Secret and scary sea-based ambitions

By Maimuna Ashraf

India and Pakistan are intertwined in an absolute longstanding security competition. Although, nuclear parity does not exist in the region neither both states are conventionally parallel but action-reaction or tit-for-tat cycle is rapidly enhancing the nuclear capabilities in Southern region, specifically of India and partially of Pakistan. Nevertheless India’s conventional superiority and nuclear advancements strongly influence Pakistan’s threat perceptions and nuclear strategies, resultantly boosting the region’s nuclear developments. The two most recent developments in South Asia have critically hoisted the danger of an accelerated nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan. First, the predominant development in region is the production and modernization of ballistic and cruise missiles by both states, along with the deployment of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) by India; Second, the developments related to sea-based nuclear warheads, that are shaping naval nuclear regime in South Asian region.

Currently, both Pakistan and India have enough nuclear capable bombers, warheads and ballistic and cruise missile. Notwithstanding these aspects, the robust modernization and enlargement of India’s military arsenals has significantly increased the size of its conventional and nuclear weapons. India’s pursuit of BMD will undermine the prevailing paradigm of mutually assured destruction or strategic equilibrium because the BMD shield system will make India believe that it can launch a nuclear strike while successfully defend itself against any retaliation. Evidently, it will become requisite for Pakistan to seek strategic partners who could provide the capability to counter BMD. Second, asymmetry will pressurize Pakistan to develop an assortment of nuclear missiles and delivery systems in view of amid reality that deployment of BMD would assist Indian ambitions to launch a conventional military operation such as through cold start.

Conversely, the evolving naval nuclear dynamics in South Asia would start a new competition in the region with alarming future prospects. Both states are said to be developing their naval nuclear forces. India, the world’s largest weapon importer, has a while back approved $16 billion for nuclear powered submarines and naval warships. Reportedly, India plans for developing more than 160 ship navy, 3 aircraft carriers and more than 40 warships and submarines that includes anti-submarines corvettes and stealth destroyers. India is one of the three Asian countries to maintain aircraft carriers.

The above mentioned naval concerns are surfacing more vehemently as India has finally tested the long awaited the indigenously-developed, nuclear capable K-4 ballistic missile lately. According to various sources, the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has not yet made public its recent test of nuclear capable submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) K-4. Although the missile is yet to get its actual name, it was being developed under a secret project, code named K-4. The name is said to have been derived from Missile Man of India Abdul Kalam. The test has been declared as ‘roaring success’ and according to the revealed details “the K-4 missile was fired at a depressed trajectory, starting from successfully clearing the launch tube and breaking the water surface to stage separation and maintaining the ballistic trajectory.

The missile was launched from a submerged pontoon, replica of a submarine, from water 9 meters deep”. Reportedly, the missile achieved all parameters before zeroing in on the pre-designated target with high accuracy. Presumably, it has been confirmed that the missile has been tested at its full-operational range. The K-4 is an intermediate-range nuclear-capable submarine-launched ballistic missile with an alleged range of up to 3,500 km. During a previous test in March 2014, the K-4 was only tested to a range of 3,000 km. However, as the technical details on the top-secret K-4 remain scarce, purportedly, it is 12 meters long, weighs around 17 tons, can carry a nuclear capable warhead of up to 2 tons, and is powered by solid rocket propellants. Moreover the missile is capable of cruising at hypersonic speed, also features an “innovative” system of weaving in three dimensions during flight as it approaches its target.  According to DRDO officials the missile will have to undergo at least two more developmental trials before it will be test-fired from the ballistic missile nuclear submarine (SSBN) INS Arihant. The INS Arihant was slated to be commissioned this month, but like several delays yet again a delay seems likely. The submarine is equipped with four vertical launch tubes, which can be armed with four K-4 missiles or K-15 missiles, another member of the K-series of missiles.

On other hand Pakistan last year approved a proposal from China to purchase eight diesel-electric submarines. However viewing India’s naval ambitions, Pakistan will look to neutralize developments with India and it may prove an initiative for having permanent sea-based deterrent equipped with submarine launched variant of cruise missile. Evidently, the pursuit of sea-based nuclear strike force is the next step towards India’s quest for an assured retaliatory capability and Pakistan’s naval nuclear ambitions are fueled primarily with growing conventional asymmetry rather than strategic imbalance between both countries. Nonetheless, an imperative issue is missing in debate that what a new command and control model will be adopted by Indian strategic forces and what challenges it would pose to the security of region. However evidently, these two recent developments in South Asia affect three foremost components of strategic stability that includes deterrence stability, arms-race stability and crisis stability. The recent trends show that India is shaping the regional security domains and Pakistan will be bound to be shaped.

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Maimuna Ashraf

Maimuna Ashraf works as a Senior Research Associate for an Islamabad-based think tank Strategic Vision Institute. She works on issues related to nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and South Asian nuclear equation. She writes for South Asian Voices, international blogs and national dailies.

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