India’s Plans for Sea-based Deterrent Open a Pandora’s Box in South Asia
By Yogesh Joshi, on 09 Apr 2013 , Briefing

Since 1998, a major element of India’s nuclear doctrine has been the development of a nuclear triad: the ability to fire nuclear weapons from land, air and sea. Recent years have seen India concentrating on the sea-based element of its nuclear deterrent, in particular through efforts to develop a ballistic missile submarine (SSBN).

All the major nuclear powers have placed their faith in SSBNs, primarily because they are extremely hard to detect and destroy, hence assuring a state’s retaliatory capability. The fear of a second strike, in turn, helps maintain effective deterrence between nuclear adversaries.

This same logic motivates India’s efforts to complete the nuclear triad. INS Arihant, India’s first indigenous nuclear submarine, was unveiled in 2009 and is presently undergoing sea trials in the Bay of Bengal. Last year, India also leased a nuclear submarine from Russia, primarily to train its navy in the management of nuclear submarines and also to develop operational doctrines for naval nuclear warfare.

Merely having a fleet of nuclear submarines, however, is not sufficient for an effective sea-based nuclear deterrent. The second component is the ability to launch nuclear missiles from submarines. India is making some quick strides in this direction.

Recently, it test-fired an undersea version of the Brahmos cruise missile. Developed jointly between India and Russia, Brahmos is considered a “super rocket capable of sub-strategic capability” because it can carry nuclear weapons. In January, the K-15 “Sagarika” missile, which has a range of 420 miles, underwent final developmental tests and is slated to become India’s primary submarine-launched ballistic missile.

 India is the fifth country in the world to have developed this technological capability. Alongside these technological advances, India is also developing new sites on both its east and west coasts to accommodate its sea-based nuclear forces.
Government officials and strategists argue that a nuclear triad is the most effective form of nuclear deterrent and that SSBNs are the most important component of it, since a few of them provide better deterrence than either large land-based missile platforms or aircraft-delivered nuclear weapons. The concept of the triad is also compatible with the doctrine of minimum credible deterrence, allowing India to maintain nuclear deterrence without falling prey to a costly nuclear arms race. Therefore, the argument runs, India should continue on the path of developing and operationalizing its sea-based nuclear capability.

Deterrence is not the only objective, however. India’s quest for a nuclear triad is also motivated by other considerations. First, India wants to break free from China’s so-called string of pearls strategy of developing naval ports all around India’s periphery. These ports can potentially be turned into military bases, which would effectively neutralize India’s geopolitical advantage in the Indian Ocean.

Since nuclear submarines can operate for long periods without surfacing, even a small fleet of SSBNs would allow India to contain Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean in the case of conflict by virtually choking off the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca from China’s navy as well its merchant shipping.

India’s nuclear program has also always been motivated in part by a desire for international prestige. The possession of a nuclear navy has been a symbol of great-power status since the end of the Cold War, and India seeks no less for itself.

But India’s nuclear ambitions on the high seas still face several obstacles. First, developing a fully operational sea-based deterrent will take some time. Both Sagarika and Brahmos were launched from pontoons, not nuclear submarines. The real challenge is the successful launch of nuclear missiles from submarine platforms, which might take India a decade or so to achieve. 

The second issue is the range of India’s sea-based nuclear missiles. The reach of the Brahmos and Sagarika is limited; at the missiles’ current range, India’s nuclear submarines would have to move into hostile waters to project deterrence, making it an extremely dangerous exercise.

Technical challenges aside, another major problem is the implications an Indian nuclear triad would have for nuclear stability in the region. Pakistan in particular sees India’s moves toward developing a sea-based deterrent as a source of pressure to augment its own nuclear forces. Given its small landmass, Pakistan feels it lacks strategic depth to sufficiently protect its weapons from destruction in the event of an Indian first strike, and a nuclear threat from the sea increases that threat perception.

Pakistan’s response has been highly asymmetric. The main thrust has been to try to neutralize India’s technical capabilities by increasing the number and lethality of its own nuclear weapons. As a recent Congressional Research Service report pointed out (.pdf), Pakistan has the fifth-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, and at its current rate of expansion it will soon overtake France for fourth place. Pakistan is also diversifying the fissile base of its nuclear weapons from uranium to plutonium, making them more lethal and highly miniaturized, thereby increasing the survivability of its nuclear arsenal. In addition, Pakistan is considering acquiring SSBNs.

South Asian nuclear stability, moreover, is not simply a function of India-Pakistan relations. It is rather an outcome of the triangular relationship among China, India and Pakistan. The fact that India feels threatened by China’s growing capabilities and influence means that New Delhi will seek a more robust deterrent against China, with implications for India-Pakistan relations. The strategic relationship between China and Pakistan further complicates choices for India. China has in the past provided Pakistan with nuclear know-how clandestinely. Even today, it continues to support Pakistan with both nuclear and conventional technologies.

Given these dynamics, South Asia will continue to be a site of nuclear competition. As uncertainties abound, India and Pakistan are destined to follow independent nuclear paths, often at cross-purposes with each other’s strategic interests. This South Asian nuclear competition is now geared to move from the subcontinent’s landmass to the depths of the Indian Ocean.    

Yogesh Joshi is a visiting scholar at Sigur Center for Asian Studies, George Washington University.

Photo: The INS Chakra, Visakhapatnam, India, April 5, 2012 (photo by Wikimedia user Chanakyathegreat, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).