The Indian nuclear submarine Arihant. Photo: Indian Defense Ministry

For years the US, Russia, Britain, France and China were the only powers that possessed the ability to project nuclear weapons power with submarines in the Indian Ocean region, but on on March 31, 2016, India joined the fray with its first nuclear-powered ballistic missile-carrying submarine, INS Arihant (SSBN 80), test-firing the K-4 nuclear-capable submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

The INS Arihant is an indigenously-built nuclear-powered submarine  capable of carrying nuclear and conventional warheads with a strike range of up to 3,500 kilometers, providing for an undersea nuclear deterrent or a second-strike capability. The submarine completed its first deterrence patrol on November 5, 2018, which led India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to emphasize, “In an era such as this, a credible nuclear deterrent is the need of the hour. Today is historic because it marks the completing of the successful establishment of the nuclear triad. India’s nuclear triad will be an important pillar of global peace and stability.”

India’s move to enhance its missile and nuclear as well as undersea deterrence capabilities was perceptible from the test as well as successful patrols. Apart from this, India signed a $3 billion deal with Russia in March 2018 allowing the third Russian nuclear attack submarine to be leased to the Indian navy by 2025 (an Akula-1 class submarine to be known in India as Chakra III) for 10 years. This submarine will replace INS Chakra, the Akula class submarine that India leased from Russia in 2012. Another nuclear submarine, INS Aririghat, is scheduled to be part of the Indian navy. Although the Indian navy is not equipped with long-range nuclear missiles, New Delhi’s strategic experts, as well as policymakers, believe that SLBMs will provide India with a deterrence strategy and an assured second-strike capability. The nuclear capacity projection in the Indian Ocean is seen as an assurance that New Delhi has minimum credible deterrence capacity as envisioned by its nuclear doctrine.

While the Chinese strategic focus is apparently driven by the need to defend its interests and project its power in the larger Indo-Pacific region, the Indian strategy seems to be directed by a desire to safeguard its presence in its strategic backyard (the Indian Ocean) by developing defense, deterrence and second-strike abilities. The Indian Ocean is nevertheless the focus of other great powers too due to the passage of strategically important sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) linking the Middle East, Africa and South Asia with Europe, East Asia and the US. More importantly, the major chunk of the world’s energy trade (around 80%) passes through the choke points of the Indian Ocean region. The strategic value of the Indian Ocean to China can be gauged from the country’s fielding of its Song- and Shang-class nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines in the waterway in 2014 and the acquisition of its first overseas military facility in Djibouti.

However, the nuclearization of the Indian Ocean is an ominous development given the mutual distrust prevailing between India and Pakistan and between India and China on the one hand, and strategic competition between China and the US on the other, which not only puts the security of these powers in jeopardy but the security of many littoral states (around 32) of the region is also put to risk.

A statement issued by Pakistan’s Foreign Office in response to India’s first nuclear submarine-launched ballistic missiles included a caveat that: “The reported Indian tests of a submarine-launched ballistic missile and development of a nuclear submarine fleet are serious developments, which impact the delicate strategic balance of the region.”

However, many strategic experts contend that while India’s nuclear arsenal is sufficient to deter Pakistan, its sea-based deterrent vis-à-vis China will lack credibility so long as India is unable to deploy an SSBN fleet carrying missiles with intercontinental range, and this could possibly take decades. In this larger context, while Pakistan may be propelled to enhance its sea-based nuclear capability by maintaining a close strategic relationship with China, India may be induced to invigorate its efforts to enhance its nuclear deterrence capacity in an attempt to ensure credible deterrence against China, even if that entailed strong strategic bonding with other Quad members such as the US, Japan and Australia.

While many strategic experts viewed India’s K-15 Sagarika SLBM, with a range of only 700 km, to be aimed at Pakistan, submarines with a longer range missile delivery capacity such as INS Arihant is difficult to explain as it covers a range that is not sufficient to deter China but more than enough to contain Pakistan. However, Pakistan has understandably developed the Babur-3 submarine-launched cruise missile to respond to India’s growing submarine capability.

Apart from the likely scenario of a more militarized Indian Ocean, concerns have been raised about the safety and security of India’s nuclear arsenal because unlike land and air-based nuclear deterrence, a sea-based deterrent would necessitate a ready-to-use arsenal as well as less restrictive command and control procedures. As the chain of command and control over the weapons would be weakened, possibilities of nuclear mishaps cannot be wished away. The difficulty in keeping submarines, warships and arsenals under proper checks and verification has led to some mishaps in the past. For instance, Indian nuclear submarine INS Arihant was about to sink a few months after its commissioning when a hatch was left open and seawater flooded the propulsion compartment, and INS Chakra did not sail for a month when it required repairs due to damage to its sensitive sonar equipment. The reasons for the accident were believed to be either a collision at sea or accidental scraping while entering the harbor.

Efforts at denuclearization

At various conferences of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), such as the Cairo Conference in 1964 and the Lusaka (Zambia) Conference in 1970, India endorsed the principle of nuclear weapon free zones. Sri Lanka mooted a proposal on the Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace at the 26th United Nations General Assembly in 1971, which called upon “great powers not to allow escalation and expansion of military presence in the Indian Ocean.” The UNGA Resolution 2832 declaring the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly. However, some experts on strategic affairs maintain that the Zone of Peace resolution, which called upon “great powers” to refrain from expanding their military presence in the Indian Ocean, did not include any provision for restricting the movement or presence of nuclear weapons in the region at India’s behest.

Some experts on strategic affairs maintain that the Zone of Peace resolution, which called upon “great powers” to refrain from expanding their military presence in the Indian Ocean, did not include any provision for restricting the movement or presence of nuclear weapons in the region at India’s behest

According to Prakash Shah, India’s former permanent representative to the United Nations, the concept of an Indian Ocean zone of peace was originally conceived in the context of superpower rivalry and a 44-member UN. Adhoc Committee on the Indian Ocean was set up in 1972 to implement the General Assembly resolution. He maintains that the key western members of the committee withdrew in 1989, arguing that superpower rivalry in the Indian Ocean had been diminished with the end of the Cold War, ending with it the justification for a Zone of Peace as well.

During the Cold War, a similar move was initiated by Pakistan, which sought the declaration of South Asia as a nuclear weapons-free region on October 28, 1974, at the 29th session of UN General Assembly. During the debate on the issue, India maintained a viewpoint that such regional arrangements could not be imposed from outside and South Asia could not be treated in isolation for the purpose of creating a nuclear weapons-free zone, as it was only a sub-region and an integral part of the Asia-Pacific region. Therefore, a genuine nuclear weapons-free zone in the region required the total absence of nuclear weapons in the entire region.

Since 1998, India has not only gone nuclear, it has ever since looked to strategies such as balance of power, alliance formation and the strengthening of its deterrence capability as ways to ensure its security in the Indian Ocean region. For instance, the Indian Maritime Doctrine of 2004, which was revisited in 2009, emphasized the need for a sea-based nuclear deterrent. In an effort to address the security dilemma posed by the continuing competition between China and members of the Quad, and the perception of insecurity caused by Pakistani and Chinese moves, India’s naval strategy has shifted from the defense of its coasts to a proactive role enhancing its sea-based nuclear capability.

Meanwhile, it must be noted that while India argued for universal nuclear disarmament as one of the founding members of the Non-Alignment Movement, it could not endorse most of the international arms-control and disarmament treaties, such as Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) of 1994-96, considering them selective and discriminatory. India abstained from the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, while more than 120 countries in the United Nations voted to convene a conference to adopt the first-ever global treaty to ban nuclear weapons in October 2017.

The reason for its abstention was cited as a lack of sufficient provisions for international verification which New Delhi considered essential to the global elimination of nuclear weapons. Apart from India, eight other nuclear-armed nations, including the US, China and Pakistan, did not participate in the negotiations. While these treaties are far from being universal, India’s approach to universal disarmament has been reactive rather than proactive.

Considering the fragility of the security atmospherics in the Indian Ocean region, it must be realized that competition, balance of power, alliance formation and deterrence cannot guarantee long-term peace. India must engage the Quad members, the major powers of Europe as well as the 32 littoral countries of the region to find ways and means to secure long-term peace and stability.

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