Tuesday 22 May 2018 | 16:28 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 22 May 2018 | 16:28 | SYDNEY

pca south china sea ruling

Indo-Pacific security links: ASEAN, coast guards, collective self-defence and more

The Indo-Pacific is a strategic system encompassing the Indian and Pacific oceans, reflecting the expanding interests and reach of China and India as well as the enduring role of the US. The Lowy Institute's International Security program presents a weekly selection of links illuminating the changing security picture in this increasingly connected super-region.

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SSBNs destablising? Not if command and control is maintained

Ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) became the seagoing platform of choice for the deployment of strategic nuclear weapons by 1960, with the availability of submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Today there are five countries with operational SSBNs. The US, the UK, France and Russia all have a major part of their deterrent capability deployed on SSBNs, while China has three or four SSBNs, though not all are operationally available.

Before getting into a discussion on how the spread of sea-based nuclear weapons in Asia would affect stability, it is worth revisiting some concepts regarding 'stability'. To clarify, this discussion is about nuclear stability, not about prevention of conventional conflict. In other words, our frame of reference is to examine whether the possession and deployment of nuclear-armed submarines in Asia would provoke, or conversely prevent, escalation of a conflict over the nuclear threshold. With this in mind, the following is a brief review of the existing concepts:

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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.

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SSBNs are unnecessary and destabilising

A Chinese Type 094 (Jin-class) SSBN. (Wikipedia.)

Regarding the Chinese and Indian ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) programs and their impact on international security, my arguments are: (1) they are not necessary; (2) noisy SSBNs are destabilising and should not be deployed; and (3) China's SSBNs are still far from being operational.

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Why sea-based nuclear weapons won't stabilise the Indo-Pacific

China, India and possibly Pakistan intend to deploy nuclear weapons at sea. Ultimately, such deployments may well have a stabilising effect — that is, they may reduce the risk of full-scale war and nuclear use. Sea-based nuclear weapons might, for instance, fit well with 'no-first-use' doctrines. They might also encourage reduced investment in more destabilising forces such as weapons fired from fixed sites, which are vulnerable and thus suited to a 'first strike'. And after all, sea-based nuclear weapons were widely seen as stabilising during the Cold War. 

However, we should beware of applying simple retrospective visions of the US-Soviet balance to the Asian strategic scene. There are various reasons to doubt that deployment of sea-based nuclear weapons in Indo-Pacific Asia will be stabilising. 

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