strategic triadenvisaged by the NPR of the United States that envisages improved command and control and intelligence systems in order to meet emerging threats including terrorism. Under the aegis of the US-India Counter terrorism cooperation initiative, there are already exchanges between Coast Guards and Navy on maritime security; exchanging experience and expertise on port and border security; enhancing liaison and training between specialist Counter Terrorism Units including National Security Guard with their US counter parts. Similarly Pakistan could make use of its recently concluded agreement with Russia whereby the latter has offered to provide counter terrorism training to Pakistan.

Notwithstanding arguments to the contrary, nuclear weapons have helped deter more than just nuclear war in South Asia. During the Cold War too, nuclear weapons helped maintain a strategic equilibrium as both the US and Soviet Union were convinced of their opponent’s destructive capability. The same holds true for contemporary South Asia whereby the presence of nuclear weapons at sea will serve to strengthen deterrence stability in the region.


Image: Robert Padovani, Flickr

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