SVI In-House Roundtable Discussion: Report – 20thNovember 2019 – Nuclearization of the Indian Ocean and its Implications on Strategic Stability

SVI In-House Roundtable Discussion: Report – 20thNovember 2019 – Nuclearization of the Indian Ocean and its Implications on Strategic Stability

Authored by:Waqas Jan
Edited by: S. Sadia Kazmi

 

As part of its contributions to academic and policy discourse, the Strategic Vision Institute hosted an In-house roundtable discussion on the ‘Nuclearization of the Indian Ocean and its Implications on Strategic Stability’. The speakers comprised of a broad range of experts from the Pakistan Navy who have held key diplomatic, military and academic positions throughout their careers. These included, Ambassador Vice Admiral (R) Khan Hasham Bin Saddique HI(M) (President IPRI), Rear Admiral (R) Saleem Akhtar (Former Pro-rector, Bahria University, Islamabad) and Capt. (R) Syed Aqeel Akhtar Naqvi (Senior Deputy Director, Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs, SPD) each of whom elaborated on key areas of the issue at hand. A number of notable academic researchers and analysts also took part in the discussion including the heads of various think-tanks, key journalists and representatives from foreign embassies leading to a lively and candid discussion.

In his opening remarks, President/Executive Director SVI, Dr. Zafar Iqbal Cheema offered a brief historical overview of the emerging geo-political dynamics of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). He explained that at the present, the entire region was being contested over by almost all the major powers, where China, Russia and the US are vying for direct as well as indirect influence. The steady move towards the nuclearization of the IOR however has led to an increasingly complex set of dynamics which extending beyond the India-Pakistan rivalry is likely to have a major impact on the prevailing great power competition within the region. He explained that despite the increased focus being paid to such developments in the recent past, the nuclearization of the IOR was not a new phenomenon as such. The Cold War witnessed both the US and Soviet Union deploy several sea-based nuclear assets which played a prominent role in shaping the region’s geo-politics. It wasn’t perhaps until Britain’s withdrawal from East of the Suez in the late 1960’s that the region’s littoral states were able to project greater influence and power across the IOR. This holds particularly true for the development of nuclear capabilities which India for instance made considerable strides in, especially under Rajiv Gandhi’s leadership. These capabilities (the foundations for which were laid back then) have come to fruition with India fielding its first nuclear ballistic missile submarines such as the INS Arihant while actively building its second nuclear powered ballistic submarine the INS Arighat. Deployed with nuclear capable ballistic and cruise missiles such as the K-15 and the Dhanush, India’s current actions as well as future plans are stated to considerably raise tensions as a direct result of the deployment of several ready to fire nuclear weapons across the Indian Ocean Region. Dr. Cheema stated that these developments thus merit serious attention and that he looked forward to how the learned speakers as well as the other distinguished participants would contribute to this burgeoning discourse.

Speaking on the ‘Emerging Geo-politics of the Indian Ocean Region’, Ambassador Vice Admiral (R) Khan Hasham Bin Saddique presented a detailed overview of the grave importance laid by both regional and extra-regional players regarding their maritime interests in the Indian Ocean. He began by explaining how the geo-strategic trends impacting the IOR emanated directly from the overall geo-political landscape of the world which in itself was undergoing transformation. This, he stated, was highlighted by the rise of China, and the rise of ultra-nationalist movements such as what was being witnessed in Europe and India, bucking the previous decades’ globalization trends. Considering how oceans served as the main center for power politics and the future of power politics was likely to be contested over in Asia, Vice Admiral Saddique identified several regional and global factors that converged together in support of his argument. This, he stated, was also evident at the grand strategy level as apparent in the US’s pivot to Asia strategy as well as the formation of the quadrilateral alliance between the US, India, Australia and Japan often referred to as the ‘Quad.’ As such, the entire IOR based on the US’s emerging Indo-Pacific strategy, which was in turn aimed at containing China’s rising influence across the South China Sea, was resulting in the IOR emerging as the most militarized and conflict-ridden region, devoid of any form of regional cooperation or shared security mechanism. Especially considering how some of the world’s most important and dense sea lines of communications traversed through this region, it was thus important that Sir Walter Raleigh’s timeless quote be taken into account in which he stated that “Whosoever commands the sea commands trade; whosoever commands trade commands the riches of the world; and whosoever commands the riches of the world commands the world itself.”

Highlighting the importance of these precepts particularly with respect to the Indian Ocean Region, Vice Admiral Saddique also referred to the famous Mahanian dictum which states “Whosoever attains maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean would be a prominent player on the international scene. This ocean is the key to the seven seas in the 21st century and the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters”. This was further evident in the key role the entire region played in global trade. Home to a significant proportion of the world’s fisheries, the IOR serves as a vital transit point for around 40% of the world’s offshore oil production, 50% of the world’s seaborne container traffic and one third of the world’s seaborne bulk cargo. Considering how a large number of developed nations were dependent on vital energy supplies passing through the Indian Ocean, the region was subject to the presence of a large number of regional and extra regional forces. This for instance was apparent in the state of Djibouti which situated at the mouth of the Red Sea was host to the US, Chinese, Japanese and French Naval bases.

Speaking of Pakistan’s maritime interests in reference to the IOR’s geo-politics, Vice Admiral Saddique stated that Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity were also subject to threats from its maritime environment which the Pakistan Navy remains responsible for securing. This includes ensuring the safety and security of the country’s citizens, ports, shipping, fishing, trade, energy supplies and all assets and resources within the country’s maritime domain. This further involves ensuring the security of vital Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) during conflict as well as peace time while also maintaining the peace and security of all areas of maritime interest for the country. He explained how with a coastline of about a 1000 Kms, an EEZ of 240,000 sq. km and an extended continental shelf of 50,000 sq. km, Pakistan was naturally poised to dominate crucial stretch and vital routes, while holding immense unexploited maritime potential.

Furthermore, Pakistan holds friendly relations and settled boundaries with all its maritime neighbors except for India. As evident in the outstanding Sir Creek issue, the lack of a clearly demarcated border between the two countries over this disputed area holds implications for both Pakistan’s coastal boundary as well as its maritime border. Adding to this complexity is the close proximity of Karachi Port and Port Qasim which handle 45% and 55% of the country’s maritime trade and cargo respectively. While there are other ports and potential harbors in development (such as Ormara, Pasni, Jiwani, Sonmiani, Basol, Keti Bandar, Shah Bandar and Jati) the singular location and convergence of Pakistan’s SLOCs and oil distribution systems around Karachi serves as a major potential target, considering its close proximity to Indian air and naval installations. Considering how nearly 91% of trade and 100% of oil imports to Pakistan are transported via sea routes the safety and security of the Nation’s SLOC’s remains the key national interest. There is an immense potential in further developing the country’s maritime resources and leveraging them for economic benefit. Considering Pakistan’s close proximity to the Persian Gulf, there is a huge potential in setting up shipbuilding and repair yards in the country. Similarly, the fishery industry’s contribution to GDP is less than 1% while promising geological indicators point to there being a high probability of undersea minerals and hydrocarbon resources, estimated at around 40 billion barrels of oil and 200 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Hence, while the threats being faced by Pakistan along its maritime domain range mostly from piracy, trafficking/smuggling, unregulated activities and environmental disasters, the most immediate and traditional threat that arises is from India’s growing influence in the IOR built on its increasing naval strength. At the present, the Indian Navy enjoys numerical superiority over the Pakistan Navy by almost 6:1. By 2027, it plans to field a 200 ship Navy equipped with at least 3 air craft carriers, 6 nuclear submarines, 20 conventional submarines, 60 destroyers/frigates and a number of aircraft of various types. Furthermore, India’s surface and sub-surface platforms are also likely to be equipped with a broad range of nuclear capable ballistic and cruise missiles that are to have a direct impact on the region’s strategic balance.

With a 7500km coastline, 1200 islands, 2 M sq. km EEZ and a continental shelf of around 1.2 M sq. km, the IOR holds tremendous importance for the Indian state. Its maritime infrastructure includes around 12 major and 200 non major ports with four offshore bases/posts. These have been set up mostly because a large portion of India’s energy and trade security is also dependent on its maritime links. Nearly 80% of its crude oil is imported by sea while around 80% of domestic natural gas production is contributed to by offshore gas fields. In addition, around 90% of trade by volume and 70% by value is transported via India’s maritime links.

Based on these requirements it thus follows that India’s emerging maritime strategy is to largely convert the Indian Ocean into ‘India’s Ocean.’ As evident in its Act East policy and the vital requirements of ensuring the safety of its SLOCs, India’s ambitions are geared towards becoming a net security provider throughout the IOR. This holds several implications keeping in mind the geo-politics of the wider region. For instance, the US has identified India as a key partner in the IOR for its Rebalancing to Asia strategy. As such the US’s strategic choice is in line with India’s aspirations of achieving major power status. It has dispelled the impressions of India’s more continental mindset, given impetus to Indo-US strategic relations and if materialized as envisaged, would allow the US to concentrate more on the Pacific region. Consequently, India’s perceived role of being a net security provider in the IOR directly affects Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, its aspirations of playing a greater role in the Pacific and around the Malacca Straits as part of the Quad and its strategic partnership with the US, directly impinge upon China’s sensitivities. As such India’s Act East policy has formally signaled the entry of a new player that holds several implications over the stability and security of the IOR. In essence, it complements India’s hegemonic designs while pushing out Extra Regional Forces from the IOR. It disturbs the prevailing strategic balance in South Asia and opens the door for India to carry out a potential misadventure under the garb of security. There is thus an added modicum of threat to Pakistan’s maritime interests leading to the possibility of opening another front. Through its hegemonic position, India may also use different international regimes such as ‘Container Security Initiatives’ and ‘Proliferation Security Initiative’ to hinder Pakistan’s SLOCs. This also poses grave economic implications considering how Pakistan’s economy relies heavily on sea trade with its maritime facilities concentrated in and around Karachi. India’s aspirations to control/check the IOR’s entry and exit points would also keep Pakistan’s SLOCs under constant threat.

Since the Indian Navy’s strategy gyrates around ‘force projection’, ‘sea control’ and ‘sea denial’, the Pakistan Navy needs to bridge the gap with a minimum essential force developmental plan including sea-based deterrence. It should remain capable to handle the complete spectrum of threats while in a position to be able to exploit India’s vulnerabilities within the maritime domain. Its reliance on ERF should also be as tempered since it can serve both as a threat and as a balancing force within the IOR necessitating positive engagement. This is essential if Pakistan is to prevail within the emerging geo-politics of the IOR.

Building on the previously laid out regional context, Rear Admiral (R) Saleem Akhtar spoke on the ‘Nuclearization of the IOR as a Consequence of India’s Naval Aspirations’. He explained how in the twenty first century, the maritime domain has emerged as the principal arena of contest and cooperation between states. In strategic defence documents of principal powers, the Indian and Pacific Oceans now appear as a single inseparable entity. The term “Indo-Pacific” or “Indo-Asia-Pacific” is at the heart of the discourse as stated in the official documents of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, India and others. The “Indo-Asia Pacific” also figured prominently in the March 2015 US Cooperative Sea Power Strategy. It draws from President Obama’s 2012 Asia pivot or “rebalancing” that calls for re-orientating 60 percent of US naval and marine forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific by 2020. “Re-balancing” also assigns India as Washington’s strategic partner and as a “regional anchor and provider of security” for the broader Indian Ocean.

Over one trillion dollars’ worth of trade transits through the maritime highways of the Indian Ocean each year. More than 5 trillion dollars of commerce travels through the Pacific annually. Asian, Pacific and Far Eastern economies are dependent on fossil resources imported through the Western half of the Indian Ocean. The importance of the sea is not only economic; it also acts as a medium for national defence. Here principles such as ‘Freedom of Navigation’ and that the `Sea is the common heritage of mankind’ add distinct dimensions to the use of sea for national defence. With advances in naval technology, the sea has become a preferred  medium for projecting power and influencing events ashore, making it an arena for political and military power plays. Famous naval strategist, Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, predicted the Indian Ocean to be the place where much of the economic and strategic “dynamics of the 21st century will be played out.” Currently this region is not just viewed as a body of water or a medium for transporting nearly 65 percent of the world oil and 35 percent of natural gas from Gulf but an arena for contemporary geopolitics – an important region that provides the easiest and shortest access to Central Asian States and Western China, and a route via which diverse consumer products are shipped from the East to markets in Europe and beyond.

These compulsions rightly make the Indian Ocean the jugular vein of the world economy. It is imperative that the IOR remains a safe and secure environment for maritime activities. Non-traditional and asymmetric challenges such as maritime terrorism, piracy, narcotrafficking, arms and human smuggling continue to manifest in the IOR further complicating the maritime security calculus. These compulsions as well as the ongoing war in Afghanistan and military presence in the Gulf has led to a sustained multinational naval presence in the IOR both independent and as part of coalitions.

Two nuclear neighbors with a seemingly never-ending rivalry also sit on the shores of the Western Indian Ocean. The US now provides India with unprecedented nuclear, defence and economic opportunities. The two are now also partners in the region’s maritime security. The US and Indian navies regularly conduct large scale naval maneuvers with carriers, nuclear submarines and frontline warships from both sides participating to hone joint operational skills. Through the induction of nuclear submarines, India has nuclearized the Indian Ocean as well.

The strategic balance of power in South Asia is eroding rapidly. It is naïve at best, if not unwise, to believe that the Indian naval build up is China specific as certain quarters in global defence circles would think. For Pakistan, the answer to the increasing deterrence gap rests in a submerged platform at sea duly armed with ballistic or cruise missile that could reach India’s key industrial centers or be able to strike in the enemy’s South.

Anxious as they are at China anchoring in the Indian Ocean at Gwadar, both the US and India are rushing to expand their strategic maritime security alliance. During his visit to India, the US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter signed what has come to be known as LEMOA, “Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement”, one of the three foundation agreements which the US has proposed to conclude with India. The other two are the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMO) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geo-spatial intelligence. The United States has been pressing India to sign LEMOA for a decade. Under LEMOA, the two sides can access supplies, spare parts and services from each other’s land facilities, air bases, and ports.

Speaking of CPEC which promises great hope for Pakistan and China; it is linked to connectivity with regions via maritime highways of the Indian Ocean. CPEC will also stimulate a greater and robust presence of the PLA Navy in the region. Consequently, the PLA Navy will likely become a “two ocean” Navy, something that is now the principal anxiety in New Delhi and Washington. Under CPEC, the security of Gwadar port is already with the Pakistan Navy. The PN and PLA Navy could forge strategic collaboration in R&D, bilateral exercises, production of warships and submarines, coastal defence as well as seabed exploration in the EEZ.

In the current scenario, 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 India-Pakistan. The bilateral rivalries in this trilateral framework is pushing the existing environment in the region towards instability. The India-US nuclear deal and growing strategic partnership is largely viewed as an alliance to counter China and Pakistan. Conversely, India is skeptical about the Chinese claim that its ‘string of pearls’ aims to provide alternative sea trade routes and suspects it as being an effort to militarize or probably nuclearize the region.

In examining the status of the Pakistan navy by 2020, it is important to note that the Navy will be left with only 4-5 frigates. These platforms are deemed grossly insufficient given that Pakistan and China’s sea trade volume is projected to rise phenomenally and that the PN will be required to ensure its presence far and wide for the protection of trade while also enforcing deterrence. Though a contract of Chinese submarines and warships was recently signed, two critical issues must be kept in perspective. Firstly, the impact that CPEC and a fully functional Gwadar port may have on future operational needs of PN. And second, the Indian Navy’s phenomenal expansion and collaboration with the US Navy. The Indian Navy is working towards fielding a 200-ship navy with three carrier task forces built around nuclear submarines and guided missile destroyers/frigates within the next decade or so. Over 130 major warships have been commissioned by the Indian Navy while two nuclear submarines have already been operationally integrated. The conventional asymmetry between both states has led Pakistan to shift its doctrine towards full-spectrum deterrence.

In the event of a nuclear war, the submarine is traditionally considered the ‘safest’ bet, as it can survive a first strike by the enemy and retaliate effectively. The reason why nations place a significant part of their nuclear arsenals onboard nuclear-propelled ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) is because of their invulnerability, in comparison to static air force bases, missile sites or even mobile launchers. Once at its patrol station a few hundred meters underwater, the SSBN is considered safe from prying sensors including satellites. An SSBN, being a vessel of immense strategic value, has to be deployed with care and secrecy in remote parts of the ocean where they can loiter for months at a time, without fear of detection or interference. The obvious corollary is that their missile range must be adequate to reach adversary targets from safe waters. In this context, it becomes obvious that the 750kms range of the K-15 is grossly insufficient to zero in on targets in mainland China from India’s home waters and that India has embarked on a Pak centric nuclear weapons program at sea. The Sagarika/K-15 missile is the SLBM version of the land-based Shaurya missile which has been integrated with the Arihant class submarine of the Indian Navy. This medium range ballistic missile is also assisted by the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) to ensure guaranteed national access to precision navigation. This allows for the high accuracy required for a precision strike. The last developmental test of the missile was conducted from an underwater launch platform off the coast of Visakhapatnam. The firing of this missile however could not be undertaken from the Arihant due to non-availability of submarine as it was involved in an accident earlier this year. It is worth noting here that India holds an abysmal record regarding accidents especially with submarines.

Another missile from K series, the K-4 is also undergoing testing. This is an intermediaterange submarine-launched ballistic missile, capable of carrying a 1 tonne payload up to a range of 3,500 km. The INS Arihant, which is the first of the Arihant Class Submarines will be able to carry four K-4 missiles. The K-4 missile was successfully tested on 24 March 2014 from an underwater pontoon submerged 30 meter deep. Once armed, the fleet of Indian nuclear submarines will soon be able to cover the entire Pakistani territory with their ballistic missiles fired from either the Eastern or Western quadrant of the Indian Ocean. These ‘K’ missiles are intrinsically important for India’s nuclear deterrence arsenal because they provide India with a much needed ideal and invulnerable second-strike capability stated in India’s Nuclear Doctrine and thus shift the balance of power in India’s favor in the South Asian region.

Speaking on the ‘Implications of Indian Second-Strike Capability on IOR Security’, Capt (R) Syed Aqeel Akhtar Naqvi expanded on the finer points of the impact these developments have had on the region’s strategic deterrence framework. He explained how the security landscape of the region was characterized primarily by deeprooted hostilities and mistrust between India and Pakistan spanning almost seven decades. Despite continued threats from India, Pakistan made sincere efforts to keep this region free from nuclear weapons. In 1974 Pakistan sponsored a resolution at the UNGA to declare South Asia as a nuclear weapons free zone and continued to push for its case for decades more to come. Pakistan also offered several bilateral proposals to India to prevent the nuclearization of the region such as jointly renouncing the production and manufacture of nuclear weapons in 1978, simultaneous accession to the NPT and simultaneous acceptance of IAEA full-scope safeguards in 1979 and a bilateral nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1987. Ironically all these proposals were rejected by India. In 1998, Pakistan reluctantly responded to Indian nuclear explosions, but did not relent in its efforts to maintain stability in the region. Pakistan proposed a strategic restraint regime, anti-ballistic missile treaty  in South Asia and most recently in 2016 offered India to consider a bilateral agreement for a moratorium on nuclear testing, only to receive an unfavorable response from India.

Capt. Naqvi stated that the above historical context has a direct bearing on some of the most recent developments being witnessed regarding nuclearization of the Indian Ocean Region and the subsequent de-stabilization of the region. The shifting of nuclear deterrence from land to sea not only hinders the just and equitable access to the Indian Ocean but also stokes a dangerous nuclear arms race in the region. Hence, while relations between India and Pakistan, the two nuclear-weapons states in South Asia, have long been characterized by a lack of trust and adequate communication, the introduction of nuclear weapons at sea by India has the potential to upset the fragile balance of Indian Ocean security. Especially considering the close proximity within which such weapons are likely to be deployed on some of the most advanced surface and sub-surface platforms by both countries, the likelihood of a conflict escalating to the nuclear realm becomes dangerously likely.

Ballistic missile submarines known as SSBNs allow for an assured second-strike capability in the event of a nuclear attack. They for instance formed a key part of the strategic deterrence framework between the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War. Sea based nuclear weapons represent almost 70% of the US’s deployed nuclear warheads. While SSBNs are used around the world as an important means of deterrence, this can only work if it forms part of a clear nuclear doctrine. Perceiving that India has gone beyond its ambition to create a minimum credible deterrent, Pakistan will be compelled to reassess its own nuclear capabilities.

India began working on its nuclear submarine programme sometime in the 1970s. By leasing vessels from Russia, the Indian Navy was able to gain important operational experience. Between 1988 to 1991 it took on a Charlie-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN); and in 2012 India again inducted an Akula-II class SSN on a ten-year lease. India’s first indigenous SSBN, the INS Arihant, was commissioned in 2016. The second, INS Arighat was launched in November 2017, with four such similar platforms also likely to be inducted in the future. This submarine class is configured to carry 24 K-15 Sagarika missiles, each with a range of 750km, or eight K-4 missiles. These are currently in development, but are expected to have a range of 3,500km. The K-5 which has a purported range of 5000kms is still presumably at the design stage. With India’s plans for its nuclear triad comprising of about 400 nuclear warheads, it is expected that about 100 of these warheads would be deployed on its planned fleet of SSBNs. Pakistan has responded to these developments by testing the Babur III submarine-launched cruise missile from a dynamic platform, capable of carrying various types of payloads up to 450km. The development of this restrained and modest second-strike capability is in line with Pakistan’s declared policy of maintaining a strategic balance, instead of maintaining parity with India. In effect, maintaining stability with the minimum level of credible deterrence.

Five years after conducting a series of underground nuclear tests in 1998, India had announced its ambition to establish a minimum credible deterrent, via a nuclear triad spanning the land, air and sea domains. However, in Islamabad’s view, New Delhi’s development of a nuclear submarine force that could eventually be capable of carrying over 100 ready-to-fire nuclear warheads in the Indian Ocean goes beyond the bounds of a minimum credible deterrent. India’s apparent contradiction between its declaratory position and actual development of new technologies and weapon systems creates ambiguity and instability in its relationship with Pakistan. The credibility and security of a deterrence system of which SSBNs are an important component, hinges on the provision of a clear doctrine, effective command and control systems, and operational readiness. India’s plans for fielding such a large number of nuclear submarine force comprising of SSBNs, SSNs and dual capable weapon systems is detrimental to strategic stability in South Asia. This argument can be substantiated by a number of factors effecting deterrence, crisis and arms race stability in the region.

For instance, as is evident in the doctrinal elements of India‘s declared policy, shortly after its nuclear tests in 1998, India had declared that its doctrine of minimum credible deterrence would be based around a triad of nuclear weapons delivery systems launched from land based, air and naval platforms. Both the draft nuclear doctrine released in 1999 and the official doctrine released later in 2003 state India’s commitment to such a minimalist nuclear posture. Such a minimalist posture however would entail that deterrence can be projected through a smaller number of nuclear weapons that are not necessarily deployed at continuous alert. A commitment to a low number of nuclear weapons would further prevent vertical proliferation that would in turn strengthen nuclear stability.

The development of the Indian nuclear submarine force comprising of SLBMs and SLCMs capable of carrying more than a hundred ready to fire nuclear warheads in the Indian Ocean is not in line with India’s doctrinal claims of minimum credible deterrence, thus posing a serious threat to strategic stability in the region. Furthermore, the quantity of these warheads is also likely to increase if Indian policy makers decide to deploy Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle Systems (MIRVs) in their sea based nuclear delivery systems. Nuclear armed states maintain a high number of nuclear weapons to minimize the chances of losing them in a first strike.

Whereas, the increased survivability of nuclear weapons on board SSBNS would logically alleviate the requirements of maintaining land and air-based systems, maintenance of air and land-based systems in addition to such a large number of sea-based systems is more indicative of first use tendencies. Based on these dynamics, it is important to consider that stability is premised on the very fact that it reduces incentives for pre-emption. Considering how an invulnerable second-strike capability greatly reduces the incentives for pre-emption, Pakistan’s development of its own second-strike capability forms an essential component of maintaining the delicate strategic balance in South Asia.

As stated in India’s declared doctrine, its land and air based nuclear arsenals are maintained in a recessed state of deterrence where the warheads are usually de-mated from their delivery systems. This does not necessarily hold true for its nuclear weapons deployed at sea where nuclear capable SLBMs and SLCMs deployed on its SSBNs on deterrence patrols are likely to be deployed as ready to fire. Thus, significantly heightening current alertness levels and compelling Pakistan to also reassess the readiness of its own deterrence systems. In order for India to maintain an assured second-strike capability, it has to have at least one SSBN on deterrence patrol at all times. In order to pursue a bastion strategy India would also need to gain sea control, especially in the Western channel. This may heighten the risks of its conventional forces interacting with other anti-submarine warfare platforms while defending its SSBNs. As such any movements of SSBNs in or out of key areas or the loading or unloading of weapons would also be perceived as escalatory. Similarly, with the deployment of dual-use weapons in the Indian Ocean Region, it will become increasingly difficult to ascertain intentions and capabilities in an already complex ocean environment. Especially where Indian and Pakistani naval platforms are even more likely to interact and operate in close proximity to one other, any Indian platform carrying such dual use missiles would have to be considered as a nuclear threat, even if it is carrying only a conventional payload. Hence, any confrontation even at the conventional level holds the dangerous tendency of quickly escalating towards the nuclear realm, even in the case of any inadvertent accident and/or misstep

It is also worth noting that while other navies have transitioned gradually from operating diesel-electric to nuclear submarines, making significant strides in their technical experience along the way, the Indian Navy still has considerable shortcomings in terms of its operational knowledge and safety record. Its fleet suffers lingering serviceability issues and has endured a number of accidents such as the sinking of the INS Sindhurakshak in 2013 during armament handling, the flooding of INS Arihant in 2017 due to human error, and the blowing off of a hatch during a hydro-pressure test on INS Arighat in 2014. Furthermore, the design and efficacy of Indian nuclear submarines along with their reactors is already questionable at best leaving them as considerably noisy and highly susceptible to detection. This puts escalatory pressure on the commanders of these submarines further pushing them closer towards ‘use it or lose it’ scenarios, further straining strategic stability.

Adding to this complexity and high-risk environment is a significant lack of a mutual understanding regarding such issues. During the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union had come to an agreement delineating incidents at sea to help mitigate the risks of any inadvertent mishaps or miscommunication of intentions. While Pakistan and India have signed an agreement informing each other beforehand of their naval exercises, this needs to be built on to ensure that there is a clear understanding between the two nuclear powers regarding any untoward incidents at sea to help retain some semblance of stability.

 

Question & Answer Session

After thanking the speakers for their insightful presentations, Dr. Cheema opened the floor to the audience for the questions and answers session. The first question to the panel was posed by Mr. Khalid Rahim in which he asked why no efforts were being made to develop closer ties with Oman and Yemen based on the current scenario taking place in the region, such as what India had been pursuing. He opined that it was very important that Pakistan leverage the evolving situation to help establish a maritime foothold towards its West based on its historic ties with Gulf states. A similar question was asked by Senior PTV Correspondent Mr. Raza Khan in which he asked the panel why the Pakistan Navy was not considering the island of Socotra for instance as a potentially friendly port the way lesser military powers such as the UAE were purportedly pursuing. Amb. Vice Admiral (R) Hasham Bin Saddique in answering the question stated that each country projects power with respect to its strength. Pakistan has historically adopted a more or less continental mindset and that great vision is needed for a more expansionist approach. This would also require an immense amount of resources to be directed towards such a goal if it is to be pursued with seriousness. Adding to this, Real Admiral (R) Saleem Akhtar stated that a major reason why India has been successful in developing strong links with the Gulf region states is precisely because it is being facilitated by the United States as part of its overall strategy for the region. This forms the basis and overarching context within which India’s recently signed agreements with the UAE and Oman should be viewed. Speaking on the extent of Pakistan’s ties with these states, Capt. (R) Aqeel Naqvi added that the Pakistan Navy’s influence in the Gulf can be further gleaned from the fact that almost all these Gulf countries’ naval chiefs have been trained at the Pakistan Naval Academy. This aspect is often underrepresented despite clearly showing the deep-rooted links the Pakistan Navy shares with its Gulf partners.

Lt. Gen (R) Syed Mohammad Owais (Former Secretary, Ministry of Defence Production) while referring to Vice Admiral Hasham Saddique’s presentation asked whether there was any potential in the recently publicized oil exploration ventures that were carried out earlier this year off the coastal waters of Pakistan. He also asked whether there was any truth to the rumors that such ventures were being discouraged by certain vested interests such as possibly the country’s Gulf partners. Vice Admiral Saddique replied that detailed hydrographic data was first required to base any real estimation for the prospects of such natural resources. Recently the country had engaged a Canadian consultant to gather the required seismic data for the continental shelf. As far as offshore oil exploration is concerned, this was the seventh well that was attempted whereas usually 60-70 such attempts are required. On whether there were any vested interests in the Gulf aimed at discouraging oil exploration in Pakistan, the Vice Admiral clearly stated that there wasn’t any truth to such rumors. This he said was evident for instance in Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to build an oil refinery in Gwadar, which while holding immense potential was still an extremely risky prospect at this current stage of development. This should be viewed as a huge favor to Pakistan. Adding to discussion, Rear Admiral Saleem Akhtar stated that improved technology has recently increased the chances of discovery and that more data needs to be gathered and shared with the relevant departments

Referring to the Vice Admiral Hasham Bin Saddique’s presentation in which he mentioned the significantly lower number of ships being operated by the PNSC in relation to the 1960’s, Dr. Pervez Butt (Former Chairman PAEC) asked why Pakistan was not building ships the way it used to back then. To this Rear Admiral Saleem Akhtar added that while there was initially a slump in the rate of shipbuilding in Karachi, the navy has still made great use of the naval shipyard with a keen focus on strengthening the country’s indigenous capabilities. While there are limitations at the Karachi shipyard the new shipyard at Gwadar is likely to fill that gap and poses a valuable opportunity to further expand the country’s shipbuilding industry.

Referring to Capt Aqeel Naqvi’s point on the inherent design flaws and subsequent vulnerability of Indian SSBNs, Dr. Syed Javaid Khurshid (Senior Research Fellow, CISS) pointed out that while these issues were being faced due to the Russian made reactors being used on these subs at the present, these would likely soon be overcome following the development of SMRs (Small Modular Reactors) which India had been pursuing indigenously. These would likely greatly offset the current issues of noise as well as refueling and maintenance issues which these reactors were undergoing due to the present technological constraints of the Indian navy.

Referring to the evolving geo-political dynamics of the region, AVM (R) Faaiz Amir (Vice Chancellor, Air University) noted that while the IndoPacific theatre represented a site contestation for all the major powers, there was still the conspicuous absence of Russia as the US and India worked together to contain China. He asked the panel whether there was any specific reason behind the Russian absence. Dr. Cheema in replying to the AVM’s query stated that this was largely due to the long history of Soviet-India relations which despite the evolving dynamics still remained quite sound to a large extent.

Directing his question to Vice Admiral Hasham Bin Saddique, Dr. Adil Sultan (Director CASS) asked whether  it was prudent for Pakistan, being a relatively smaller country, to pursue a policy of Continuous At-Sea Deterrence (CASD) especially considering its economic viability as well as its numerical inferiority (in the long run at sea) against India? Elaborating further he said that the UK acquired Trident in the 80’s for US $12 billion and is now paying US $2 billion every year to maintain that capability. While India can afford to do that, the question is, can Pakistan afford this? He asked what kind of posture can one envision Pakistan as thus having, a bastion strategy or a continuous at sea deterrent, what would suit Pakistan? Also based on China’s increasing role in the region and this whole narrative of India being threatened by the notion of China becoming a two-ocean power, is there value in helping China legitimize its role as a two – ocean power? Replying to the question, Vice Admiral Saddique stated that based on his own personal opinion there was a need to move from strategic deterrence to more towards cross-domain deterrence based on the currently evolving scenario. He explained that within full spectrum deterrence there is a notion of deterrence involving war-fighting wherein the very idea of spectrum denotes a conflict spectrum. There is a need to further build on this and move towards economic deterrence as part of cross domain deterrence to be able to survive. It is also important to consider how the very nature of war is likely to be in terms of its aims and objectives if there ever was a conflict to erupt between India and Pakistan. One needs to be clear whether it be a conventional engagement, involve nuclear war-fighting or be of a hybrid kind. Once that is decided we need to be prepared for all scenarios, hence the emphasis on cross domain deterrence. Based on current trends it is likely that any such war would be short, quick and highly destructive. In order to deter India conventionally, operational readiness is the key in terms of having combat ready forces be it on land, sea or air. Considering the nuclear threat emanating from India especially with the withdrawal of its purported No First Use policy, maintaining a continuous second-strike capability at sea is of utmost importance. Considering the short flight times and close distances involved, the economic cost of maintaining a continuous sea-based deterrent should not be an issue either. Hence, such operational readiness in both the conventional and strategic domains will exude deterrence. Having combat ready integrated battle groups with the ability to threaten the enemy’s 7000+ km coastline is also likely to remain central considering how difficult it is to defend such a vast area. On the issue of China, sooner or later Pakistan will have to enter a strong collaborative arrangement with China, because CPEC remains just a road unless the required maritime component (and its safety) is operationalized. For that there needs to perhaps be a tripartite arrangement between China and Middle Eastern and African states, to ensure such collaborative security in the maritime arena.

Referring to the Cold War inspired deterrence models being discussed within strategic and nuclear deterrence frameworks in Pakistan, Ms. Anam Khan (Researcher, ACDA) asked why wasn’t any inspiration being drawn from other deterrence models such as those being employed by the UK and France involving Nuclear triad and/or dyads? Vice Admiral Hasham Bin Saddique stated that at the moment Pakistan is on its own when it comes to its strategic deterrence framework. The French model was based largely to the relative difference in the strength of its conventional forces to its nuclear forces which is not as much the case in Pakistan.

Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal (Professor, QAU) asked whether India’s strategy towards Pakistan had simply shifted away from strategic deterrence towards compellence, specifically based on its growing emphasis on surgical strikes and preferring coercive military action as is evident post-Pulwama. To this Capt. Aqeel Naqvi stated that India’s modernization plans, especially in its navy as well as its withdrawal of its purported NFU posture is definitely emboldening India to adapt such a posture over the long run. This is clearly evident in the statements of its senior defence officials and advisors such as in the recent statements made by its defence minister. Adding to the discussion, Vice admiral Hasham Bin Saddique also stated that India’s strategy of compellence has to an extent been effective, especially at least from 2001 where Pakistan was forced to abandon its policy vis-à-vis Kashmir, this for instance was even evident in the present developments in Kashmir.

Media Coverage

Coverage of the event was reported on national television

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