Thursday June 13, 2024

Sea-based nuclear weapons

By Muhammad Azam Khan  
January 08, 2018

“The United States must maintain the credible deterrence and assurance capabilities provided by our nuclear Triad –” -US National Security Strategy, December 2017, pp 30 

Some scholars and think tanks in Pakistan are currently questioning the efficacy of placing nuclear weapons at sea. ‘The entire calculus that secure second strike capability is vital for effective deterrence lacks empirical grounding’; ‘even a small risk of retaliation is enough’, it is claimed. The reasoning advanced by these voices unwittingly play into the hands of Indian strategic lobby. New Delhi is currently aggressively campaigning that there are inherent risks in Pakistan’s sea-based deterrent. The discussion comes in the wake of India maturing sea-based component of the triad residing in ballistic missile carrying nuclear submarine, Arihant.  

The history of nuclear triad, nuclear weapon delivery means via air, land, or sea, dates back to late 1940s. At the time, the military strategy of the United States was dominated by Air force which had the strategic bombers. This was then the only delivery system. The arrangement suited the political leadership since it prevented the need for building a costly navy or maintaining large army. The model, however, became contentious soon after USSR turned into a nuclear power in 1949.  Numerous studies pointed to the vulnerability of land-based strategic forces. While army and air force each had their proponents, for navy the lone voice came from Admiral Arleigh Burke, a battle-decorated Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) whose combat exploits against Japanese naval forces in the South Pacific made him the US Navy's most celebrated naval commander of World War II. He served in both, Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.

 Admiral Burke strongly advanced the development of a strategic weapon system based on submarines. But no sooner had he done so, Burke was accused of ‘improper conduct and of trespassing missions assigned to Air force’. Naval leadership was none the less unrelenting. Admiral James Watkins, who later became 22nd US naval chief (CNO) in June 1982 and at the height of cold war, was amongst the most authoritative voices on the subject. He vehemently questioned the United States theory behind constancy and apportionment of large defence resources on ICBMs in hardened “silos”. He believed that ICBMs were becoming increasingly vulnerable to a Soviet attack as a result of the improving accuracy of Soviet missiles.  

A comprehensive insight on the fundamentals of deterrence and alternative weapon systems by naval leadership finally compelled the United States to shift strategic focus from land to sea. From “massive retaliation” during the Eisenhower administration, it morphed to “flexible response” in Kennedy era. By the beginning of Reagan term, the concept of triad was firmly in place. The susceptibility of land based strategic weapons was, nonetheless, never resolved. Many design alterations proved futile on the geographical truth that such a basing mode could not move or even if it could, required a foot print too large to be practical. Unless used to preempt (first strike), every land based force has to rely on a warning system and short-fused command and control arrangements to “launch under attack”. Successive studies of various alternatives through the 1960s and 70s all demonstrated the survivability of the sea based system. 

One particular fallacy advanced by senior US army leadership was ‘that deterrence does not rely on speed of response but on surety of weapons and will’. This was an apparent reference to the difficulty the command authority may encounter in communicating with a submarine during crisis. Independent studies in US since 1987 have, however, determined that communications to submarines are as reliable and efficient as those to ground based forces. Of some 15,000 nuclear warheads in possession of nine countries today, nearly 30 to 35 per cent are believed to be sea- based.

The Indian lobby maintains that sea-based weapons in the ‘India-Pakistan dyad can aggravate crisis stability’- ‘a net negative for its (Pakistan’s) overall security’. With peace time locations of Pakistani submarines well known, this may tempt India to attack first as crisis begin, it is alleged. Sea- basing of such weapons will furthermore present unique command and control challenges to Pakistan with greater possibility of theft and sabotage than land based forces. It is also conjectured that ‘introduction of Submarine Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCMs) onboard submarines would necessitate erosion of some of the safeguards employed by country’s National Command Authority (NCA) like, ‘dissembled storage, separation of triggers, de-mated storage’ etc. Also, Very Low Frequency (VLF) station, in case one exists, would be principal target of India to disrupt communications between NCA and submarines. Finally, it is speculated that with its known sites, at Karachi and Ormara, ‘militants with an eye on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons may find no better target than sea based nuclear weapons and delivery systems with fewer physical safeguards’.

It is obvious that such arguments are advanced with a clear mala fide intent draped in Modi-Doval doctrine. The doctrine aims at raising fictional alarm to scare international community and diplomatically defame Pakistan. Hidden in the move is also angst at CPEC. The fundamental purpose of nuclear weapons is to discourage the use or threatened use by an adversary. Deterrence, therefore, is and must be a visible capability backed by a demonstrated political resolve. In case of Pakistan, the country’s nuclear deterrence posture also aims to prevent any massive or blitzkrieg type of conventional attack.

The strategic and conventional equilibrium in Indian Ocean already favours India. New Delhi’s projected fleet of nuclear submarines has received fresh boost via the Indo-US nuclear agreement. A secret under construction nuclear site in India’s South will reportedly enrich uranium solely for Indian navy’s SSBNs. Cutting edge platforms like Poseidon P8Is maritime reconnaissance aircraft or the recent test firing of air launched version of Brahmos, the world’s fastest supersonic cruise missile have caused a gash in Indian Ocean stability. As and if India puts a “ballistic missile defence shield” (BMD), it is likely to further erode the stability.

For years, super powers and mini superpowers debated before introducing sea-based nuclear deterrence. Today sea-based nuclear weapons are deemed as most survivable. Nevertheless, almost all of these countries faced internal resistance from other services. A brief glance at history shows the significant role played by Pakistan navy submarines during 1965 and 1971 wars. This was much against the untenable notions like ‘defence of east lies in the west’, ‘strategic depth’ etc.

Much has changed in the Indian Ocean since the two wars. But Pakistan navy submarine service enjoys a comfortable psychological edge over Indian navy still reeling from the sinking of Indian frigate Kukri during 1971 war. This is evident from investment, Indian navy has persistently made in anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

Barring war time losses, the safety record of the Pakistan Navy is far better and superior to most regional countries. The submarine service has particularly displayed a very high professional standard. It has proven history of handling advanced weapon systems. On the contrary, Indian navy has an abysmal and unprecedented record of 38 warships major accidents between 2007 and 2016 and at least one naval chief stepping down on this account. Major Powers should hence rethink before assisting India and Indian navy with sea-based nuclear weapons technology, let alone allow New Delhi entry in Nuclear Suppliers Group. Indian government too must exercise caution in entrusting its accident plagued navy with such weapons.

In February 2016, the United States officials boarded the locally constructed Indian aircraft carrier for inspection and evaluation of its combat readiness. Here is Indian officials witness account: ‘when top American naval engineers recently inspected India’s first locally made aircraft carrier they expected to find a near battle-ready ship set to help counter China’s growing sway in the Indian Ocean. Instead, they discovered the carrier wouldn’t be operational for up to a decade and other shortcomings; no small missile system to defend itself, a limited ability to launch sorties and no defined strategy for how to use the ship in combat. The findings alarmed US officials hoping to enlist India as a bulwark against China’.

India’s long coastline stretching over 7,400km is not an asset but rather vulnerability, particularly in the event of a war. Regardless of the official claims, Pakistan’s Full Spectrum Deterrence (FSD) remains unsustainable so long as the sea-based reserve is not available. And recall the tremendous efforts the United States and NATO had to muster and sustain through the entire stretch of cold war just to monitor a small Greenland Iceland and the United Kingdom (GIUK) gap, a naval choke point through which Soviet submarines transited.

 —The writer is an independent researcher on maritime security and naval issues.