In a series of tweets on Nov. 5, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, celebrated the maiden completion of a ‘deterrence patrol’ by India’s first indigenously built nuclear-powered submarine, INS Arihant, a ship modeled on Russia’s Akula-1 class submarine.
The Arihant is a product of a two-decade-long Advanced Technology Vessel program, which has been dogged with multiple problems, cost overruns and delayed delivery schedules. Reports suggest that India is planning to build five more SSBNs [Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear]. The Arihant is said to be armed with a 750km range submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and trials are being done to arm it with a 3,500km range SLBM.
The vessel’s sea trials began in December 2014 and it was said that Arihant would be deployed for active duty in 2016. That didn’t happen. In fact, a January 2018 report in The Hindu claimed that the vessel was out of commission for more than 10 months after its propulsion compartment was damaged by water entering the submarine through a hatch that was left open. An analysis of The Hindu report in The Economic Times, however, cast doubts on the veracity of that report.
Be that as it may, the Indian Navy’s safety and operational procedures have been questioned following accidents involving two submarines and a surface vessel. Embarrassingly for the Indian Navy, its chief, Admiral D K Joshi, resigned following the submarine accidents in 2014.
Now, Modi has tweeted to the world that India’s first SSBN is ready and has prowled the waters. What does it mean for the region, especially Pakistan?
First, an SSBN armed with SLBMs gives the country possessing the platform assured, survivable second-strike capability. If the adversary also possesses the same capability, it helps stabilize deterrence. Because Pakistan does not possess the capability, the Indian possession of an SSBN-SLBM capability is likely to further destabilize the deterrence equation in the South Asian region.
The SSBN capability has to be read in conjunction with India’s development of MIRVs [multiple, independently-launched re-entry vehicles], ballistic missiles with multiple warheads, its acquisition of Ballistic Missile Defense systems and anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) systems (S-400). The important thing to note is that the latter, the S-400, is not just a defensive system, but can also be employed in an offensive-defensive role.
Add to this India’s planning on the basis of Pro-Active Operations—a rechristening of what it called Cold Start—a concept wedded to the employment of Independent Battle Groups against Pakistan and we have all the ingredients of deterrence instability in the region.
This is how it goes. In simple terms, deterrence is an acceptance on both, or all, sides that the states can inflict unbearable pain on each other or one another. Result: no one should think in offensive, adventurous terms. The basic targeting strategy involves counter-value, meaning the destruction of cities. The strategy invokes balance of terror.
Not so when a state begins moving toward shielding itself through a BMD system—never mind if it’s a false sense of security—and simultaneously working on a counterforce strategy, i.e., striking select military targets. Unlike counter-value, counterforce is about using nuclear weapons for war-fighting.
But the scenario being played out here is more perfidious. India is acquiring systems that it thinks will give it the space to launch short, sharp, conventional operations against Pakistan to punish it while denying Pakistan the space to resort to the use of nuclear weapons early and first into the conflict because of India’s assured, survivable second-strike capability.
Some analysis in Pakistan suggests that Arihant is more a technology demonstrator than a real threat in the near future. The vessel has to undergo many more sea acceptance trials, further training of the crew, integration of weapons system et cetera. The reality goes beyond this basic argument. It will certainly be several years before India can fully develop and reliably deploy its SSBN capability. But this view misses the central point—i.e., for all the glitches and snags that its indigenous programs encounter, whether it is the SSBNs or developing a Light Combat Aircraft (LAC), India is clearly moving towards a triad and actual deployment of nuclear weapons.
The issue, therefore, is not about the clock. Whether it can develop, test and deploy systems in 2019 or manage them by 2029. It is about both the capability and the declared intention. More importantly, it’s about deeper pockets, the ability to spend on local R&D as well as acquiring systems from other countries even when they ask for the top dollar.
Another problem relates to an issue consistent with acquisition and fielding of SSBNs. An SSBN is useless if the SLBMs it carries do not have nuclear warheads. In other words, unlike the practice in South Asia so far of keeping missiles de-mated from the warheads, the deployment of an SSBN means ready-to-fire nuclear missiles.
Further, SSBNs, unlike land- or air launches cannot entirely be subordinated to central control. They operate on the basis of delegation, or possibly pre-delegation. We do not know what launch protocols will be established by the Indian Nuclear Command Authority. The usual practice is for the vessel to get a launch order and an unlock key as part of the order. The order is verified by the Commanding Officer and the Executive Officer along with the Weapons Officer. The keys are distributed and kept in safes. That makes it a two-step procedure with usual fail-safe measures like Permissive Action Links, two-man rule or the no-lone zone.
But communicating with submerged vessels through ELF/VLF [Extremely Low Frequency/Very Low Frequency] creates its own problems and requires protocols. Mated warheads and delegation add another dimension to South Asia’s nuclearization. They also cast a doubt over the already unverified and unverifiable political stance by India of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. There is enough evidence over the past four years of Indian military snuggling up to the rightwing, Hindu-rashtra elements in the Modi government, which when applied here, makes the situation even more precarious. For example, SSBNs carrying SLBMs with control delegated to the commanders is a surefire recipe for extreme and dangerous instability.
In other words, we could see the Indian doctrine undergo a sea change in real terms, from NFU and second-strike capability to ambitions of pre-emption. It is disconcerting that the P-5 [the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council] remain silent over these developments. Far from voicing concern over developments that are increasing instability exponentially, India is being feted and invited to the high table.
Pakistan needs to take note of these developments and work the diplomatic channels to clearly make the point about the dangerous situation unfolding in the region. Simultaneously, it has no option but to begin treating the Pakistan Navy with some priority in terms of platform acquisitions and budget allocations.
Haider is the executive editor at Indus News. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider