• Shishir Rao

Sea-based Platforms in South Asia’s Nuclear Equation

Abstract: India’s imperatives for a sea-based nuclear deterrent arise from its need for strategic autonomy in the world order, which necessitates that its deterrence building is an incremental process until it can be at par with global agenda-setters. While India, not wanting to indulge in an arms race, is not pursuing deterrence by sheer numbers, it is certainly trying to achieve technologies that give it parity in the qualitative aspects of nuclear deterrence. On the other hand, Pakistan's imperatives stem from regional concerns and its survival imperative in positing India as the arch enemy in the domestic political arena. Pakistan seeks to maintain a deterrence relationship with India since it claims it views India’s global aspirations as a threat to its interests. India assures that any nuclear strike will be followed by massive retaliation. This may seem like a doomsday-esque scenario. However, a steady deterrence relationship has still been maintained in South Asia as a result of both India and Pakistan being rational actors and acknowledging that the nuclear weapon is a weapon of last resort.


Bottom-line-up-front: South Asia's strategic stability has not been achieved through Pakistan’s ability for a strategic nuclear first strike but rather from the guarantee of an Indian response. India’s SSBNs add to this stability by guaranteeing a credible second-strike capability.


Problem statement: How to understand both India’s and Pakistan’s submersible-launched nuclear programs in the context of rationality, capabilities and South Asian stability?


So what?: Even in nuclear inequality when it comes to destruction capacities, nuclear strategy is based on perfect credibility, rationality and information.


India Pakistan Missiles
Source: shutterstock.com/mrbelic

An Imperative for Nuclear Platforms?


Sea-based nuclear platforms have been on the maritime frontlines of states since the middle of the 20th century. India and Pakistan have only recently added sea-based nuclear platforms in their strategic designs. The advent of India’s INS Arihant in 2016 and Pakistan’s Babur III in 2017 has ensured that the focus on sea-based platforms is set to grow in strategic and national security debates across South Asia. Concurrently, the deployment of nuclear-capable vessels and missiles, both ballistic and cruise, in the Indian Ocean’s waters off South Asia is likely to grow manifold. Thus, it is necessary to understand the imperatives driving India and Pakistan towards acquiring sea-based nuclear-capable platforms.


Nuclear deterrence theory states that the high price of an all-out nuclear war renders a military victory meaningless. This, in turn, brings more stability to the international system. However, there have been several debates over the functioning of nuclear deterrence in South Asia, primarily since it is the only region in the world with nuclear weapons states in close proximity. Thus, while the nuclear deterrence in place since India and Pakistan went overtly nuclear in 1998 has so far not failed in South Asia, there are several nuances of the theory that remain open to debate. Sea-based nuclear platforms add a new dimension to these debates. There is a need to analyse the impact of these platforms on nuclear deterrence in the region.


The South Asian nuclear situation is often termed as a conundrum since nuclear weapons have prevented a conventional war but not sub-conventional and low-intensity conflicts.[1] If anything, nuclear weapons have increased conflicts below levels of conventional war between India and Pakistan, like the sub-conventional conflict in Kargil in 1999 and the continuing low-intensity conflict in Kashmir. These have sometimes threatened to rise to a conventional war level, and the likelihood of a fourth conventional war between the South Asian neighbours remains a reality. A nuclear war will be the next logical escalation in the ladder. The advent of sea-based nuclear platforms is likely to impact this conflict escalation ladder in the region.

This research attempts to understand the imperatives driving India and Pakistan to include sea-based platforms in their nuclear arsenal, to analyse the current and projected sea-based nuclear capabilities of India and Pakistan and their impact on nuclear deterrence in South Asia, and to critically assess the impact of sea-based nuclear platforms on the conflict escalation ladder in South Asia.


If anything, nuclear weapons have increased conflicts below levels of conventional war between India and Pakistan, like the sub-conventional conflict in Kargil in 1999 and the continuing low-intensity conflict in Kashmir.

India’s Imperatives for Sea-based Nuclear Assets and its Capabilities


India has approached the nuclear weapons debate as a champion of disarmament. Yet, India recognises that in a world where certain states have legitimised the possession of nuclear weapons for an indefinite time, nuclear weapons become the ultimate instrument for guaranteeing peace and national security via ensuring strategic autonomy.[2] This reality drove India towards becoming a nuclear-weapon state in May 1998. However, India’s commitment to the nuclear option's defensive use meant that the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) was formed as the next logical step to draft India’s nuclear doctrine. The subsequent Draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine was released on 17 August 1999 and has dictated India’s nuclear policy. It rests on the three pillars of (i) no-first-use and hence by extension no-use against non-nuclear-weapon states, (ii) credible minimum deterrence through a guaranteed capability to retaliate if attacked by weapons of mass destruction and (iii) inflicting unacceptable levels of destruction, or massive retaliation, on anyone who uses weapons of mass destruction against India. The doctrine further highlights that India will not tolerate any interference in indigenous research and development aimed at enhancing its nuclear capabilities for achieving effective deterrence.[3]


Clearly then, for India to uphold the no-first-use principle, the nuclear doctrine's defining feature, a guaranteed second-strike capability becomes imperative for deterrence. This can be achieved in contemporary times most easily through a sub-surface nuclear capability that can deliver a nuclear weapon to a state from which the perceived threat of nuclear weapons originates. This is true since land-based missiles and air-based delivery systems, which along with sea-based delivery systems make up the nuclear triad (of means of delivering warheads), are susceptible to detection and attack from air and via interceptors respectively. Sub-surface vessels can go undetected even with advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. Massive retaliation, vital for credible minimum deterrence, requires augmentation of this capability further so that an adequate number of nuclear warheads can be delivered to inflict an unacceptable level of destruction.[4]


The answers to these problems lay in India fielding a nuclear-powered submersible ship (SSBN) fleet since SSBNs offer the triple advantages of endurance, flexibility and responsiveness. Endurance results from being nuclear-powered, which allows an SSBN to remain underwater for a longer period without the need to surface except for supplies for the crew. An SSBN is faster than most conventional submarines and can thus reach a point of launch quickly. It is further flexible in releasing a missile irrespective of overhead conditions. SSBNs are virtually invisible, protected from pre-emptive strikes, and can respond to a potential nuclear first strike, thereby providing minimum credible deterrence.[5] A fully equipped fleet, meanwhile, would strengthen any deterrence relationship by providing the option of massive retaliation.


An SSBN is faster than most conventional submarines and can thus reach a point of launch quickly. It is further flexible in releasing a missile irrespective of overhead conditions.

India’s SSBN Force Objective: Achieving Deterrence Beyond South Asia


INS Arihant is India’s indigenously built nuclear-powered ballistic missile capable submarine. It was commissioned into the Indian Navy (IN) in 2016 and completed India’s nuclear triad. It is currently armed with K-15 Sagarika submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) with a maximum range of 750 km.[6] However, the K-15 Sagarika is to be replaced by the K-4 SLBMs, which will have a range of over 3,500 km. Trials for the K-4 are currently underway. Meanwhile, INS Arihant is to be followed by the INS Arighat, which was launched in 2017 and is believed to be under harbor trials as of March 2021; it is expected to be commissioned in late 2021.[7] Both INS Arihant and INS Arighat have the capacity to carry four SLBMs each in vertical launch tubes. Two other submarines in the Arihant class, the S4 and S4* are scheduled for launch in 2021 and 2023 respectively. The S4 and S4* will be able to carry eight SLBMs each and give India the capability to achieve massive retaliation in the event of nuclear war through its four SSBNs carrying a total complement of 24 SLBMs. There are also discussions about a 13,500-tonne S5 with the capacity to carry 12 SLBMs.[8]


INS Arihant’s current home base is Vishakhapatnam in the Bay of Bengal. However, a new naval base at Rambilli, which is approximately around 70 km south of Vishakhapatnam, is being planned to serve as a home base for India’s SSBN fleet. The base will be named INS Varsha and is being constructed as part of Project Varsha. Notably, there is extensive collaboration between the navy and the corporate sector in developing the base.[9] INS Varsha has been zeroed in on as the preferred dock for the SSBN fleet due to its depth since deep pens allow submarines to enter and leave the port without being detected by satellites. INS Varsha’s geographic location, the western littoral of the Bay of Bengal, means that the Bay of Bengal is supposed to be India’s submarine bastion.[10] India’s control over the Bay of Bengal, a security imperative if the SSBN fleet is housed there, is considerably strengthened with the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC). The ANC, India’s first tri-service command, is roughly 1,200 km east of the Indian mainland. It was established in 2001 and can essentially cordon off the Bay of Bengal.[11]


The realisation of INS Varsha and the full complement of India’s SSBN fleet will allow India to maintain a strategic second-strike capability with massive retaliation over most of Asia after the induction of the K-4 SLBM. To put this in perspective, Bejing is approximately 3,200 km from Kolkata, Diego Garcia is 3,700 km, Tehran is 3,800 km, Jeddah is 5,000 km, Tokyo is 5,100 km, Vladivostok is 4,600 km, and Moscow and Ankara are 5,500 km; Islamabad is a mere 2,000 km from Kolkata and would require the SLBM to traverse over Indian territory for almost the entirety of its flight path. India’s aims at deterrence via its SSBNs go far beyond South Asia, even if they may be contributing to insecurities among its lesser capable neighbours. At present, it is commonly construed in western and western-influenced academia that this means building a credible second-strike deterrent capability aimed at China.[12] However, given that there are only permanent interests and no permanent friendships or rivalries in international relations, it would be safer to say that India’s sub-surface nuclear capabilities are aimed at securing its extra-regional interests.


India’s aims at deterrence via its SSBNs go far beyond South Asia, even if they may be contributing to insecurities among its lesser capable neighbours.

Pakistan’s Imperatives for Sea-based Nuclear Capabilities


Naming Pakistan as a state which stands as an anti-thesis to a Hindu-majority, secular India has been a survival imperative for Pakistan due to a paucity of other factors holding the state together. This results from the identity politics being played out in a state that has few cultural or ethnic distinctions from its contiguous neighbourhood. Pakistan has to rely on a rigidly-defined religious identity to give space for its domestic politics to play out as this is the obvious distinction that exists between Pakistan and its large heterogeneous neighbour. While the political establishment remains relevant in Pakistan based on its virile nationalist rhetoric, the military gains its power from a narrative that it is only the Pakistani Army that stands between India steamrolling Pakistan into submission. While this argument may be self-defeating in realising larger global ambitions, it has helped consolidate Pakistan’s domestic politics in the hands of three power poles: the military, clergy and a political elite. It is thus domestic politics and that has dictated Pakistan’s India-centric military, naval and nuclear strategies.[13]

Pakistan has consistently followed an India-centric approach to developing its nuclear weapons arsenal and delivery systems under the assumption that India attempts to establish its hegemony over Pakistan and the rest of South Asia on account of its superior conventional capabilities viz-a-viz all states in the region.[14] Pakistan views India’s nuclear weapon as a weapon of prestige and not one of deterrence. Considering that Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions have been built around this limited mandate, the benefits of the nuclear weapon for Pakistan beyond India-specific deterrence, if any, have been only incidental. Pakistan’s nuclear pursuits have followed India’s and, given its lack of capabilities, have often lagged from as early as 1998 when Pakistan did not conduct a thermonuclear test in Ras Koh Hills as part of the Chagai Hills nuclear tests in response to India’s nuclear tests at Pokhran. This gap has assumed stark proportions viz-a-viz Pakistan’s sub-surface nuclear capabilities given that India has enjoyed a rapid rate of naval developments, both indigenous and through cooperation with other states, in recent decades. However, this has not deterred Pakistan from trying to incorporate nuclear warheads on its conventional submarines.[15]


Pakistan views India’s nuclear weapon as a weapon of prestige and not one of deterrence. Considering that Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions have been built around this limited mandate, the benefits of the nuclear weapon for Pakistan beyond India-specific deterrence, if any, have been only incidental.

This gap in nuclear capabilities has resulted in Pakistan steadily moving away from credible minimum deterrence to full-spectrum deterrence since Pakistan’s deterrence requirements have become more varied given India’s technological advances. Under full-spectrum deterrence, Pakistan has developed delivery systems that can be used for counterforce, countervalue as well as battlefield strikes. Full-spectrum deterrence has thus been used as an excuse to offset India’s conventional advantage, and nuclear blackmail (considering Pakistan has no no-first-use policy) has become a norm when India-Pakistan tensions escalate. Pakistan’s limited sub-surface nuclear capability has entered this offence dominated force posture under the guise of an undersea nuclear deterrent. Yet, Pakistan believes that full-spectrum dominance through escalation dominance is imperative for offsetting India’s superiority since Pakistan’s policy planners seem to believe that escalation dominance is a viable termination strategy in the event of a limited nuclear war. This posture, however dangerous, has so far worked since Pakistan has treated the nuclear option as a last resort.[16]


Pakistan’s Quest to Realise a Credible Sea-based Nuclear Deterrent


Pakistan’s attempts to realise a sea-based nuclear deterrent took its first cautious steps with the submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) Babur-III, which is a variant of its land-based Babur class of cruise missiles. The SLCM, test-fired first in January 2017 and again in March 2018, has a maximum stated range of 450 km. It is believed to be inducted in the Pakistani Navy (PN) following its second test since the Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) released a statement saying that Pakistan had achieved a credible second-strike capability.[17] However, speculation about the credibility of the SLCM test launch, let alone its ability to contribute to nuclear deterrence, had arisen following the first test itself when it was stated that the technical evidence didn’t match up to the Pakistani claim.[18]


Further examination of the technical evidence also raises questions on the actual range of the Babur-III based on the fact that it is to be fired horizontally from torpedo tubes onboard the Agosta 90B class of submarines called the Khalid class in Pakistan. An analysis of the missile dimensions and torpedo tubes of the Agosta 90B class shows that the missile, assuming it is consistent with the other missiles in the Babur class, will have a range of roughly 250 km unless modifications are made to the missile’s dimensions and consequently the torpedo tubes. However, this will imperil the survivability of the platform is hence not considered a logical option.[19] Thus, while Pakistan may have adopted a stop-gap measure with an eye to compete with India to possess a sea-based nuclear deterrent capability, the only way it can do so is by incorporating long-range SLBMs and vertical launch systems in its submarines. While Pakistan lacks the financial, technical and material capabilities to do so at present, it can be surmised that this will be its ultimate aim and its navy’s personnel may seek training on SSBNs of friendly states like China in furtherance of this aim.[20]


An analysis of the missile dimensions and torpedo tubes of the Agosta 90B class shows that the missile, assuming it is consistent with the other missiles in the Babur class, will have a range of roughly 250 km unless modifications are made to the missile’s dimensions and consequently the torpedo tubes.

Coming to platforms itself, unlike India’s SSBNs, the Babur-III is to be placed on conventional diesel-electric attack submarines (SSKs) of the Agosta 90B class, three of which, the PNS Khalid, PNS Saad and PNS Hamza are currently in Pakistan’s submarine force. Pakistan has a total submarine force of five SSKs, including two older Agosta-70s.[21] The PNS Khalid is the oldest of the Agosta 90Bs and was commissioned in 1999.The PNS Hamza is the latest and the first to be equipped with the Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system on being commissioned in 2008; the PNS Khalid and the PNS Saad were retrofitted with the AIP system in 2011. The Agosta 90Bs are expected to be supplemented by eight Chinese Yuan class submarines, also equipped with the AIP system.[22] The deal for the Yuan class submarines was finalised in 2016, and the deliveries are expected to begin in 2023, but there is ambiguity as to whether they are going to be of type 041 or 039. Notably, PN submarines can operate from two naval bases, Karachi in Sindh and Ormara in Baluchistan.[23] Karachi is roughly 600km from Ahmedabad, the closest major city in India; Ormara is 900-km from Ahmedabad. Karachi is about 800km from Mumbai, the economic capital of India. Thus, even though it is believed that Babur-III has a range of 450km, its ability to inflict a strategic-strike on India will depend on the ability of its platforms to go undetected by Indian ISR capabilities.


Debating Strategic Stability and Conflict Escalation in South Asia


Academics suggest that South Asia's strategic stability follows the continuum of India’s conventional superiority being offset by Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the absence of a no-first-use policy in Pakistan’s nuclear strategy and its policy of full-spectrum deterrence.[24] This premise assumes that India aims to upset the strategic stability in South Asia. However, for the sake of a comprehensive analysis, this premise too needs to be given due consideration. Arguments over the impact of sea-based nuclear platforms on strategic stability in the region can be traced to 2015 when India tested a surface vessel-launched variant of its nuclear-capable Prithvi-III short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), with a modest range of 350 km, christened Dhanush. Notably, Dhanush was sometimes interpreted to be a stop-gap measure till the commissioning of INS Arihant. While a 350 km range SRBM is more likely to be used as a conventional weapon rather than a nuclear one, the advent of Dhanush meant that South Asia’s strategic stability, characterised by the India-Pakistan rivalry, no longer had a marked tilt towards the terrestrial domain. It could thus be assumed that Pakistan will aim to bring such actors in the maritime nuclear aspect.[25]


The most likely player that Pakistan may turn to in contemporary times is China, given the firmly established China-Pakistan nexus and China’s attempts at increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Thus, Pakistan may be willing to upset South Asia's strategic stability by involving China in exchange for its SSBN and SLBM technology. However, China has already managed to get access to South Asia with major ports in Gwadar, Hambantota and Chittagong, besides infrastructural facilities in Coco Islands, Seychelles and Maldives. Thus, there remain little incentives for China to indulge Pakistan’s sub-surface nuclear ambitions. SSBN and SLBM technology transfers to Pakistan, if at all, are more likely to be in the context of the Sino-Indian naval nuclear rivalry.[26] In fact, many in Pakistan suggest that China wants Pakistan to have the adequate nuclear capability to counter India and ensure that India and Pakistan possess similar nuclear technical know-how by assisting Pakistan.[27] However, this argument falls short of explaining which factors would want to make China posit Pakistan as a counter to India when China by itself enjoys an overwhelming conventional and nuclear superiority against India, not to mention that both India and China have defence-oriented nuclear doctrines and high economic interdependency.


However, China has already managed to get access to South Asia with major ports in Gwadar, Hambantota and Chittagong, besides infrastructural facilities in Coco Islands, Seychelles and Maldives. Thus, there remain little incentives for China to indulge Pakistan’s sub-surface nuclear ambitions.

China is also likely to be wary of carrying out such technology transfers given Pakistan’s poor proliferation recordand the fact that maintaining effective nuclear deterrence with India without destabilising the current security scenario in South Asia is in China’s interest as it allows for reciprocity and cooperation over common interests without the rivalry degrading into a confrontation or conflict.[28] Notably, the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good-Neighbourly Relations signed in 2005 between China and Pakistan commits each side not to join a bloc or alliances which infringes on the other party’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity. It does not imply any commitments towards active military aid during a conflict.[29]

Another argument over Indian SSBNs disturbing South Asia's strategic stability is premised on Pakistan losing the capability to incapacitate all of India’s nuclear arsenal with a spectacular first strike. Its sea-based nuclear capabilities are intended to deter India from the same.[30] However, Pakistan’s nuclear brinkmanship fails to respect the escalation ladder. The escalation ladder dictates that the actual use of a nuclear weapon will have to be preceded by a sub-conventional conflict being gradually raised to the level of a conventional war and demonstrative use of a nuclear weapon. The next escalatory dynamic includes limited use of tactical nuclear weapons against military targets, which may include the use of Babur-III against Indian naval vessels or coastal installations if the opportunity is offered, followed by a retaliatory attack. The escalation ladder has so far been tested only up to the level of a sub-conventional conflict during the Kargil Conflict of 1999. Low-intensity conflict continues in Kashmir under the nuclear umbrella since Pakistan believes that India will not escalate a conflict to a conventional war out of fear of a nuclear response.[31] However, India’s responsive approach to using its nuclear weapons counters Pakistan’s nuclear strategy of achieving escalation domination even in the scenario of India responding only proportionally to a limited nuclear attack by Pakistan. This is since India enjoys a distinct advantage viz-a-viz conventional military power and resources, coupled with Pakistan’s lack of strategic depth. Given this scenario, it is prudent to contend that South Asia's strategic stability has not been achieved through Pakistan’s ability for a spectacular first strike, but rather from the guarantee of an Indian response. From this perspective, India’s SSBNs add to this stability by guaranteeing a second-strike capability.


The escalation ladder dictates that the actual use of a nuclear weapon will have to be preceded by a sub-conventional conflict being gradually raised to the level of a conventional war and demonstrative use of a nuclear weapon.

A sea-based nuclear-capable platform necessitates a dilution in the centralised nuclear command-and-control structure that both countries have so far practised to good effect as the missiles will have to be loaded onto submarines in a ready-to-fire condition. The centralised command-and-control structure is headed by the Prime Ministers, acting in consort with other government and military officials of India and Pakistan. This decentralisation is likely to increase levels of alertness that are in place when tensions are escalating. Ambiguity also prevails over the protocol for authorisation of nuclear weapons’ use from submarines as neither India nor Pakistan has come out with a clear statement on the issue.[32] These dimensions have given grounds for debates over the use of a nuclear weapon. This is due to a potential misjudgement resulting from a ‘fog of war’ scenario where a submarine commander, or another designated person who has been empowered with authorisation of use of a nuclear weapon, fires his weapon while perceiving a use-it or lose-it scenario.


The fact that Pakistan’s submarine bases and communication centres are relatively close to Indian navy and air force bases means that they are rendered more vulnerable to an attack. Further compounding the problem is the small size of Pakistan’s Babur-III capable submarine force, which puts Pakistan’s second-strike capability at risk and increases the temptation to pre-delegate authorisation of the nuclear option.[33] Furthermore, nuclear SLCM capable submarines in waters close to its coast are likely to make India enhance efforts at tracking such submarines, which will bring Indian and Pakistani submarines close and increase risks of accidents or incidents on the high seas, which could escalate tensions.[34] Given this scenario, in the event of a conventional war where Pakistan may aim at establishing escalation dominance through aggressive force posturing, the Indian command-and-control structure will face a dilemma over whether to treat the submarine as a conventional target. However, if the conventional submarine is carrying nuclear-tipped SLCMs, a conventional attack can significantly bring down the nuclear threshold.


It is close to impossible to distinguish whether an Augosta 90B class submarine, or in future a Yuan class submarine, is carrying nuclear-tipped or conventional SLCMs. On the other hand, India’s Arihant class SSBNs can be clearly classified as a submarine intended for achieving a strategic strike and one which is not meant for conventional warfare.[35] Thus, the likelihood of sea-based platforms negatively affecting South Asia’s strategic stability flows due to Pakistan’s stop-gap measure to compete with India without adequate economic and technical resources. The INS Arihant and the other SSBNs of Arihant that are to follow are tasked with principally lying invisible in the sea and contributing to deterrence, to bring strategic stability in the relationship between India and China, or that of India and any other power that it likely to pose a challenge;[36] the strategic stability it brings about in the India-Pakistan relationship is only incidental.


Conclusion


India’s imperatives for a sea-based nuclear deterrent arise from its need for strategic autonomy in the world order, which necessitates that its deterrence building is an incremental process until it can be at par with agenda-setters in the international arena. While India, not wanting to indulge in an arms race, is not pursuing deterrence by sheer numbers of warheads and missiles, it is certainly trying to achieve technologies that give it parity in the qualitative aspects of nuclear deterrence. The Arihant-class of SSBNs is a first step towards achieving a comprehensive sea-based nuclear deterrent and is aimed at extra-regional powers. Given this, it is a matter of great urgency for India to induct the K-4 missiles to give INS Arihant the range required for achieving such deterrence. Also, given the limited missile-carrying capacity of the INS Arihant, induction of the INS Arighat, S4 and S4* is required to make this deterrence credible by the promise of massive retaliation. Until this is done, it will be premature to say that India has achieved its doctrinal requirement of credible minimum deterrence.

On the other hand, Pakistan seeks to maintain a deterrence relationship with India since it claims it views India’s global aspirations as a threat to its interests. Pakistan seeks to maintain nuclear parity with India. However, it faces several technological and economic constraints in its endeavour. The Babur-III missile is thus considered a viable alternative by the Pakistani establishment to supplement the narrative that, like India, Pakistan has developed a sub-surface nuclear capability, notwithstanding the huge qualitative difference that exists between an SLBM launched from an SSBN and a SLCM launched from an SSK.


The limited range of the Babur-III, coupled with India’s no-first-use doctrine and commitment to purely retaliatory use of its nuclear weapon, means that the SLCM technology adds little value to Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence. However, the Pakistani establishment believes that it contributes to Pakistan’s policy of full-spectrum deterrence, which is intended to dissuade India from a conventional war with Pakistan. Nevertheless, India doesn’t give credence to a limited nuclear war scenario, though it may have developed contingencies for it, and assures that any nuclear strike will be followed by massive retaliation. On paper, this may seem like a doomsday-esque scenario. However, a steady deterrence relationship has still been maintained in South Asia as a result of both India and Pakistan being rational actors and acknowledging that the nuclear weapon is a weapon of last resort.


Nevertheless, India doesn’t give credence to a limited nuclear war scenario, though it may have developed contingencies for it, and assures that any nuclear strike will be followed by massive retaliation.

The deterrence relationship is followed in the continuum by strategic stability that the nuclear weapons bring. While Pakistan has contended that INS Arihant augurs an arms race in South Asia and hence upsets strategic stability, the Indian argument states that there is no need for an arms race since the SSBN is not directed for use against Pakistan. Pakistan’s bone of contention then is not so much the fear of an arms race but rather the loss of a spectacular first strike option, however impractical this may be. Strategic stability in South Asia has thus been premised on the survivability of India’s nuclear arsenal and the guarantee that India will respond to a nuclear strike. The different levels of deterrence strengthen strategic stability. However, given that Pakistan’s sea-based nuclear capabilities don’t play a part in deterrence, the third rung of the continuum, namely conflict escalation, opens up several avenues for debates.


Shishir Rao is a geopolitical researcher. His research interests include India’s national security, the Indian Ocean Region, maritime strategy, and perception management. He holds an MA in Geopolitics and IR, an MA in English, and a Bachelor’s in Media Studies (Journalism). He is a former journalist (news desk) with about five years of experience. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of his professional or educational affiliations.


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[2] Arvind Kumar (Ed.), Report on a Workshop on The Draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine (National Institute of Advanced Studies: Bangalore, 2001), pp. 5-7.

[3] Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (New Delhi), August 17, 1999, https://www.mea.gov.in/in-focus-article.htm?18916/Draft+Report+of+National+Security+Advisory+Board+on+Indian+Nuclear+Doctrine, accessed on April 10, 2021.

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[5] Neha Kumar, “INS Arihant: Strengthening Nuclear Deterrence,” Indian Journal of Asian Affairs (New Delhi), v. 22, n. 1, 2009, p. 77.

[6] Dinakar Peri, “Now, India Has a Nuclear Triad,” The Hindu (New Delhi), October 18, 2016, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/Now-India-has-a-nuclear-triad/article16074127.ece, accessed on October 01, 2019.

[7] Shishir Gupta, “Eye on China, India’s Plan for 6 Nuclear-powered Attack Submarines Back on Track,” Hindustan Times (New Delhi), March 10, 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/eye-on-china-india-s-plan-for-6-nuclear-powered-attack-submarines-back-on-track-101615327826084.html, accessed on April 10, 2021.

[8] Sandeep Unnithan, “From India Today Magazine: A Peek into India’s Top Secret and Costliest Defence Project, Nuclear Submarines,” India Today (New Delhi), December 17, 2017, https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/the-big-story/story/20171218-india-ballistic-missile-submarine-k-6-submarine-launched-drdo-1102085-2017-12-10, accessed on 1 October 2019.

[9] Santosh Patnaik, “Stage Set to Allot 1,000 Acres for Reliance Shipyard at Rambilli,” The Hindu (New Delhi), July 29, 2017, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/stage-set-to-allot-1000-acres-for-reliance-shipyard-at-rambilli/article19381226.ece, accessed on October 13, 2019.

[10] Saurav Jha, “India’s Undersea Deterrent”, The Diplomat (Washington D.C.), March 30, 2016, https://thediplomat.com/2016/03/indias-undersea-deterrent/, accessed on April 10, 2021.

[11] Dhan Singh, “Andaman and Nicobar Islands: A Strategic Springboard for India,” Andaman Chronicle (Port Blair), April 27, 2017, http://www.andamanchronicle.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8774:andaman-and-nicobar-islands-a-strategic-springboard-for-india&catid=19&Itemid=147, accessed on October 13, 2019.

[12] Yogesh Joshi, “Angles and Dangles: Arihant and the Dilemma of India’s Undersea Nuclear Weapons,” War on the Rocks (Washington D.C.), January 14, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/01/angles-and-dangles-arihant-and-the-dilemma-of-indias-undersea-nuclear-weapons/, accessed on October 28, 2019.

[13] Atif Shafique, “The Case for Constructivism in Analysing the India-Pakistan Conflict,” E-International Relations (Bristol), September 07, 2011, https://www.e-ir.info/2011/09/07/the-case-for-constructivism-in-analysing-the-india-pakistan-conflict/, accessed on October 30, 2019.

[14] Feroz H. Khan, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb (Stanford University Press: Stanford, 2012), pp. 48-58.

[15] Ahyousha Khan, “Babur Missile Test: Pakistan Validating its Second-Strike Capability,” moderndiplomacy (Washington D.C.), April 27, 2018, https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2018/04/27/babur-missile-test-pakistan-validating-its-second-strike-capability/, accessed on October 20, 2019.

[16] Sannia Abdullah, “Pakistan’s Full-Spectrum Deterrence: Trends and Trajectories,” South Asian Voices (Washington D.C.), December 13, 2018, https://southasianvoices.org/pakistan-full-spectrum-deterrence-trends-trajectories/, accessed on October 20, 2019.

[17] “Pakistan Says Second Strike Capability Attained,” Dawn (Karachi), March 30, 2018, https://www.dawn.com/contact/, accessed on October 28, 2019.

[18] “Did Pakistan Fake Nuclear Missile Babur-3 Launch? Photoshop Expert Thinks So,” India Today (New Delhi), January 10, 2017, https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/babur-3-missile-launch-video-fake-pakistan-nuclear-missile-954198-2017-01-10, accessed on October 28, 2019.

[19] Rajaram Nagappa, Avinash P and Riffath Khaji, “Babur-3-Pakistan’s SLCM: Capability and Limitations,” Journal of Air Power and Space Studies (New Delhi), v. 13, n. 3, 2018, pp. 46-50.

[20] Ibid, p. 52.

[21] PN Dimensions: Submarine Force, Pakistan Navy, Government of Pakistan (Islamabad), https://www.paknavy.gov.pk/submarine_Force.html#, accessed on October 28, 2019.

[22] Baqir Sajjad Syed, “China to Build Four Submarines in Karachi,” Dawn (Karachi), October 07, 2015, https://www.dawn.com/news/1211363, accessed on October 28, 2019.

[23] “Pakistan Submarine Capabilities,” Nuclear Threat Initiative (Washington D.C.), October 16, 2019, https://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/pakistan-submarine-capabilities/, accessed on October 29, 2019.

[24] Ayesha Rana, “Challenges to Strategic Stability in South Asia”, Strategic Studies (Islamabad), v. 38, n. 2, 2018, pp.18-20.

[25] Iskander Rehman, “Murky Waters: Naval Nuclear Dynamics in the Indian Ocean,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (Washington D.C.), March 09, 2015, https://carnegieendowment.org/2015/03/09/murky-waters-naval-nuclear-dynamics-in-indian-ocean-pub-59279, accessed on October 30, 2019.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Aamir Latif and Islamuddin Sajid, “India’s Nuclear Submarine Could Trigger Arms Race,” Anadolu Agency (Ankara), November 10, 2018, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/indias-nuclear-submarine-could-trigger-arms-race/1307489, accessed on October 30, 2019.

[28] Peter Dombrowski, “The Dangers of SSBN Proliferation in Indo-Pacific Asia,” in (Article Series) Sea-based Nuclear Weapons and Strategic Stability, The Interpreter, (Sydney), August 11, 2014, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/debate/sea-based-nuclear-weapons-and-strategic-stability, accessed on October 30, 2019.

[29] “China, Pakistan Sign Treaty for Friendship, Cooperation and Good-Neighbourly Relations,” People’s Daily Online (Beijing), April 06, 2005, http://en.people.cn/200504/06/eng20050406_179629.html, accessed on October 30, 2019.

[30] Syed Ali Zia Jaffery, “SAV Review: Islamabad’s Sea-based Nuclear Gambit,” South Asian Voices (Washington D.C.), February 09, 2018, https://southasianvoices.org/review-islamabads-sea-based-nuclear-gambit/, accessed on October 30, 2019.

[31] Rodney Jones, Nuclear Escalation Ladders in South Asia, Report No. ASCO 2011 007, Defence Threat Rejection Agency, Department of Defence, United States Government (Washington D.C.), April 2011, pp. 14-16.

[32] Aqeel Akhtar, “Nuclear Submarines Shift Strategic Balance of Indian Ocean,” International Institute for Strategic Studies (London), January 29, 2019, https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2019/01/nuclear-submarines-indian-ocean, accessed on October 30, 2019.

[33] Ankit Panda, “The Risks of Pakistan’s Sea-based Nuclear Weapons,” The Diplomat (Washington D.C.), October 13, 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/10/the-risks-of-pakistans-sea-based-nuclear-weapons/, accessed on October 30, 2019.

[34] Andrew Winner, “Why Indian and Pakistani Sea-based Nukes Are so Troubling,” in (Article Series) Sea-based Nuclear Weapons and Strategic Stability, The Interpreter, (Sydney), August 29, 2014, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/debate/sea-based-nuclear-weapons-and-strategic-stability, accessed on October 31, 2019.

[35] Abhijan Rej, “Pakistan’s Sea-based Nuclear Deterrent and its Asymmetric Escalation Strategy,” Observer Research Foundation (New Delhi), Issue Brief and Special Reports, May 01, 2018, https://www.orfonline.org/research/pakistans-sea-based-nuclear-deterrent-and-its-asymmetric-escalation-strategy/, accessed on October 31, 2019.

[36] Robert Farley, “Could India’s Arihant-Class SSBN Lead to Strategic Instability in South Asia?,” The Diplomat (Washington D.C.), October 24, 2016, https://thediplomat.com/2016/10/could-indias-arihant-class-ssbn-lead-to-strategic-instability-in-south-asia/, accessed on November 06, 2019.


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