Thursday June 13, 2024

The developing ‘strategic depth’ and ‘full spectrum deterrence’

By Muhammad Azam Khan
December 03, 2016

The Indian Navy has recently conducted major exercise in North Arabian Sea from 2-11th November. The exercise was aimed to test operational readiness of the navy. Approximately over forty warships, submarines, fighters and maritime reconnaissance aircraft from western naval command were involved. Elements of navy’s eastern command also joined in the drills. Reportedly, India’s foremost locally constructed and opertionalised ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) INS Arihant may also have taken part. In fact Arihant might already be prowling in waters close to Pakistan coast gathering operational intelligence and validating command and control systems.

The 22nd meeting of Pakistan’s National Command Authority (NCA) was convened under the chairmanship of prime minister in February this year. The press release issued later had this to say: “-- NCA took note of the growing conventional and strategic weapons’ development in the region. It expressed serious concerns over the adverse ramifications for peace and security on this account. NCA reiterated its determination to take all possible measures to make national security robust; enabling it to effectively respond to the threats to national security without indulging in arms race. Reiterating that nuclear deterrence is the factor of stability in South Asia, NCA expressed the resolve to maintain ‘Full Spectrum Deterrence,’ in line with the policy of Credible Minimum Deterrence.”

Significant changes have taken place in the region since NCA met early this year. In April, India’s first, INS Arihant successfully test fired its long range nuclear capable missile, K-4. A unique aspect of the test firing was that Arihant launched the missile for the first time while submerged. Also inked by India and the United States is a Logistic Support Agreement (LSA) which allows for reciprocal use of bases for military logistics and resupply purposes. As reported in the press, LSA practically amounts to a “war pact.”

Conceptually, “deterrence” is a state of mind brought about by a credible threat of retaliation, a conviction that the action being contemplated cannot succeed, or a belief that the costs of action will far exceed any possible gains. “Strategic stability” on the other hand is a condition in which a country feels confident that the potential adversary will not be able to undermine (weaken) his deterrent capability.  As a concept, strategic stability has never been under any doubt. Nuclear powers strive to maintain strategic stability against their perceived adversary through balance in weaponry and employment strategies. In the absence of any measuring instrument, the concept nonetheless remains abstract.

Since their first emergence in the United States navy in 1955, nuclear submarines have continued to play a formidable role in providing nuclear deterrence and strategic stability. Driven by miniature nuclear reactors and with nuclear weapons onboard, a nuclear submarine offers assured second strike. With distinctive characteristics like stealth, global reach and high speed, it becomes the most dependable branch in a nuclear triad. By making nuclear assets harder to find, a nuclear submarine guarantees that even if an incoming first strike was to destroy land-based weapons and attendant command and control system (counterforce strike), the sea-based assets remained available for retaliatory strike against a civilian target (counter value strike) such as major population centre. 

All through the cold war, the United States as well as USSR maintained large quantities of nuclear arsenal onboard sea going platforms. But unlike on land where nuclear weapons can be kept de-mated, warheads onboard SSBNs are usually coupled (mated) with the delivery system, ready for launch. For deterrence to be effective, this is indispensable. Today, between 60-70 percent of globally deployable nuclear warheads are sea based. 

Some leading western authors have lately questioned the efficacy of India’s sea-based deterrence and its contribution towards the strategic stability in South Asia. They argue that geostrategic and operational realities of South Asian theatre vary significantly from the cold war and these differences, combined with the “bureaucratic inertia, resource constraints, and sharp asymmetries between actors, suggests that the addition of nuclear armed submarines in the Indian Ocean will likely result in increased crisis in stability and fuel the conventional and nuclear arms races currently underway in the region.” 

India’s latest maritime strategy of October 2015 however holds a contrary view. The document draws an unambiguous parallel with cold war in justifying India’s development of SSBN and nuclear triad. “Cold war experience has shown that reduction in the first strike and increase in second strike (retaliatory) component stabilises and strengthens deterrence,” expounds the document. Regardless, India’s nuclear submarines will have a serious impact on Pakistan’s maritime security and strategic stability in the region. In fact it fundamentally undercuts the premise of Pakistan’s Full Spectrum Deterrence (FSD).

The potential threat of a limited conventional war by India following development of a proactive strategy led Pakistan to broaden its nuclear force posture. Although officially Pakistan maintains “Credible Minimum Deterrence” (CMD), the posture now embraces “Full Spectrum Deterrence”. According to local scholars and think tanks, FSD is Pakistan’s response to India’s complete spectrum of threat. Theoretically, what Pakistan needed was ‘limited nuclear options to fill the gap between doing too much, such as starting a general nuclear war, to doing too little like acquiescing to enemy’s attack’, they maintain. FSD, it is said, fulfills this very purpose for Pakistan. It aims to plug the gap created by Indian conventional advantage in the deterrence equation in South Asia. 

But while FSD strives to plug the gap on land (India’s perceived spatial gains against Pakistan on land and latter’s response through Hatf-IX, short range Nasr missile), it does little to address the developing breach in the Indian Ocean strategic stability. Call it breach, gap or whatever, at sea Pakistan’s conventional and strategic asymmetry continues to multiply. 

India aims to expand its existing fleet of 136 warships to 200 within next decade. Indian navy will soon have three carrier strike groups one for each of existing three commands. The carrier force will be backed by five to six Arihant class nuclear submarines. India’s aggressive naval built up, operational integration of SSBNs in nuclear construct coupled with escalating policy of backing proxy warfare inside Pakistan also serves to dent the “stability-instability paradox.” The concept developed during the cold war allowed the two super powers to engage in proxy wars against each other without threatening the equilibrium at the strategic level. But in South Asia, the equilibrium at both levels now grossly favours India. 

As most of Asia veers towards sea, Pakistan remains glued to a tried, tested and futile land fixation -- a classic case of “sea blindness.” India’s proactive strategy may never realize on land. The country’s real “strategic depth”, it must be appreciated, now resides in the western Indian Ocean. With a bellicose government in New Delhi, the sooner Pakistan adapts to changed dynamics in the region, the better it would be. The fast maturing CPEC lends further credence to this necessity.

Pakistan’s FSD will remain “incomplete” so long as it does not provide an answer to the ever widening gap in Indian Ocean strategic stability. To all intents and purposes, Pakistan could view its “deterrence” incomplete, and thus, “not assured”. If our AIP fitted submarines cannot hit India’s distant eastward targets or population centres, this only means India’s strategic capabilities (especially with its SSBN now in operation) essentially remain unthreatened.