Nuclearization of Indian Ocean and implications for South Asian region

By Maimuna Ashraf

The academic world is lately buzzing with the critiques on naval projection of Indian Ocean and sea-based nuclear deterrence in Indo Pacific Asia since the Indian officials proclaimed to formally commission its nuclear powered submarine – INS Arihant – into operational service after finishing the weapons trials and deep sea diving drills. This addition implies two evident and instant implications; first, it is likely to provide India a seaborne nuclear deterrent, notwithstanding the certain attributes of Arihant that is believed to limit its operational role and the skepticism about success rate of missiles tested from this submarine. Second, it will elevate India’s rivalry with China and Pakistan into the maritime domain. Consequently, oceans now have more significant role in strategy than before.

The security challenges in Indian Ocean Region (IOR) had magnified in wake of economic trade, energy security and rising rivalry between India and China. In the words of Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, “whoever attains maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean would be a prominent player on the international scene. Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominated Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas in the twenty-first century, the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters.” The region has thus become the hub of power competition between the key regional powers. China meets its growing energy needs by importing majority of the oil through Indian Ocean, whereas India with its hegemonic ambitions in the region wants to keep its traditional influence in the ocean while US already has naval presence in the region. However, the strategic shift did not remain confined to economic worth or conventional military influence and the powerful nuclear weapons turned out to be the most recent substantial aspect in this strategic contest. Thus, in the current milieu, four nuclear states are having strategic interests in the region and the water body of Indo-Pacific Asia has become the theatre of trilateral regional quest for influence between US-China, India-China and now India-Pakistan. The bilateral rivalries in this trilateral is making the existing environment in the region far from stable. The India-US nuclear deal and growing strategic partnership is largely viewed an alliance to counter China and Pakistan. Conversely, India is skeptical about the Chinese claim that ‘string of pearls’ aims to provide alternative sea trade routes and suspect it an effort to militarize or probably nuclearize the region. The launch of India’s INS Arihant would not be worrisome for China even if it indicates New Delhi aspiration to nuclearize its Navy because China already has advanced nuclear capabilities but it disturbs the deterrence equation in South Asia. The landscape of South Asian region is already unstable with India-Pakistan nuclear rivalry. The conventional asymmetry between both states has made Pakistan to restrict its doctrine for full-spectrum deterrence and after launch of Indian nuclear powered submarine this rivalry has entered in the Indian Ocean.

Here arise the questions that why a state would go for sea-based capabilities when its land based missiles are able to cover its adversary? To understand this phenomenon that why sates adopt a certain portfolio of nuclear weapons one must comprehend the policymakers’ decisions about the nuclear force structures. For instance, a state can acquire certain capabilities by possessing an individual nuclear platform because nuclear platforms vary in terms of range, destructive power, vulnerability to attack, effectiveness against different kinds of enemy forces, and other important attributes. Hence the acquisition of a particular nuclear platform is inadequate. In order to achieve the best state goals and assured deterrence, nuclear optimist believe that states must consider diversifying weapons and totality of nuclear capabilities by creating a portfolio of platforms. According to nuclear scholars “diversification is advantageous for defensive reasons. Lacking experience with nuclear conflict, nations cannot know which weapons will prove most effective or most vulnerable on the battlefield. Emphasizing a particular nuclear platform increases the risk that nuclear forces will become vulnerable to enemy counterforce targeting or other measures or even to unforeseen or accidental logistical or maintenance problems. This is one of the fundamental justifications for the nuclear triad.” Furthermore, it is said by Former Secretary of the Air Force Thomas Reed, “Its diversity poses an insoluble targeting problem to any aggressor. Any attack that might seriously cripple one leg of the Triad constitutes a clear and unambiguous warning to the other two. There is no known way to attack all three simultaneously”.

Another question that often surfaces against Pakistan is that if Indian nuclear submarine are aimed to deter China the why Islamabad would enter into a maritime nuclear race with New Delhi? The answer is in understanding that this sea-based nuclear deterrence transpired from the fright of being destroyed by a state possessing superior capabilities. Just like India is compelled to respond Chinese sea based nuclear developments so is Pakistan in case with India. Many analysts believe that a diversified nuclear force structure, covering each leg of nuclear triad, assure the credible second strike capability and mutual fears of destruction.  Thus reduces the vulnerability of nuclear attack and help stabilize a nuclear relationship.

Notwithstanding the aforesaid optimistic rationale about sea based deterrence, it is valid assertion that nuclear rivalry into the maritime can create greater instability. Many analysts are skeptical about the notion that sea-based nuclear arsenals can act as stabilizer in the region. In the next few years most of the sea-based nuclear weapons in the region, primarily India and China, may move from design and testing phase to active deployment. Nevertheless, the stability or instability of Indian Ocean will not be determined by weapons only rather it would largely depend on the bilateral relations, regional tensions and development of other sophisticated capabilities that primarily include anti-submarine warfare (ASW), in which the US might again assist India. Such sea-based nuclear cooperation between two states will fuel Pakistan’s naval nuclear ambitions and Pakistan may look to neutralize developments with India by deploying submarine launched variant of cruise missile on conventional submarine. Resultantly, the ambiguous combination of conventional and nuclear capabilities at sea would be an additional challenge.

Among many other prevailing challenges, the South Asian regional security has newly been challenged by the recent secret test of Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) K-4. The test boosted Indian deterrence capability but disturbed strategic balance in the already murky regional landscape by creating security dilemma for Pakistan. Pragmatically, Pakistan and India should abide by the agreement on pre-notification of ballistic missile tests which was reached between the two states in 2005, but recently violated by carrying out covert K4 test. Such infringement and negligence can fraught many regional security risks including nuclear accident and miscalculation. Ideally, the security of Indian Ocean should be matter of concern for states sharing economic and strategic interests in the region. While states in Indo Pacific Region are developing their nuclear submarine programs, vital matters regarding command and control, future posture and pre-notification of missiles tests should be addressed to avoid mistrust, miscommunication and misconception.

Show More

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.

Related Articles

Back to top button

Adblock Detected

Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker