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The dangers of SSBN proliferation in Indo-Pacific Asia

The dangers of SSBN proliferation in Indo-Pacific Asia


It has become commonplace to lament the arms races underway in Indo-Pacific Asia.

China's military modernisation over the last two decades has helped provoke heightened political tensions and growing concern in capitals from Tokyo to New Delhi to Washington and Moscow. North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems keeps tensions in Northeast Asia high. The Indian subcontinent is home to two nuclear powers that have fought four wars over the last 65 years. Many countries in the Asian littoral have undertaken serious rearmament programs, and across the region strategists see a proliferation of missiles of all types — anti-access systems, aerospace capabilities and naval platforms, among others. 

Regional nuclear modernisation programs, especially the development of submarines (nuclear powered or conventional) armed with nuclear weapons, are of special concern.

China and India are committed to producing more nuclear-capable delivery systems and weapons with greater range, accuracy and features that make them more lethal and thus more threatening to potential adversaries. Meanwhile Pakistan is pursuing its own program to acquire more capable submarines from China. While no one is arguing, as yet, that Pakistan intends to acquire ballistic missile submarines, some analysts hint that nuclear-tipped cruise missiles are a real possibility. Given Pakistan's record on nuclear proliferation over the past decades, such fears appear real. 

With the possible exception of America, powers external to the Indo-Pacific (Russia, for example) are also pursuing strategic modernisation. Russia, lest anyone forget, is an Indo-Pacific nuclear power by virtue of its Pacific Fleet, complete with its latest model SSBNs (in the American lexicon: Ship, Submersible, Ballistic, Nuclear), the Borei class, armed with Bulava missiles. Even the US is investing in the research and development preliminary to building a replacement for the Ohio-class submarines that currently constitute the sea-based leg of the American nuclear triad. American strategic modernisation is not a driver in the region's strategic dynamics, but insofar as the US is executing an Asian 'pivot', American military capabilities, nuclear and conventional, remain important. 

The emergence of strategic submarines in the Indo-Pacific is summarised in the following table. [fold]

This short post will not attempt a net assessment of regional or bilateral rivalries. A full analysis would need to look more closely at all dimensions of military power as well as the impact of American forces in the region. But a simple scan of the table above allows one small observation for a region that may soon be in the grips of a full-blown nuclear arms race. The prospects for stable, long-term peace (meaning greater strategic stability, the reduction of crisis instability, and fewer opportunities for accidents, chance and misperception to lead to conflict) depend, in part, on taking steps sooner rather than later to rein in potentially destabilising developments. At present, regional SSBN programs are not so advanced, and the numbers of platforms and weapons are not so large, that steps cannot avert a widening arms race. 

Growing numbers of submarines with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles may preserve second-strike capabilities for their possessors (and thus, debatably, contribute to strategic stability). But in the increasingly crowded seas of  Indo-Pacific Asia, greater numbers also lead to more opportunities for accidents, chance and misperception.

Submarine accidents are not unknown: the national tragedy of a lost boat and its crew might quickly become a regional or even global crisis if reactors or nuclear weapons have problems. Submarine operations in cramped seas also raise the possibility that one side or another will encounter the other in a crisis, with unpredictable results. Slowly maturing command and control (C2 ) and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies still have a ways to go (look how long it took in US and the Soviet Union to develop their systems).

Furthermore, few speak of the challenge of ensuring the political and professional reliability of crews (while the mature nuclear powers rarely focus today on crew reliability, such concerns were quite real in the not-so-distant past). Nor are SSBNs and ballistic missiles in the Indo-Pacific the only aspect of undersea warfare and nuclear weapons that should trouble us: surface fleets, mine warfare, anti-submarine warfare and so forth increase the danger of incidents at sea, and they could raise the potential for a nuclear crisis. Knowledgeable analysts are concerned that the next stage of the Indo-Pacific naval arms race will involve still more submarines with nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles. 

Three 'nots'

If regional actors (not just the states currently pursuing SSBNs but other concerned parties) are to act to avert further arms racing and stabilise the emerging undersea deterrent, they must recognise the situation for what it is. A nuclear arms race at sea is:

  • Not simply a local or regional issue.
  • Not simply a military issue.
  • And not simply a navy or maritime issue.

A nuclear arms race at sea is a global problem with far-reaching implications for proliferation, conventional arms modernisation, and the possibility of arms control. The mere existence of such systems makes it more likely that the so-called nuclear taboo might finally be broken. An undersea nuclear race is deeply political because it affects the geopolitical rivalry among great and regional powers, not to mention alliance structures and patterns of regional governance.

For all regional military forces, such a nuclear arms race at sea is not simply the business of navies: SSBNs affect joint and combined operations in ways big and small, and blur important distinctions between conventional and nuclear systems. It is worrisome that despite some recent developments there has been, in general, asymmetric progress in developing weapons systems versus the C2, ISR, training/readiness, and nuclear doctrine necessary to deploy sea-based deterrent systems safely and reliably. 

Although prudence on the part of India, China and other regional powers may alleviate these concerns, it may not be sufficient for those interested in regional stability. In the end, although it is not fashionable to advocate for arms control much less naval arms control, strategists and policy makers should remember the words of Schelling and Halperin: 'the essential feature of arms control is the recognition of the common interest, of the possibility of reciprocation and cooperation even between potential enemies with respect to their militaries.' And, in the words of Robert Jervis, which seem especially prescient with regard to naval nuclear arms racing in the Indo-Pacific, 'because the security dilemma and crisis instability can exacerbate if not create conflicts, potential enemies will have an interest in developing arms control arrangements.'

The Lowy Institute gratefully acknowledges support from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation for this Interpreter debate, which is part of a broader research, dialogue and outreach project on strategic stability in Indo-Pacific Asia.

Image from Wikipedia.

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