Credibilising India’s strategic deterrence

Updated: December 22, 2020 2:48 PM

The presence of a second SSBN will not only demonstrate India’s strategic intent, industrial and technological prowess but will also enhance the credibility of India's nuclear posture.

INS Arihant, defence newsIn mature democracies such as India’s, nuclear military power is a national capability and is under civilian political control. (Photo source: Reuters)

By Commodore Anil Jai Singh, 

Recent reports suggesting that India’s second indigenously built nuclear powered strategic missile submarine (SSBN) Arighat is likely to get commissioned in early 2021 is extremely encouraging news. The presence of a second SSBN will not only demonstrate India’s strategic intent, industrial and technological prowess but will also enhance the credibility of India’s nuclear posture.

The Indian nuclear doctrine released in 2003, is anchored in ‘No First Use’, ‘minimum credible deterrence’ and ‘maximum assured destruction’. An invulnerable capability to deliver a retaliatory strike is therefore integral to this posture for it to be credible. It should be able to deter an adversary in the first place but if the adversary is foolish enough to launch the first strike, it should be able to deliver a second strike with ‘maximum assured destruction’.It is the fear of the retaliatory strike that underlines the concept of strategic deterrence. In the nuclear triad of strategic weapon delivery platforms from land, air and the sea, the submarine-launched sea-based element is most effective as a deterrent and offers the most credible second-strike capability. While a nuclear first strike could incapacitate the land and air-launched capability thus neutralising the possibility of an effective second strike, it is only the sea-based element onboard a submarine operating stealthily and silently deep below the surface somewhere in the vast ocean spaces from a position unknown to the enemy, which can be relied upon to deliver an effective second strike. It is this capability which also makes a submarine the most effective deterrent. An SSBN carries an impressive arsenal of nuclear ballistic missiles of ranges in thousands of kilometres with independently targetable warheads which have the ability to destroy the world several times over. During the Cold war which ‘raged’ for over four decades through the second half of the 20th century, it was the destructive capability of the SSBNs of both the protagonists which deterred a nuclear armageddon despite numerous provocations.

The commissioning of INS Arihant in 2017 marked India’s entry into an exclusive club of only five other countries (these being the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) with a submarine-based deterrent. However, successful strategic deterrence is not only about the platform. It is about establishing and validating a complex eco-system which includes a robust, resilient and impregnable command, control and communication architecture to enable the national command authority (in our case the Prime Minister) to order a retaliatory strike with pinpoint accuracy at a specific time on specific targets from a platform which could be thousands of miles away and hundreds of metres below the surface of the sea. It is also about the weapon’s range, accuracy and lethality. India validated its capability with the successful completion of Arihant’s first deterrent patrol in late 2018 which was duly feted by the Prime Minister himself. It also marked the validation of India’s nuclear triad.

The other critical element of credible strategic nuclear deterrence is to ensure a continuous presence at sea; modern surveillance technology is easily able to detect the presence of an SSBN in harbour thus compromising this capability. The commissioning of Arighat will provide added capacity to maintain ‘continuous-at-sea-deterrence’(CASD), but this will clearly not be enough. If the enemy is to be kept guessing, a minimum of at least four SSBNs is required to cater for one on patrol, at least one or two on transit and one or at times maybe even two undergoing maintenance as per their designed operational and maintenance cycles and also to cater for any unexpected defects which may require a prolonged stay in the harbour. The UK has been able to maintain a CASD capability for over 50 years with a force level of four SSBNs but it must also be remembered that the UK is an integral part of NATO’s strategic construct and will always have the might of the USA covering its back. France too maintains a CASD with four SSBNs. Despite the end of the Cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union over three decades ago and no clear and present threat, Russia’s attempted resurgence notwithstanding, these force levels have been maintained and even their replacement programmes are catering for the same number.

India does not enjoy the luxury of being part of an alliance. It also faces a clear and present threat from two adversarial nuclear-armed neighbours, China and Pakistan, who share an unholy nexus between themselves. China is aspiring to be a global superpower with an amoral disregard for international norms and agreements en route to this objective and sees India as an impediment. Pakistan, with its usual bluff and bluster and a dominant military whose singular foreign policy agenda is anti-India, is an unstable and unpredictable neighbour. Its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons and its constant threat to use them cannot be ignored in India’s strategic security calculus. Pakistan’s increasing dependence on China and the Chinese inroads into Pakistan with the CPEC and likely control of Gwadar as a naval base further complicates India’s security considerations.

In mature democracies such as India’s, nuclear military power is a national capability and is under civilian political control. The Armed Forces provide the means to execute this capability in terms of platforms, personnel, training etc. Nuclear power also provides the overarching framework which shapes the national security strategy, which in turn determines the national security architecture and conventional military capability. In the 73 years since it became an independent nation, more than 46 years since exploding its first nuclear device in May 1974 and over two decades since becoming a declared nuclear weapon power, India has yet to articulate a national security strategy or for that matter, even a single White Paper on defence. In these 73 years, India has fought four full-fledged wars and a limited conflict in Kargil with its two main adversaries China and Pakistan. Both these countries are nuclear powers and are constantly sniping at India’s heels with a larger strategic design in the region. Individual services have developed their stand-alone strategy documents and there has been some attempt by the Armed Forces at articulating a joint doctrine/strategy. However, the country’s Ministry of Defence, responsible for the defence of India or India’s parliament, the highest decision-making body in the land has not felt the need to articulate a security strategy optimising India’s nuclear and conventional capabilities into a cohesive and coherent whole. While there may be an understanding in the government on India’s response mechanism, there is little in the open domain to suggest it is so. This is in marked contrast to the other nuclear-weapon states who regularly recalibrate their security posture through institutionalised documents in response to the evolving global situation.

Global Deterrence Capability

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a perception that the threat had dissipated and indeed for some years it did seem so as countries scaled down their defence budgets. However, the five permanent members of the Security Council continued to develop their nuclear arsenals and delivery platforms, albeit at a slower pace. With China now mounting an increasingly ferocious challenge to the United States and Cold War 2.0 seeming an inevitability, the possibility of a confrontation in the contested waters of the Indo-Pacific is very real. Unlike in the Cold war where the nuclear threat was from a clearly defined adversary with relative symmetry, the large number of threshold and undeclared nuclear weapon states probably armed with nuclear warheads mounted on conventional weapons introduces a dangerous unpredictability. Hence strategic deterrence is an inescapable imperative.

Presently, all six SSBN operating countries (including India), are in the process of developing their next generation of SSBNs. The US intends to replace its Ohio class SSBNs with the Columbia class beginning at the end of this decade; France is developing its SNLE-NG to replace its current fleet of four Troimphant class SSBNs even though these are relatively new. The United Kingdom’s replacement of its four Vanguard-class SSBNs, the Dreadnought class is under development, has been budgeted and is expected to begin entering service by the end of this decade. Russia’s Borei class of which six are already in service is an ongoing programme supplementing the single Typhoon class, the Delta III(both of which are likely to be phased out soon) and Delta IV class already in service. China has a force level of six Type 094 SSBNs (Jin-class) and is already at an advanced stage of developing its new class, the Type 096. News reports emanating from China suggest that China is also considering doubling the size of its nuclear arsenal as part of its larger global strategy to be the global numero uno.

All SSBNs currently in service with various navies are large boats of more than 10000 tonnes displacement and are armed with MIRV capable SLBMs with ranges in thousands of kilometres. The new classes underdevelopment are going to be larger, quieter, more technologically advanced and better armed than their predecessors.

INS Arihant and Arighat are relatively smaller submarines with a displacement in excess of 6000 tonnes and are presently armed with the K-15 missile which has a range of only 750 km which is clearly inadequate to meet India’s strategic targeting requirement. It would require the platform to be that much closer to the adversary’s borders to deliver its strike and consequently more vulnerable. A more powerful missile, the K-4 with a range of 3500 km is at an advanced stage of trials and will arm these and future SSBNs. Once operationalised, the K4 will exponentially enhance the effectiveness of India’s sea-based deterrent. India’s future programme is also based on larger submarines and will be armed with even longer-range missiles, the development of which continues apace.

The size of India’s strategic weapon programme is based on minimum credible deterrence in which the ‘credible’ is underlined by its SSBN capability. The induction of Arighat will be an important step in India’s strategic posture and besides keeping the threat at bay, also reinforce India’s credentials as a leading Indo-Pacific power.

(The author is an Indian Navy Veteran & Vice President Indian Maritime Foundation. Views are personal.)

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