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June 11, 2016

Changing nuclear dynamics in the Indian Ocean


June 11, 2016

In the history of modern warfare, existential threat perceptions and asymmetry in conventional weaponry between adversaries have served as the raison d’être for acquiring nuclear deterrence. In the South Asian context, the years 1962 and 1971 were watershed moments when India suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of China and Pakistan was dismembered by India to create Bangladesh. This forced both countries to seriously consider the strategic utility of nuclear weapons in an armed conflict.

In 1998 India and Pakistan shed their cloaks of secrecy, exploded nuclear devices and overtly embarked on weapons-development programmes. Concerned by these developments, US initiated a strategic dialogue with both countries to create environments for stability and a ‘minimum deterrence posture’. Pakistan proposed a strategic restraint regime (SRR), which encompassed missile restraints, range restrictions, and a South Asian ‘anti-ballistic missile treaty’. This was rejected by India, citing the Chinese threat. The US subsequently gave up on the initiative.

It goes to the credit of Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif for committing to avoid an arms race in the Lahore MoU but that is now history. During much of the period since then, strategic competition remained confined to technological innovations in delivery systems. India has always argued that it is the only country among no-first-use nuclear powers that is devoid of credible nuclear tirade and has reiterated the merits of putting nuclear assets at sea for greater measure of survivability and discretion.

The Indian Ocean began to change in 1988 when India leased a Charlie II class nuclear attack submarine from Russia (INS Chakra) for three years. This was a precursor to its indigenous nuclear submarines construction programme and the INS Arihant in 1992. In 2012 it leased an Akula II class for ten years – an improvement on Charlie II but for reasons of Missile Transfer Regime (MTR) restrictions, it is armed with Klub missiles variants of a range of 300 kms.

The contract for the lease of a second Akula II submarine was expected to be signed in 2015 with delivery in 2018, but it has run into problems which could not be resolved during summit-level talks last December. Russia reportedly linked the lease with purchase by India of other platforms such as three stealth frigates and submarine rescue vessels. Further delays will adversely affect Indian Navy training programme for manning of its nuclear submarines.

India has also expressed interest in a customised fourth generation Yesen class SSN submarine, a successor of the Akula II class, considered by the US as a dangerous foe because of low noise levels and higher speed. India’s interest in Yesen is understandable since its customisation, technically possible, will be a force multiplier if its 24 vertical launch tubes carried a mix of the Nirbhy missile (an Indian version of the Tomahawk with a range of 1,800 kms) and the Brahmos supersonic anti-ship missile with a range of up to 350 kms.

Russia has refused to transfer the Yesen submarine to India on the grounds that it has only one of its type in service and needs all four in various stages of production for its own navy. But after the failed bid to sell Su-35 aircraft, Russia also knows that it has to ‘give in’ something really big to keep India strategically tethered to its nuclear submarines industry. This submarine is considered better than the Los Angeles class and just a shade inferior to the Virginia and Seawolf class in the US Navy.

A Yesen in the Indian Navy, if and when it happens, will pose a serious challenge which Pakistan Navy will be hard put to cope up with. Its quest to acquire multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) supported by advancements in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies, communications and navigation, precision-strike weapons, anti-satellite (ASAT) technology and cyber-warfare capabilities will compound the challenge.

Thus it is clear that, while in the early stages, India’s compulsions for acquiring nuclear deterrence may or may not have been against China, in later years its entire nuclear deterrence regime is now squarely structured against Pakistan. This is likely to remain so for some time.

A few weeks ago, the Indian Navy test-fired the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from INS Arihant – designated as K-4 and capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear payloads in excess of 2000 kgs up to a distance of 3,500 kms with reportedly near-zero error of probability. The Arihant, armed with K-4 and shorter range Sagarika or K-15 with a range of approximately 750 kms, has placed India one step closer to acquiring a capacity for continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence (CASD).

It is generally believed that ‘nuclear signalling’ by India and Pakistan during Kargil and the military standoff after the attack on the Indian parliament had a sobering effect against initiation of large-scale ground operations. The lack of a reasonable warning time between India and Pakistan is already a matter of grave concern. India’s nuclear submarines operations will introduce new dimensions of uncertainty in a milieu already overloaded with trust deficit.

Pakistan instituted its Naval Strategic Force Command in 2012 and declared its intention to develop sea-based deterrence. But because of a weak national economy, its response is less pronounced against addressal of strategic imbalance in the Indian Ocean and directed more against growing conventional asymmetry at sea. Installation of low-yield nuclear weapons onboard its limited number of naval assets, with emphasis on dual-use and strategic ambiguity of sorts appears to be out of compulsion rather preference. It is, however, difficult to assess how effective this strategy will be in rapidly accentuating the nuclear threat in the Indian Ocean.

For nearly seven decades now, it has been said that the battle for the survival of Pakistan will be fought in the plains of Punjab. This may have been so since in all the wars fought between India and Pakistan, neither side could occupy any territory at more than the tehsil level, because force structures and deployments patterns established some kind of equilibrium in the battle zone.

But this argument is now increasingly losing relevance just like yesteryears when the ‘defence of East Pakistan was considered to lie in the defence of West Pakistan’ and the other flawed thinking that the ‘East Pakistan terrain is not suited to armour operations’. In the latter case, when the war came, Indian tanks were seen charging through the water like buffaloes. It is time we injected some fresh thinking into our decades-old defence doctrine so that it becomes responsive to the changing dynamics at sea, both conventional and nuclear. Let there be no ambiguity – if the southern flank of Pakistan collapses, there will be very little left to fight for in the plains of Punjab.

Tailpiece: The US has asked Pakistan to do more but doesn’t agree to ‘hammer and anvil’ tactics proposed by Pakistan to sandwich the Taliban. We have done in just about two years what the US couldn’t do in a decade with all its military might, and we have lost much more in precious lives. The US expects its enemies to be ours when sadly it is hobnobbing with ours. This is bullying at its worst and will not succeed.

The writer is a retired vice admiral.

Email: [email protected]

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