There are substantially fewer nuclear weapons today than at the height of the Cold War. Yet the overall risks of nuclear war – by design, accident, rogue launch or system error – have grown in the second nuclear age. That’s because more countries with fragile command-and-control systems possess these deadly weapons. Terrorists want them, and they are vulnerable to human error, system malfunction and cyberattack.
The site of great-power rivalry has shifted from Europe to Asia with crisscrossing threat perceptions between three or more nuclear-armed states simultaneously. With North Korea now possessing a weaponised ICBM capability, the US must posture for and contend with three potential nuclear adversaries – China, Russia and North Korea.
The only continent to have experienced the wartime use of atomic weapons, Asia is also the only continent on which nuclear stockpiles are growing. The total stockpiles in Asia make up only three per cent of global nuclear arsenals, but warhead numbers are increasing in all four Asian nuclear-armed states (China, India, North Korea and Pakistan). None of them has yet ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, although China is a signatory. Asia stands alone in nuclear testing in this century.
The Cold War nuclear dyads have morphed into interlinked nuclear chains, with a resulting greater complexity of deterrence relations between the nuclear-armed states. Thus, as I’ve previously argued, the tit-for-tat suspensions of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by the US and Russia has a significant China dimension. The nuclear relationship between India and Pakistan is historically, conceptually, politically, strategically and operationally deeply intertwined with China. While Pakistan’s nuclear policy is India-specific, the primary external driver of India’s policy has always been China.
Until recently, the China threat did not extend to India’s maritime environment. Of late, India has become increasingly concerned about the growing Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean, including submarines, and the operational reinforcement of China-constructed strategic deep-water ports in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. This is now taking on a nuclear tinge.
During the Cold War, American ICBMs served a dual purpose. At the time, the submarine-based nuclear force wasn’t accurate enough and the ICBMs made up for that. The submarine force was also vulnerable to a disabling strike by the enemy. Today’s SLBMs are highly accurate, hard to detect and almost invulnerable. A 2010 study by a US Air Force team concluded that the US could meet all its perceived national security and extended deterrence requirements with just 311 nuclear weapons, with 192 single-warhead SLBMs mounted aboard 12 Ohio-class submarines as the core component. The balance, providing insurance, would be made up of 100 single-warhead ICBMs and 19 air-launched cruise missiles aboard B-2 stealth bombers.
This analysis is backed by William Perry, former US defence secretary, who argues that the US should scrap its ICBMs regardless of whether or not Russia reciprocates. A substantial numerical superiority in nuclear warhead stockpiles is of no military–operational consequence. Located in fixed positions, land-based ICBMs are easier to detect, target and destroy.
Thus, submarine-based nuclear weapons deepen US–Russia strategic stability by enhancing survivability and reducing successful first-strike possibilities. In addition, nuclear propulsion allows submarines to stay submerged for long periods and operate at huge distances from home ports and potential targets.
By contrast, the race to attain a continuous at-sea deterrence capability through nuclear-armed submarines is potentially destabilising in Asia because the regional powers lack well-developed operational concepts, robust and redundant command-and-control systems, and secure communications over submarines at sea.
China’s submarine nuclear-deterrent patrols began in December 2015. The People’s Liberation Army Navy currently has four Jin-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) with missiles over 7,000 kilometres in range in active service, and another two SSBNs have been constructed and may already be in operation. By 2020, its total submarine fleet is likely to increase from 56 to between 69 and 78 boats. In comparison, India has two SSBNs with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles of less than intercontinental range, one SSN and 15 conventional submarines. Pakistan deploys five diesel-electric submarines.
The Indian Navy currently has a fleet of 140 warships. On December 3, the government announced approval of another 56 new warships and six submarines to be built over the next decade. Given the peninsular nature of its coastline, India plans to have a fleet of four SSBNs by 2022 to enable it to maintain continuous at-sea deterrent capability off each seaboard.
The INS Arihant (“slayer of enemies”), India’s first indigenously designed, developed and constructed nuclear submarine, completed its inaugural deterrence patrol and returned to shore on November 5. The project was approved in 1984 and work on the submarine began in 1998. It was formally launched by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July 2009. Its atomic reactor was activated in August 2013, and it was inducted into the Indian Navy by PM Narendra Modi in August 2016.
The Arihant is expected to carry 12 theatre ballistic missiles with ranges of 700 to 1,000 kilometres, although the Defence Research and Development Organisation is working on intermediate-range ballistic missiles with ranges of between 3,500 and 5,000 kilometres. But to target cities and forces deep inside China and Pakistan from sea, India will need SLBMs in the 6,000- to 8,000-kilometre range. India isn’t acquiring that sort of capability anytime soon.
SLBM capability is critical to giving operational credibility to the doctrine of no first use. The inaugural deterrence patrol included trialling the redundancy and survivability of the several layers of secure communications between the Arihant and the National Command Authority, India’s supreme decision-making body on the bomb.
One of the key differences between China and India is their respective political systems. This manifests itself in the naval rivalry in two ways. First, not having to worry about periodic re-election by citizens through the ballot box, Chinese leaders are not compelled to factor in short-term electoral compulsions. Instead their defence acquisition decision-making is guided by long-term strategic calculations, requirements, needs and vision. By its very nature, defence acquisition is long term and capital-intensive, and much of it is confidential.
Second, with perceptions of public corruption a major political issue in India – including at present with respect to the acquisition of 36 Rafale jets from France for the Indian Air Force – plus the need to cater to many different bureaucratic and business as well as political constituencies, India’s defence acquisition decision-making is far inferior to China’s. Consequently, its indigenous program to design, develop and deploy nuclear submarines – “Make in India” – has been plagued by long delays and cost overruns, and the country has fallen further behind China in naval capabilities. The corruption of India’s political discourse will cast a long shadow over India’s defence capability while China leaves it in the dust.
Ramesh Thakur is emeritus professor at the Australian National University and co-convenor of the AsiaÛÒPacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.