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Arihant and the Dilemma of India’s Undersea Nuclear Weapons

LBJ School - The University of Texas at Austin

Editor’s Observe: That is the 24th installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a collection from Warfare on the Rocks and the Stimson Middle. The collection seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competitors — army, financial, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Make amends for the relaxation of the collection.

After INS Arihant, India’s first ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), completed its maiden deterrent patrol in November 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphatically declared India’s nuclear triad full. Arihant’s operationalization has catapulted India right into a choose group of states with an underwater nuclear launch functionality. It has additionally raised alarm over the security and safety of India’s nuclear arsenal as a result of a sea-based deterrent might entail a ready-to-use arsenal and much less restrictive command and management procedures, growing chance of their unintentional use. For Pakistan, India’s nuclear drive modernization endangers the stability of strategic forces in the area and might intensify the nuclear arms race on the subcontinent.

Modi’s triumphalism belies Arihant’s modest capabilities. The submarine doesn’t add considerably to India’s second-strike functionality — at the very least, not but. Till and until India deploys an SSBN fleet carrying missiles with intercontinental vary, which might take many years, its sea-based deterrent vis-à-vis China will lack credibility. And for deterring Pakistan, India’s air and land-based nuclear arsenal is enough.

If triumphalist assertions about Arihant are unwarranted, so, too, are alarmist considerations over the security and safety of India’s underwater nuclear arsenal. India’s Strategic Forces Command has achieved far more to make sure strong command and management at sea than many commentators acknowledge. India’s sea-based nuclear belongings are neither on hair-trigger alert nor are they in the arms of the army. They continue to be firmly beneath the management of political decision-makers.

Arihant’s operationalization is a chance for New Delhi to mirror upon its nuclear trajectory. With China and Pakistan as nuclear adversaries, India confronts a singular problem. It has to construct up its nuclear functionality sufficient to make sure that Chinese language decision-makers worry it, with out sending Islamabad into panic and undermining regional stability. This “Goldilocks dilemma” might be troublesome to resolve, and India shouldn’t depart it to probability — particularly as the United States, as soon as South Asia’s chief disaster supervisor, loses each curiosity and affect in the area. India ought to reassure Pakistan by reaffirming its coverage of no first use of nuclear weapons and a retaliation-only nuclear doctrine. Extra importantly, India ought to rethink its deterrence necessities vis-à-vis China.

Finally, the danger is that India will fail to realize its goal of deterring China whereas unintentionally scary its smaller rival. Understanding how India reached this stage in its nuclear trajectory and how it’s making an attempt to handle this problem requires analyzing the peculiar historical past of its ballistic missile submarines in addition to its strong efforts to reinforce civilian management of its nuclear weapons.

Venture Samudra and the Burden of Historical past

The peculiar historical past of India’s lengthy quest for a nuclear submarine leaves an extended shadow over Arihant’s capabilities.

India’s nuclear submarine program started in 1966 with feasibility research on marine nuclear propulsion. Relatively than being pushed by any army necessity, the program was influenced by issues of the nuclear institution’s organizational status. As Homi Bhabha, father of India’s nuclear power program, argued at the time, maritime reactors “could demonstrate India’s impressive capabilities in the field of nuclear energy.” Army justification for the program got here a lot later when, throughout the 1971 Bangladesh warfare, the United States despatched the plane service USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal to help Pakistan. Thereupon, as a standard preventing platform, nuclear assault submarines attracted the consideration of the Indian Navy as a result of they might increase the threshold of superpower intervention in the area. Nevertheless, the nuclear scientists couldn’t produce a viable marine reactor. In the early 1980s, subsequently, the Indian Navy turned to the Soviets for help.

In April 1982, the Soviet Union agreed to lease an assault nuclear submarine (SSN) to the Indian Navy and present technical help to India in constructing its personal submarines. This was the starting of Challenge Samudra (Challenge Ocean), which was to incorporate two vessels codenamed S-1 and S-2.

The said intent was to supply a “cost-effective deterrent against Pakistan’s enlarging military machine,” based on a top-secret report explaining the program that I obtained from a former authorities official. The bigger goal of these acquisitions, nevertheless, had little to do with nuclear deterrence — it was directed in the direction of the rising naval presence of the nice powers in the Indian Ocean, extra targeted on typical operations than nuclear points. The report said, “more significantly, such acquisitions would enhance India’s credibility particularly in view of the increasing presence of the outside powers in the Indian Ocean.”

Challenge S-1 culminated with the mortgage of a Soviet Charlie-class SSN in 1988. Challenge S-2 paved the method for the institution of the Superior Know-how Vessel (ATV) Directorate, a devoted analysis and improvement company accountable solely for constructing an indigenous SSN. The venture suffered main delays as India’s nuclear institution continued to face technological hurdles in producing a viable reactor design. Nonetheless, the path was set: India was designing and creating a nuclear assault submarine.

The Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons checks of 1998 modified the nature of India’s nuclear submarine program. Indian decision-makers have been eager to discover avenues that would render their nuclear forces extra survivable, together with putting nuclear weapons at sea. Step one in the direction of constructing a sea-based deterrent was to put modified Prithvi missiles on board two Sukanya-class missile boats. The ATV Directorate, nevertheless, quickly proposed modifying the nuclear assault submarine right into a strategic weapon system. The navy was additionally eager to have its share of the nuclear pie. Thus, quickly after the 1998 nuclear checks, India determined to transform what was initially designed as a nuclear assault submarine armed with cruise missiles for typical naval operations right into a strategic weapon system for nuclear supply. Venture S-2 turned the first of India’s SSBNs.

But this revised mission left the program extremely restricted in its capabilities. India had began creating a 300-km earth-skimming cruise missile referred to as Sagarika with Russian assist in 1991. When India determined to transform the assault submarine into an SSBN, the measurement of the boat and its missile block was fastened based mostly on the earlier SSN design — which means solely a modest missile with restricted vary might be retrofitted in. The one choice was to exchange the Sagarika cruise missiles with ballistic missiles that would carry a one-ton nuclear warhead. At present, the restricted vary of the Okay-15, the main weapon system on Arihant, is the outcome of these post-hoc technological fixes. Arihant can carry 12 of these 750–1,000-kilometer vary missiles, barely adequate to hit a number of main cities in retaliatory strikes towards Pakistan, not to mention Chinese language targets. Its small reactor measurement additionally restricts its endurance at sea. In reality, the nuclear reactor onboard Arihant is of classic Soviet design. Arihant isn’t Pakistan-specific by design however solely by default: Its technological evolution rendered it incapable of anything.

The burden of historical past continued to tell the trajectory of India’s SSBN program. To realize significant deterrence vis-à-vis China, India not solely wanted extra SSBNs, but in addition longer-range missiles that would strike deep inside Chinese language territory. In the early 2000s, the Indian authorities, subsequently, sanctioned the ATV Directorate to supply two extra SSBNs of the S-1 sort and to extend the vary of the missiles to three,500 kilometers. The rise in vary entailed a consequent lower in the quantity of missiles. The issue, once more, was the fastened measurement of the submarine: Given the immutability of the S-1 design, the long-range missile might solely be accommodated by growing the missile diameter and decreasing the complete payload. However discount in nuclear payload meant lesser bang for India’s buck, because it decreased the quantity of nuclear weapons it might deploy at any given time towards China.

When the cupboard of ministers identified this drawback in 2004, the ATV Directorate determined to incorporate one other missile block by growing the size of the subsequent two boats. But in 2006, a serious technical evaluation of the program concluded that each one 5 boats proposed up to now fell brief of a real SSBN drive succesful of deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that would attain all elements of China. It additionally required a nuclear reactor double the measurement of earlier boats that would endure longer operations at sea. The evaluate committee really helpful a brand new class of boomers with a reactor double the measurement of earlier S-Class boats and succesful of launching ballistic missiles in extra of 6,000 kilometers. S-5, as the boat is formally designated, was accepted in 2015. This evolution of Venture S is symptomatic of mission creep in India’s deterrent necessities, particularly because it makes an attempt to realize deterrence parity with China. The piecemeal enlargement of India’s nuclear submarine program severely undermines its deterrent functionality. Till India fields an SSBN fleet with ICBM capabilities and improves upon the designs of its nuclear propulsion package deal, its sea-based deterrent will stay a paper tiger. As Admiral Arun Prakash estimates, it should take India “50-60 years” to subject a reputable SSBN drive.

Arihant’s historic evolution additionally leaves doubts about its robustness and reliability. There are various rumblings inside Indian Navy circles relating to reactor designs based mostly on second-generation Soviet submarines. Arihant’s first deterrent patrol lasted merely 20 days, suggesting endurance points with its nuclear propulsion package deal. Lastly, the Indian Navy must develop very strong infrastructure for coaching, upkeep, and restore of its SSBN fleet earlier than the sea-based deterrent could possibly be realized. The truth is, the fleet has lately suffered from a collection of accidents, together with the 2017 mishap onboard Arihant. Solely in depth operational expertise will construct the required confidence each in the males and the machine.

Given the twists and turns of its nuclear submarine program, the ensuing technological limits, and the underlying issues with Soviet legacy platforms, Arihant’s first deterrent patrol is only a modest starting in India’s effort to deploy a reputable nuclear triad. For the potential future, its nuclear deterrent will proceed to depend on the land- and air-based legs. Indian decision-makers should settle for the actuality of this modest enterprise. Relatively than partaking in untimely triumphalism over Arihant, India ought to take a web page from the Chinese language playbook to cover its capacities and bide its time.

Operationalizing Deterrence at Sea

Regardless that Arihant, in its present type, has restricted utility towards China, its operationalization has nonetheless raised critical questions on how India would deploy its nuclear submarine drive, whether or not it will entail a “ready-to-use” arsenal, and whether or not India has developed a sufficiently elaborate command and management mechanism to keep away from unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. Such alarmist reactions, nevertheless, don’t absolutely seize the efforts India’s Strategic Forces Command has made in establishing operational protocols for its SSBNs. The command’s commonplace working procedures for the nuclear triad alleviate three main considerations. First, a sea-based deterrent wouldn’t interact in typical operations, nor does it mechanically translate right into a “ready-to-use” arsenal. Second, custody of India’s nuclear weapons has not essentially been delegated to the army. Final, India’s political management will keep agency management over nuclear belongings.

First, so far as deployment is worried, India is most probably to comply with a bastion technique fairly than placing its SSBNs on fixed patrol in open seas. A “bastion” or a “citadel” mannequin entails working submarines in waters near residence and away from hostile forces. In India’s case, the best suited geography is in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea, and in the Northern Indian Ocean. The Pakistani Navy has very restricted functionality to function in these waters, whereas India’s overwhelming naval presence by means of its typical fleet and anti-submarine warfare operations will have the ability to create a cordon sanitaire towards Chinese language submarine exercise.

Whereas some worry the nuclear submarines may have a twin (nuclear and typical) position, my interviews with Indian Strategic Forces Command officers recommend in any other case. The nuclear submarines will stay solely beneath the operational command of the Strategic Forces Command, which handles nuclear forces, moderately than the Navy, (which handles typical naval forces). A transparent division of labor between the two has been codified, decreasing the danger that Indian nuclear forces at sea might get entangled in typical operations.

In truth, Indian SSBNs wouldn’t function alongside the Navy’s typical fleet as any coordination might result in the nuclear submarines’ publicity by enemy intercepts of fleet communications.

Relatedly, the operationalization of Arihant doesn’t imply India’s nuclear weapons at the moment are on hair-trigger alert. It’s extremely unlikely that the submarines will carry a nuclear payload throughout peacetime. In reality, insofar as India’s SSBN pressure won’t carry out fixed patrols armed with nuclear weapons always, it doesn’t totally match the definition of a real triad. India’s operational plans for its nuclear submarines consist of a three-stage course of. The primary is nuclear alerting, or mechanically mating missile launch tubes with missile canisters armed with nuclear weapons at specialised naval amenities. This may begin at the first indications of a disaster state of affairs (Strategic Forces Command defines a disaster not as the begin of precise battle, however any state of affairs the place Indian decision-makers foresee a risk of army escalation with Pakistan or China). The second stage includes dispersing the submarines on deterrence patrol. It is just after the boats obtain political authorization that they’ll maneuver to predetermined positions to organize for the eventual launch of nuclear weapons. This technique does entail a danger of a “bolt from the blue” nuclear strike towards India’s main naval bases, however decision-makers are prepared to run this danger given the different legs of the nuclear triad and the inherent uncertainty that any first strike would remove all its nuclear belongings. Since no less than 2008, Strategic Forces Command has persistently strived to develop and put into follow such operational plans for India’s SSBN pressure.

Lastly, India has developed an elaborate command and management equipment to take care of agency political management over its sea-based nuclear belongings. When the submarines encounter a disaster state of affairs, nuclear weapons will probably be bodily mated with ballistic missiles, per the first of the three steps described above. Because of this, India wanted constructive command-and-control mechanisms to make sure that when approved a launch will all the time happen and that unauthorized or unintentional launches by no means happen. Former Strategic Forces Command personnel have informed me in interviews that India has developed such mechanisms: Even after nuclear weapons have been mated with missile tubes, the army won’t be in command of nuclear weapons. Any ballistic missile launch requires a two-step authorization, through which civilian authority performs a key position. Even in conditions the place an imminent enemy strike could also be about to take out the submarine’s ballistic missiles, civilian authority will stay the sole custodian of India’s sea-based nuclear forces.

These operational procedures would require in depth testing and coaching, and a strong communications community. Strategic Forces Command has to determine past doubt that the controls will work underneath the fog of conflict and that selections will probably be securely communicated to the submarines’ battle stations. The infrastructure for these communications has grown alongside the SSBN program, however will nonetheless take quite a bit of time to mature and attain operational effectiveness and reliability. These considerations will proceed to cloud the readiness of India’s SSBN drive.

Thus, Arihant’s operationalization shouldn’t result in a conclusion that its nuclear weapons at the moment are absolutely mated with supply techniques and that management has shifted to the army, as many alarmists appear to worry. India has strived to make sure full political management of its nuclear belongings at sea, ruling out any unauthorized use.

Certainly, Arihant’s drawback isn’t that it has nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, that it suffers from unfastened command and management, or that it will increase the dangers of unintentional nuclear use. Slightly, Arihant is yet one more manifestation of India’s deterrent dilemma between China and Pakistan. As Pakistan responds to India’s sea-based deterrent, it is going to exacerbate the subcontinent’s nuclear tensions whereas offering no significant change in India’s nuclear deterrent vis-à-vis Beijing in the foreseeable future.

Deterrence Stability and Disaster Stability: The Seek for Equilibrium

Towards China, India’s goal is to realize deterrence stability: a real second-strike functionality that insulates its nuclear arsenal towards the danger of a Chinese language first strike. A lot of India’s technological pressure improvement in the post-1998 interval has been motivated by the want to lower nuclear asymmetry with China. With Pakistan, the state of affairs is nearly the reverse: Pakistan can’t threaten India with nuclear annihilation with out getting annihilated in return. But Pakistan’s technique of using sub-conventional battle beneath the shadow of nuclear weapons has rendered Indo-Pakistani relations susceptible to disaster instability: the hazard that a low-level disaster might escalate into an inadvertent use of nuclear weapons.

These elements create a “Goldilocks dilemma” for India: Its makes an attempt to spice up deterrence stability with China endanger disaster stability with Pakistan. China’s and Pakistan’s reactions to Arihant’s first deterrent patrol have been illustrative of this dynamic. China hardly raised an eyebrow as a result of until India fields a reputable SSBN drive succesful of launching ICBMs that may strike deep inside Chinese language territory, it has nothing to worry. Pakistan, on the different hand, was fast to recommend that Arihant dilutes its nuclear deterrent and that it’ll go for “cost-effective options” to take care of strategic stability. As Pakistan’s Overseas Ministry claimed, “no one should be in doubt about Pakistan’s resolve and capabilities to meet the challenges posed by the latest developments both in the nuclear and conventional realms in South Asia.” Current statements by high-level Indian officers calling for elimination of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons by way of preemptive use of nuclear and typical forces have solely worsened Islamabad’s nuclear nightmares.

How can India obtain a stability between these two strategic imperatives? Relating to China, India ought to set some limits on what it considers a reputable nuclear deterrent, relatively than pursuing open-ended nuclear drive improvement. As Rajesh Basrur has argued, India’s deterrent shouldn’t be based mostly solely on establishing a reputable response; it also needs to take note of an adversary’s urge for food for danger. A restricted functionality ought to be adequate to discourage Beijing. India has exhibited such restraint in the previous: After China examined nuclear weapons in 1964, Indian decision-makers have been satisfied that any Chinese language nuclear menace or use towards India would danger nuclear retaliation from the nice powers and that this “minimal risk” was adequate to discourage Chinese language decision-makers. As we speak, Beijing might facilitate an analogous rethinking by accepting India as a nuclear energy (the present coverage of non-acknowledgment might spur India to proceed its buildup so as to be taken extra critically) and initiating nuclear confidence-building measures.

Disaster stability might be more durable, as a result of for Pakistan, nuclear weapons present not solely a deterrent, or “shield” towards India’s nuclear functionality, but in addition a “sword” that allows it to proceed fomenting sub-conventional warfare on the subcontinent.

To extend stability, India ought to publicly reaffirm its coverage of no first use and undertake a retaliation-only nuclear posture, notably since outstanding voices in India’s strategic group have questioned these rules in the current previous. It ought to make clear that it has no intentions to make use of its nuclear forces in a preemptive mode. One Strategic Forces Command official advised me that Arihant will solely be used for countervalue strikes — that’s, retaliatory strikes towards Pakistani cities. Such declarations should be made at the highest ranges of the Indian authorities. Arihant’s job — and, for that matter, the job of India’s complete nuclear arsenal — is to not create “fearlessness” in the Indian thoughts, as Modi’s workplace claimed. Relatively, it’s to make sure that India’s nuclear adversaries worry the penalties of their actions. A nuclear dialogue with Pakistan ought to subsequently be reopened and shielded from the vagaries of home politics.

The nuclear competitors between China, India, and Pakistan is a basic case of a triangular safety dilemma. As India pursues deterrence stability vis-à-vis one adversary, it makes one other adversary really feel more and more weak. In principle, India might arrest this cascade via tailor-made deterrence: by using particular nuclear capabilities towards every of the two adversaries. In reality, in the typical area, India’s army posture in the direction of China and Pakistan has lengthy tried such balancing. After the Sino-Indian border warfare of 1962, for example, India erected 10 mountain divisions to discourage the Chinese language on the Himalayan frontier, however promised by no means to make use of them on the Pakistani entrance.

Such tailor-made deterrence, nevertheless, is inconceivable to realize in the subcontinent’s nuclear area. First, in comparison with typical forces, creating a spread of nuclear forces is extraordinarily pricey, notably for states with urgent improvement wants. Second, tailor-made deterrence is troublesome to achieve at low numbers of nuclear weapons the place the survivability of the arsenal is more durable to ensure. Final, growing cooperation between China and Pakistan might depart India weak to their mixed nuclear may.

Creating strong deterrence towards China will proceed to drive India’s nuclear trajectory, because it has for years, however Pakistani reactions will make the experience extraordinarily bumpy.


Yogesh Joshi is a Stanton Nuclear Safety Postdoctoral Fellow at the Middle for Worldwide Safety and Cooperation, Stanford College. He’s the coauthor of India and Nuclear Asia: Forces, Doctrine and Risks (Georgetown College Press, 2018).

Picture: All India Radio Information

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