Point, Counter-Point: Troublesome Trajectories for Minimalist Strategy

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 [email protected]


Image: Bernard Spragg, Flickr

Posted in , Deterrence, India, India-Pakistan Relations, No First Use, Nuclear, nuclear navy, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Point Counter-Point

Muhammad Sadiq

Muhammad Sadiq is a lecturer at the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies (DSS), Quiad-i-Azam University (QAU), Islamabad, Pakistan since 2007 and a former visiting fellow (fall 2012) at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, MIIS California. He also served at Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) as an “International Relations Analyst” for a short period of time in 2007. He has M.Sc and M.Phil degrees from DSS, QAU. Besides teaching, he is pursuing his PhD from the School of Politics and International Relations, QAU. His area of research and teaching include Nuclear Nonproliferation, Arms Control and Disarmament, and Nuclear Strategy.

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6 thoughts on “Point, Counter-Point: Troublesome Trajectories for Minimalist Strategy

  1. Good article…… but the author has not focused on identifying the causal aspects of the nuclear arms race….It has, all the way, been India….. from the start till the current trajectories, while by any rational approach, she could have taken a more responsible course being bigger (perhaps only in size and not in stratagem)

  2. The article has depicted the realities. The current situation may escalate more tension between India and Pakistan in coming days, therefore, they (particularly India) should look forward towards certain peaceful solution on the negotiation table for the stability in region.

  3. Dear sadiq, as expected another good effort. I must appreciate your indepth analysis on the issue of high concern. “nukes at sea” for second strike. Dear there are other ways to get second strike capability, i.e Deep under ground tunnels, facilities to evade first strike of the enemy. It would b insane if Pakistan follows indian path for nuclear subs or anything else at sea….i agree with you that arms race would further destablise already fragile peace in south asia. It is imperative for both countries to avoid aggresive policies and focus on the millions of people living below the poverty line…Well done sadiq, keep it up dear…best wishes

  4. An excellent and very timely article. it’s better to “cut your clothes according to your cloth” in case of indo-Pak nuclear race. Both countries must come together to make South Asia a peaceful region else nuclear exchange will take place in this region.

  5. Sadiq:
    Well done.
    In answer to Masood, second strike can be assured by mobile, ground-based capabilities that are properly moved out of garrison in a crisis to foil preemptive strikes.
    Command and control over these forces is not simple, but it is much easier, in my view, that going to sea.

  6. Great article Sadiq, and I agree with your analysis about nukes in the Indian Ocean would be a factor of instability due to many reasons. My concern is not about assured second strike for Pakistan at the moment, but that of a crippling economic naval blockade-thus if Pakistan introduces tactical nukes into the seas they would be to counter Indian conventional superiority or to deal with the stability-instability paradox per se. how can Pakistan deal with a situation like this with a dwindling economy that fails to help modernize its conventional war fighting capability?

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