Recent reports from Pakistan seem to suggest the Pakistan Navy (PN) may be on the cusp of developing a naval nuclear missile capability, even as its plans for acquiring a nuclear submarine capability gradually become clearer. The first indication of this came in May 2012 when Pakistan tested the Hatf VII (Babur)—an indigenously developed Cruise Missile with high precision and manoeuvrability. Reports suggested that the missile was launched from a state-of-the-art multi-tube Missile Launch Vehicle (MLV), which significantly enhances the targeting and employment options of the Babur Weapon System in both the conventional and nuclear modes. Importantly, this is the third test of the Babur in the recent past, of different capacities and loads.
Then, in another significant development, on May 19, the PN inaugurated the Headquarters of the Naval Strategic Force Command (NSFC). A statement from the Pakistan military’s Inter Services Public Relations said that the NSFC “will perform a pivotal role in development and employment of the Naval Strategic Force,” and was “the custodian of the nation’s 2nd strike capability” – presumably for use against India, in case the need ever arose. This is noteworthy because Pakistan is not known to have a sea-based second strike capability. Therefore, a public statement that the NSFC would be in-charge of such a capability is an open admission of sorts that Pakistan is in the process of developing a naval variant of a strategic nuclear missile.
For long, the Pakistan Navy has viewed the Indian Navy (IN) with suspicion. The IN’s sustained growth over the past few years has, in fact, become an excuse for the PN to push for its own development and expansion of assets. In an article written for a Pakistan daily in May 2012, Tauqir Naqvi, a retired Vice Admiral of the PN, suggested that the ‘hegemonic’ elements of the Indian Navy’s maritime strategy have been the main drivers of the resurgence of the Pakistan Navy. The article, when read closely, is a dead give-away of Pakistan’s real ambitions with regard to nuclear weapons and nuclear submarines.
Naqvi writes extensively about India’s strategic vision, characterising it as a “hegemonic” impulse that has led the IN to aim for control of the seas over an area extending from the Red Sea in the West to Fiji in the Pacific Ocean. While Pakistan, he contends, is a “peace-loving” nation, India has never been serious about developing friendly relations, fixated as it has been with the “idea of projecting power”. Surprisingly, he showers Indian scientists and the IN with some unexpected, even if ‘motivated’ praise, by mentioning the sterling efforts of the Indian scientific community and shipyard workers in operationalising a strategic maritime capability. The complimentary references are, in effect, a none-too-disguised message to Pakistan's political leadership and mandarins in the defence ministry about the ineluctable need for Pakistan to buttress its own strategic arsenal with naval nuclear missiles and a nuclear submarine, without which, the PN can forget about countering the “evil designs” of the Indian Navy.
It is, however, Naqvi’s references to India’s two nuclear submarines—INS Chakra (SSN) and INS Arihant (SSBN)—that dispel all doubts about the real intentions behind the avidly rendered piece. Naqvi opines that the threat that the two nuclear platforms collectively pose to the security of Pakistan, is near-existential. It is the completion of the Triad (land, air and sea based nuclear weapons), he observes, that gives India the confidence to respond with nuclear weapons, even if it is made to absorb a first nuclear strike. INS Arihant is that crucial second strike capability which could give India the vital edge during a conflict. The SSBN, he concludes, is an essential component of a nuclear arsenal, one that Pakistan must singularly pursue.
However, in his enthusiasm to convince Pakistan’s defence establishment about the need for a SSBN, Naqvi overstates his case when he mentions the “diplomatic advantage” that may accrue to India on account of its nuclear submarine. There is hardly any modern precedent of a nuclear submarine (by itself) being an effective instrument of ‘diplomatic persuasion’, as he suggests. Nor does it really help in negotiating with other states possessing similar capability, as cooperation and negotiation in the strategic realm has to do with ‘bottom-line’ naval capacities in securing maritime interests and an overlap in strategic interests. While maritime cooperation does lead to economic benefits, it is not on account of possessing a ballistic nuclear weapon submarine capability, which is purely for the purposes of strategic deterrence.
The Arihant is a significant addition to the Indian Navy’s arsenal but it does not introduce a strategic imbalance in the India-Pakistan context, as India, by embracing a ‘No First Use’ doctrine, has already renounced the strategic advantage. The Arihant’s introduction does not alter this basic reality and is unlikely to tilt the strategic balance drastically. If anything, its gives India a measure of greater confidence in securing its own maritime interests, which does not necessarily translate into overwhelming dominance of the Indian Ocean or greater vulnerability of Pakistan to India’s strategic weapons.
Given India’s territorial expanse and the spread of its nuclear weapon sites, even if Pakistan did get a nuclear missile capable submarine, it would not be able to neutralise India’s broader nuclear weapon capability, with or without the Arihant. As regards the comparison of combat capabilities of conventional submarines and SSNs/SSBNs, it is well established that the former are not ‘inferior’ operational combat platforms merely on account of the absence of nuclear propulsion or nuclear weapons. Both these capabilities (though vital strategically) rarely come in handy in a tactical scenario. Admiral Naqvi again exaggerates his case by suggesting that the Pakistan Navy’s conventional submarines would not be able to stand up to India’s SSBN.
Interestingly, signs that the PN has been thinking seriously about nuclear submarines have been around for some time now. As early as in 2008, in an interview to a Pakistan daily, the then PN Chief, Admiral Noman Bashir, had said that Pakistan was quite capable of building a nuclear submarine and would do so “if required”. Pakistan, he said, is a recognized nuclear power and if the government made a decision, the nation would develop a nuclear weapon. In February 2012, Admiral Asif Sandhila, the present Chief of the PN, stated to the Pakistani media that the PN was mindful of India’s plans to complete the sea-based arm of its nuclear triad, and was “taking necessary measures to restore the strategic balance” in the Indian Ocean region.
Questions, however, remain on Pakistan’s capability to design and develop a sea-based nuclear missile. Even China, which is known to be helping Pakistan in its nuclear capabilities, does not possess a credible submarine-launched missile. The odds that Pakistan will succeed in developing its undersea nuclear ballistic missile without assistance from China are highly unfavourable. Even if it did manage to get an SSBN, it is not certain whether the Pakistan Navy will be in a position to undertake the responsibility of the nation’s second-strike capability.
Therefore, the recent drive by PN’s senior serving and retired naval officers to persuade the security establishment as well as the man on the street of the necessity of a nuclear submarine capability appears ill-founded, if not disingenuous. Outwardly, it may serve to create a sense of insecurity—vital in persuading politicians about the need for a new capability—but the manifest lack of strategic logic will eventually convince few.
Pakistan’s naval leadership will also be aware of the risks and financial costs of developing and operating a nuclear submarine—the need to constantly refine equipment and train personnel; of razor-sharp communications and command and control systems; and the requirement of mastering safety procedures. In the final analysis the SSBN is not an asset if it is not mastered well and operated optimally. Merely possessing one offers no strategic advantages.