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Sea-basing threatens India's minimalist nuclear strategy


This post is part of the Sea-based nuclear weapons and strategic stability debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.


1 September 2014 09:45

This post is part of the Sea-based nuclear weapons and strategic stability debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Both the draft nuclear doctrine released in 1999 and the official nuclear doctrine released later in 2003 state India's commitment to a minimalist nuclear posture.

This nuclear minimalism was best advocated in the policy of credible minimum deterrence (CMD). Two assumptions inform the concept of CMD. First, that deterrence can be projected at low numbers, and second, that a ready arsenal – delivery vehicles mated with warheads at continuous alert – is unnecessary. The commitment to low numbers of warheads meant that CMD could help avoid unnecessary 'vertical proliferation'. Such a posture was therefore considered propitious for nuclear stability.

But will CMD remain valid as India shifts its nuclear arsenal to the sea? The coming of the Arihant, India's first nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), constitutes a formidable challenge to India's posture of credible minimum deterrence and therefore, also to strategic stability in the region.

The present configuration of INS Arihant allows it to carry 16 nuclear-tipped missiles. By the end of this decade, India plans to deploy five to six such SSBNs. Clearly, the warheads required to arm these submarines would alone be close to the current estimates of the total number of nuclear weapons (between 90-110) in India's arsenal. This increase in numbers would not be alarming if India was to shift its entire nuclear arsenal underwater as France and Britain have done. In fact, in 2000, in a well argued and equally well received book on India's nuclear strategy, Raja Menon – an influential strategic analyst and a retired rear admiral – suggested precisely this course.

Various factors militate against such a prospect, however.

For one thing, the current generation of India's sea-launched ballistic missiles lack the range for an underwater deterrent to be credible. The K-15 or Sagarika, the only missile ready to be deployed on Arihant, has an effective range of only 700km. Though this may be sufficient for projecting second-strike capability against Pakistan, it is clearly inadequate for retaliating against China. With such a short range, Indian SSBNs would have to enter dangerous waters in East Asia to release their payloads. India, therefore, will continue to rely on aircraft and missiles for nuclear delivery. The rivalry among India's army, navy and air force will also frustrate any shift to an underwater-only nuclear arsenal. All three services want a part of the nuclear arsenal, both for budgets and prestige. This is similar to the US experience during the initial years of the Cold War.

Furthermore, the number of Indian nuclear warheads would spike if the Defence Research and Development Organisation's (DRDO) ambitious plan of introducing multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRV) into India's nuclear delivery systems bear fruit. The DRDO claims that, in the near future, Indian missiles could be capable of carrying 4 to 12 nuclear warheads atop a single missile. Multiple warheads clearly imply a multiplying arsenal. 

Then there is the question of India's nuclear readiness. The conventional wisdom is that India's nuclear weapons are in a state of 'recessed deterrence' – disassembled, de-mated and de-alerted. In case of a nuclear emergency, operationalising the nuclear arsenal would require coordination among multiple agencies such as the DRDO, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the armed forces. All these agencies control different subsystem of the nuclear arsenal: AEC controls the nuclear core; DRDO controls the non-fissile triggers and the armed forces control the delivery vehicles. Such diffusion automatically suggests a disassembled arsenal.

However, as Vipin Narang has argued recently, the idea that 'India keeps its nuclear weapons is a disassembled state...is largely now just a myth'. DRDO has publicly articulated its position of 'canisterising' or 'encapsulating' all nuclear delivery systems, which requires that a 'warhead is likely to be pre-mated to the delivery vehicle and kept hermetically sealed for storage and transport'. The rationale emanates from the need for a credible second strike capability. As the DRDO chief explains, 'In the second strike capability, the most important thing is how fast we can react.  We are working on cannisterised systems that can launch from anywhere at anytime'.

Though last-minute checks and balances would still be in place, this is not a picture of a 'disassembled' nuclear force. This is particularly true of nuclear-armed submarines. Since such submarines may have no links with the mainland during a patrol, warheads cannot be possibly detached from the delivery vehicles. In the case of land-based and air-based delivery platforms, coordination among multiple agencies is still possible, but an underwater deterrent requires a ready arsenal. 

So Arihant and its progenies will not only increase the size of India's nuclear arsenal but also its readiness, making the idea of a CMD practically meaningless. This could have a spiral effect on Pakistan, which would increase its own weapons production and battle readiness. We are already witnessing this, with increasing numbers in her nuclear arsenal and intentions to develop tactical nuclear weapons. It may also lead to new proliferation challenges for India if Pakistan avails of China's services to acquire its own nuclear triad.

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 courtesy of Wikipedia.

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