Written by Brigadier Feroz Hassan Khan.
As 2017 dawned, Pakistan, avowing ‘completion of the nuclear triad’ and a ‘credible second strike capability’, successfully test fired its first submarine-based nuclear-capable cruise missile—Babur-III—with a declared range of 450 kilometers. India had already introduced its nuclear-powered submarine Arihant, some four years back, which is capable of carrying about 12 nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles—K-15, also referred as Sagarika (SSBN). The advent of a sea-based strategic deterrent (SBSD) is a critical new dimension of deterrence stability in a volatile region that is characterized by uncertainty, the threat of violent extremist forces and conventional military doctrines of limited war under the nuclear overhang.
The absence of robust command and control mechanisms on both sides, and a lack of clarity in safeguards and doctrines generate uncertainty that could be detrimental to regional stability.
With both sides completing the nuclear triad and strengthening ‘assured second strike’ capabilities, one set of arguments hold that ‘assured second strike’ would stabilize deterrence. Others challenge this notion, arguing that vulnerability and command, control and communications (C3) challenges at sea create conditions for greater instability. Studies on the ramifications of maritime nuclear crises involving Indian and Pakistani nuclear forces are few, if not absent, since nuclear weapons at sea are a recent development in the South Asian security landscape. This essay focuses on the repercussions of South Asian nuclear weapons at sea, on the larger Asian security balance and its impact on maritime dynamics in the Indian Ocean region (IOR).
Geopolitical alignments and strategic balancing
Even prior to the introduction of South Asian maritime nuclear forces, the vast IOR (over 2 million square miles) was beset with challenges such as terrorism and piracy that warranted the operation of naval task forces CTF-150 and CTF-151 respectively, within which the Pakistan Navy continues to play a significant role. Ensuring stability and maintaining open sea lines of communication (for the passage of over one-third of the world’s oil) is critical. These imperatives notwithstanding, the strategic dynamics in Southern Asia are compounded by shifting Sino-Indian rivalry in the maritime domain, where India and China are competing for influence and resources in the IOR. Now with the maturation of China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Road (MSR), a new dimension in the China-Pakistan strategic relationship has emerged. The advancement in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – a vital land and maritime fulcrum for BRI – while promising Pakistan a economic boom is also aggravating Indian concerns. Just as in the Sino-Indian equation, the India-Pakistan antagonism is also shifting, from a predominantly land-based conflict into the potential confrontation at sea.
India is deepening its strategic partnership with the United States to balance against China and engaging in maritime advancement with the help of Western/ Russian allies. A cursory analysis would suggest that even if India’s SSBN is providing India with an acute sense of security and balance vis-à-vis China, the resultant strategic anxiety it causes in Pakistan incentivizes China to bolster Pakistani naval capacity. Thus, it has exacerbated India’s strategic dilemma. Pakistan is reportedly purchasing eight air-independent propulsion (AIP) diesel attack submarines from China, which, alongside the development of the Gwadar port, is indicative of deepening China-Pakistan maritime relations. India acquired state-of-the-art Boeing P8-I (Long-range Maritime Reconnaissance and Anti-Submarine Warfare) aircraft that significantly increases India’s surveillance capability. A simplified generalization would suggest that the United States and China are outsourcing their system-level rivalry by bolstering their respective regional strategic allies. Though neither United States nor China desire a crisis in South Asia, both seem to inadvertently propel the India-Pakistan antagonism and arms race.
The wars and crises in the past seventy years have not brought peace or crisis resolution to South Asia. Pakistan’s structural disadvantage and conventional force asymmetry compared to India is only likely to grow, as the latter invests heavily in nuclear and conventional force modernization. India’s land doctrine, colloquially dubbed ‘Cold Start’, envisages conducting a limited war involving land/air shallow manoeuvres into Pakistani territory aimed at inflicting significant destruction of its armed forces. The Pakistani answer was to introduce short-range, low-yield nuclear weapons for battlefield use, under the concept of ‘full spectrum deterrence’. In turn, India has officially warned of ‘massive retaliation’ against any nuclear use on Indian forces anywhere. Pakistan is dismissive of India’s nuclear retaliation and believes it has checkmated India’s conventional force plan. That has recently led to reports of India rethinking its nuclear doctrine.
These doctrinal constructs imply that both countries are engaging in risk manipulation strategies to test the will of the other, while continuing to build nuclear and conventional forces. Arguably, even if it is believed that battle on land is stalemated or stabilized, the encounter has moved to sea where Pakistan’s disadvantage in naval assets is exploitable. The Pakistani response to introduce nuclear weapons into the mix of maritime forces might complicate India’s naval coercion strategy but increases operational challenges once weapons are at sea.
Evolving South Asia SBSD: Challenges and Implications
Given the crisis-prone nature of India-Pakistan relations, any land-based crisis can quickly expand to the sea. In major wars, typically India might attempt a naval blockade, as it did in 1971. Deriving from the Falkland war (1982), India has embraced the concept of declaring maritime exclusion zones (MEZ), for strategic coercion and with the purpose of strangling Pakistan’s economic lifeline that depends on maritime trade. This implies Pakistan’s navy would aggressively retaliate. Pakistan has publicly declared that economic coercion would be one of the factors determining the nuclear-use threshold. The India-Pakistan naval crisis and declaration of MEZ in the North Arabian Sea would also have a significant negative impact on global commerce. Oil tankers exiting the Persian Gulf, for example, would be likely to be diverted around the conflict zone or in a worst-case scenario, subjected to inadvertent attack.
Operationalizing Naval Deterrence: Concepts, Survivability and Command and Control
During the Cold War, SSBNs cemented mutually assured destruction, thereby creating strategic stability between the Super Powers. How congruous is the Cold War concept of SBSD in India and Pakistan’s operational conditions? The Indian and Pakistani strategic thinking regarding sea-based nuclear weapons are still evolving, as objectives and operational concepts are different. Neither country has publicly articulated which operational concept they would adopt, though operating conditions in the IOR and Arabian Sea are significantly different. Both navies also operate in relatively congested waters.
Nuclear naval forces operate under two concepts: continuous at-sea patrol (to prevent surprise attacks) and bastion strategy (to ensure enough warning time, to sortie the SLBMs out of the bastion/port). Once ships are at sea, the foremost factor is to survive against enemy actions. If detected and cornered, the nuclear-armed submarines would be under pressure to use their arsenal before they are destroyed. Conversely, nuclear-armed boats operating from protected bastions are dependent on other vessels and geography to protect them. Their operational necessities are affected by factors such as target-set, ranges of missiles, adversary’s antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capability and command and control complexities.
A universally accepted concept of command and control, in all states operating nuclear forces, is the ‘always/ never principle.’ Nuclear weapons will always be used when commanded and never when not commanded. This principle hinges on the reliability and security of communication systems, which is the foremost challenge once submarines are at sea. Related to this are questions of human and personnel reliability, the question of pre-delegation and/or maintaining centralized control, and nature of control mechanism.
Deriving from geography, naval force posture and the pattern of wars, Indian and Pakistani strategic choices can be speculated on. Indian SSBNs and strategic thinking indicates force projection capabilities and targeting from a distance. India may likely prefer continuous at-sea patrol options compounding maintenance and command and control challenges. In contrast, Pakistan does not have SSBNs nor has indicated any power projection ambitions; its resources are limited and the strategy is to balance against India. Nuclear weapons on diesel boats limit their operational range and pose survivability challenges under India’s ASW improvements (for example P8-Is). Pakistan is thus more likely to lean towards the bastion concept. However, it also has options of a hybrid model to choose between port/bastion and limited at-sea patrol strategies. Heavy commercial traffic in congested waters of the Northern Arabian Sea creates noisy conditions for diesel submarines to operate and escape detection. In times of lesser traffic, nuclear weapons could remain in bastion or in port, which would allow it to escape pressures to pre-delegate and maintain the positive and centralized control of the Pakistani national command authority (NCA).
In sum, India’s introduction of the SSBNs, simultaneous enhancements of its conventional submarine force and anti-submarine warfare capabilities has exacerbated Pakistan’s threat perception and evoked reciprocal nuclear responses. A South Asian naval crisis would not severely damage the regional economies, but will have global ramifications. The merging of nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, and conventional naval assets along with commercial shipping increases the risk of accidental encounters or inadvertent engagements. The absence of robust command and control mechanisms on both sides, and a lack of clarity in safeguards and doctrines generate uncertainty that could be detrimental to regional stability. Unless India and Pakistan engage in bilateral naval restraint dialogue and discuss maritime confidence-building measures, the region will continue to be in a tinderbox situation.
Feroz Hassan Khan is a former Brigadier in the Pakistan Army, with experience in combat action on the Line of Control in Kashmir and Siachin Glacier and Afghanistan border. He has held a series of visiting fellowships at Stanford University, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; the Brookings Institution; Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies and at the Cooperative Monitoring Center, Sandia National Laboratory. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.