“In our new age of terrifying, lethal gadgets, which supplanted so swiftly the old one, the first great aggressive war, if it should come, will be launched by suicidal little madmen pressing an electronic button. Such a war will not last long and none will ever follow it. There will be no conquerors and no conquests, but only the charred bones of the dead on and uninhabited planet.”
— William L Shirer
If there is one thing the history of the nuclear arms competition in South Asia has proven, it is that the sky is the limit for both Pakistan and India when it comes to building nuclear weapons. After the 1998 nuclear explosions, pro-nuclear lobbies in both countries supported their respective governments’ decisions to go nuclear. Their arguments revolved around a particular view of belief that nuclear weapons would contribute to regional stability by acting as an effective restraint on a large-scale war between the two countries.
However, the Kargil conflict busted this myth within a year of the nuclear tests. More alarmingly, nuclear weapons fuelled further instability by encouraging wars or conflicts at lower levels. But, unfortunately, the nuclear establishments of both countries are still living in their own, self-constructed realities. Some hawkish writers believe that strategic stability in South Asia can be achieved only if both India and Pakistan acquire “assured second strike capabilities.”
Over the past decade, India’s pursuit of a sea-based nuclear strike force has shifted the nuclear competition to another arena. Although the Indian government had started working on a nuclear submarine programme in the late 1970s, their decision to launch INS Arihant – indigenously made nuclear-powered submarine, in 2009 – raised many eyebrows in the international community. In 2012, Pakistan’s nuclear security managers established a Naval Strategic Force Command headquarters, declaring their intent to develop their own sea-based deterrent.
There are even speculations that Pakistan’s nuclear establishment was considering the acquisition of a sea-based deterrent much before the Arihant was even launched. There have also been media reports of a project to design a miniaturised power plant for a nuclear submarine. But there is no way to evaluate the veracity of such claims.
Pakistani authorities maintain that their nuclear ambitions are fuelled by a chronic sense of insecurity vis-à-vis India. In 2002, Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai, then director of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division (SPD), laid out the conditions under which Pakistan could use nuclear weapons. In his view, nuclear weapons were solely aimed at India. And they would be used if the Indian army attacked and occupied a large part of Pakistan’s territory, proceeding to the economic strangling or political destabilisation on a large scale.
Many historians have generally agreed that India’s 1974 nuclear tests forced Pakistan to explore the nuclear option, and again in 1998, after the Indian government created war hysteria in the region, our civilian and military leaders had to conduct nuclear tests.
The Indian nuclear establishment has test-fired a series of Dhanush-class short-range ballistic missiles as a stopgap measure unless the submarine programme is fully functional. New Delhi claims that its ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) fleet is aimed at countering the threat from China. But many argue that India’s bureaucratic politics best explains its growing nuclear capabilities. A clear rationale behind the Indian Navy’s emphasis on continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence (CASD) is a quest for prestige.
Strategic experts who favour a nuclear triad believe that the sea-based leg makes deterrence more dependent on the invisibility of nuclear arsenal and less on its size. But this argument is supported by empirical evidence because, during the cold war period, both the United States and the Soviet Union continued to build nuclear arms even after developing a full-fledged strategic force triad.
However, it must not be forgotten that the submarine-based leg of nuclear triad will create significant problems for existing command-and-control systems in both countries. In addition, both countries’ armed forces will be more likely to engage in frequent interactions in maritime space and, consequently, more opportunities for conflict. Operating under a nuclear shadow, it would become extremely difficult to stop any small maritime combat from spiralling into a disastrous naval nuclear exchange.
India’s paranoid nuclear establishment is totally unaware of the extent to which its aggressive nuclear posture has become a cause of strategic imbalance among regional countries. A recent report by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) supports the observation made in a number of articles written earlier by this writer that India has one of the largest nuclear power programmes among developing countries. The Indian army is not even ready to be transparent about the exact size of its fissile material stocks.
The double standards of the international community are reflected also because it does say anything against India’s refusal to declare even its civil inventories of plutonium to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This makes one Pakistani, apparently unsubstantiated, assessment more believable that India has enough fissile material, both reactor- and weapon-grade plutonium, for almost 2,000 weapons. India also has a gas centrifuge programme, which is able to produce large amounts of highly enriched uranium (HEU) for naval reactor fuel. But there is every reason to believe that the Indian nuclear establishment can use that HEU for building nuclear weapons and thermonuclear weapons.
Against this backdrop, the destabilising effects of the presence of nuclear weapons become more observable in that nuclear capabilities have enabled both countries to engage in sub-conventional conflicts at the lower end of the spectrum of violence. And these sub-conventional conflicts will continue to persist in the years to come because conventional conflicts remain risky.
Another possible threat is that the emplacement of nuclear warheads on the ocean floor would enhance the possibility of a limited nuclear war. This is because the use of nuclear weapons against enemy ships would cause very few mass casualties. This can lead both Pakistan and India to believe that as long as such attacks do not result in civilian casualties, their forces can go to limited war at sea.
Pakistan and India do have the capability to pursue wars of limited aims but what makes these conflicts dangerous is the fear of operational failures, and there is no surety to the fact that the war would be terminated once the initial goals are achieved. In addition, once initiated, the war might not remain limited in aims and consequences throughout the course of the campaign. So it is almost inevitable that, with limited nuclear war, there will be large uncertainties about the scope of conflict.
The American international relations theorist, John Mearsheimer, has repeatedly highlighted the dangers of naval nuclear warfare, noting that “some strategies can raise the risk that forces will collide with one another in a manner that activates one side’s rules of engagement, leading it to commence firing. In each instance crisis stability is undermined, and crises are more likely to erupt into war.”
The only way for both countries to stop from engaging in any such kind of coercive nuclear escalation is to limit their unbridled nuclear ambitions. Many other famous experts of war studies have also considered this commingling of nuclear and conventional assets at sea dangerous because, during a conflict, there is no sure-fire way to determine whether the enemy’s ships are armed with nuclear warheads or not.