Point, Counter-Point: Sea-based deterrence

In the academic world, controversy, criticism and alarmism are often considered stimuli for further research and innovation to resolve various puzzles. In the policy world, accepting mistakes and acknowledging failures invariably push for innovation and strategic adaptability. Nuclear deterrence has been a “puzzle” and probably will remain so till the time “nuclear hawks” do not witness another nuclear catastrophe. In South Asia, it appears that the “chickens are coming close to roost” with every single move that India and Pakistan contemplate to augment and diversify their respective nuclear arsenals.

India and Pakistan have both expressed interest in—and made active moves towards—developing a sea-leg to their nuclear deterrents. Various reports suggest that India’s first “indigenous” nuclear-powered submarine INS Arihant—first launched in 2009—capable of launching ballistic and cruise missiles is likely to be armed with either a dozen 750km range nuclear tipped ballistic missiles or four larger missiles with 3500km range. Nevertheless, the Arihant still faces its biggest trial – the test launch of a ballistic missile while submerged. It is only once that happens that the Arihant will be battle-worthy.


On the other hand, Pakistan, with a dangerously dwindling economy and wary of Indian naval ambitions, has stepped-up its efforts for sea-based deterrent capabilities—yet again in a “tit for tat” manner. As a matter of fact, Pakistan created the Naval Strategic Force Command (NSFC) in 2012 similar to the commands in the Air Force and Army that oversee nuclear weapons. The next logical step is to develop nuclear warheads appropriate for deployment in the Arabian Sea. For this purpose, various analysts believe that probably Pakistan would equip conventional submarines or surface vessels with a nuclear-tipped submarine-launched variant of the Babur cruise missiles.

The question arises: what are likely repercussions of naval nuclearization by India and Pakistan for already fragile/unstable deterrence in increasingly volatile South Asia? Essentially, if one—for the time being—excludes China and focuses on the India-Pakistan nuclear dyad, between the two, India is leading the nuclear race to sea. Given the “strategic idiosyncrasies” of South Asia, a nuclear arms race in any form (land, air, sea) is inherently challenging and destabilizing for deterrence stability between the two countries. Both countries are inching towards sea-based deterrents to ensure a second-strike capability—which is stabilizing in the classic sense and may well reduce the risk of a full-scale war between the two. But it’s hard to apply retrospective visions of US-USSR strategic balance to the South Asian nuclear template. There are various reasons that deployment of sea-based nuclear weapons would be destabilizing.

First, naval nuclearization by India and Pakistan is likely to constitute a formidable challenge to their respective minimalist strategies. For instance, the present configuration of INS Arihant allows it to carry 16 nuclear-tipped missiles. By the end of this decade, India plans to deploy five to six such SSBNs. Clearly, the warheads required to arm these submarines would alone be close to the current estimates of the total number of nuclear weapons (between 90-110) in India’s arsenal. In such a situation, it is axiomatic that India will be manufacturing more nuclear warheads, thus calling into question the “minimum” aspect of its policy of credible minimum deterrence. Pakistan’s deterrence strategy is already under severe criticism as it is widely believed “the country with the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world.”

Second, arguably it’s very difficult to separate the warheads from their delivery systems at sea, making the peril of misperception, miscalculation, and inadvertent use of nuclear weapons more likely during times of crisis between the two. Thirdly, if either navy first stations nuclear weapons at sea, perhaps on a conventional warship as well, it might be possible that the other side could end up inadvertently destroying nuclear forces in the process of targeting conventionally armed forces.

Fourthly, security of sea-based nuclear weapons would be highly problematic given the fact of pervasive militancy in the region. Undoubtedly, non-state actors aspire to get ahold of nukes; they may sabotage the security of sea-based nuclear weapons especially in the case of Pakistan. We have had several examples of militants attacking Pakistan’s naval forces, for instance, the near successful attack on “Pakistan naval dockyard” most likely with insider help. Furthermore, the very presence of nuclear weapons has provided the space for sub-conventional forces to operate freely under the perception that India and Pakistan will not wage a full-scale war. After achieving assured second-strike capabilities, India and Pakistan may find more space for limited and sub-conventional warfare under the nuclear overhang. However, such a situation may get out of hand and may escalate to nuclear exchange in the region.

The bottom-line of the argument is: without a concerted effort to integrate sea-based nuclear assets more effectively into both nations’ strategic thinking and into a bilateral dialogue, New Delhi and Islamabad may be unable to avoid escalation. Unfortunately, South Asia lacks any effective crisis stability mechanism. It’s worth mentioning that there currently exist no confidence-building or institutionalized conflict-resolution mechanisms in the maritime realm. It would be far better to avoid a mad nuclear arms race as it would not yield any good to the impoverished people of India and Pakistan. Above all, both must realize peace is the solution, not an arms race.

Currently the author is a visiting faculty at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) Monterey, California and can be reached at msadiq@miis.edu


Image: Bernard Spragg, Flickr

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