With strategic competition in South Asia shifting to the maritime space and nuclear weapon states increasingly relying on sea power, the Indian Ocean region (IOR) has become a theatre for trilateral security competition between India, Pakistan, and China. Developments over the past several years showcase the complicated nature of the situation in the IOR, and lead to a number of difficult questions about strategic stability. What are the drivers of nuclear escalation in the Indian Ocean region (IOR), as well as the implications for peace and stability in the region? Will changing threat perceptions in the IOR, especially as China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) demonstrates increased capabilities, lead New Delhi to forge stronger naval ties with the United States? As states in the IOR contest for naval nuclear supremacy and project newly developed capabilities, this article examines the risk of friction and misperceptions that challenges the stability of the Indian Ocean.
In 2015, China carried out a flight test of its long-range sea-based nuclear deterrent: the JL-2. With an estimated range of up to 7,200km, the JL-2 can target assets in continental India from Chinese waters. Moreover, Chinese nuclear submarines continue to patrol the Indian Ocean, exemplifying Beijing’s willingness to project power in the IOR. China uses advanced military assets, such as attack submarines (SSNs), for ‘piracy operations’ in the IOR. However, the presence of SSNs, which are not appropriate for anti-pirate missions, intensify regional misperceptions. Beijing’s support to Pakistan’s nuclear and ballistic missile program (M-11 missile technology transfers), and its recent announcement to provide Pakistan with eight diesel-electric attack submarines have alarmed India’s strategic community, which fears that these sales will bolster Pakistan’s sea-denial strategy.
Furthermore, Beijing’s naval assertiveness in the South China Sea (SCS) has raised concernswith Indian officials, who see a correlation between aggressive Chinese patrolling in the SCS and increasing deployments in the IOR. Some believe China might use its bases in the SCS to project power in the Indian Ocean. The prospect of active patrols by nuclear-armed Chinese submarines has intensified India’s surveillance. The challenge to New Delhi’s domination in the Indian Ocean has led New Delhi to bolster its maritime partnership with the United States. The US-India Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean serves as a roadmap for bilateral cooperation on safeguarding maritime security and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
On India’s other border, Pakistan tested the Babur-3 submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) in early 2017. Babur-3 is reportedly capable of carrying a nuclear payload and designed for integration with the Agosta 90B diesel electric submarine. These developments augment the shifts in Pakistan’s military and nuclear force structure, which was traditionally dominated by the army. As Pakistan’s navy develops a submarine-based nuclear deterrent, there are clear indications of accommodating the navy within Pakistan’s command and control (C2). However, questions arise regarding Islamabad’s ability to safely and reliably manage a submarine-based nuclear force given the doubts raised over the robustness of Pakistan’s command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, information, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C412SR) systems. Analysts have suggested that a balanced and effective nuclear C2 system faces challenges in Pakistan. When Pakistan’s military leadership took the reins of presidential power in 1999, the country’s civilian institutions and other services came under the army’s political control. This meant that the air force and navy chiefs could no longer contribute their views on an equal footing with the army chief. Therefore, the lack of an effective C2 has highlighted discernible doubts regarding Pakistan’s ability to communicate with the Agosta submarines to put negative controls on weapons. Pakistan’s stated policy of “first-use” of nuclear weapons against India coupled with a weak C2 has exacerbated India’s security concerns. India views Islamabad’s attempt to acquire second-strike capabilities as attempts to gain strategic technological and capabilities parity with India, giving impetus to the action-reaction cycle.
Given security threat perceptions in IOR, Indian naval planners and strategists are convinced that nuclear submarines will provide the most reliable deterrent. India’s pursuit of a sea-based nuclear force is thus a logical step in its desire to achieve assured retaliatory capabilities. Few analysts argue that India’s new K-4 nuclear-capable SLBM, coupled with India’s nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine program could lead to further destabilization and conflict in the region. There is little merit in such an argument. India’s ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) force will not only improve the operational capabilities of India’s sea-based leg of its triad but also enable New Delhi to maintain balance of power in the IOR. To maintain a credible minimum deterrent vis-à-vis China and Pakistan and to ensure its arsenal’s survivability against a preemptive first strike, New Delhi must focus on developing submarine launched ballistic missiles (SSBM) technology and SSBN capabilities. The primary objective of India’s Arihant-class SSBNs is to deter conflict and coercion against India by its adversaries. India’s 2015 maritime security strategy document re-prioritized & reformulated deterrence as India’s first priority and war fighting as the second. Therefore, India’s SSBN force should be seen as a critical enabler of its no-first use policy.
As China, India, and Pakistan employ nuclear weapons at sea, the India Ocean is slipping from a ‘Zone of Peace’ to a hotbed of nuclear politics. To help reduce tensions, India and the United States have engaged in cooperative discussions about India opening up its military bases to the United States in exchange for access to weapons technology to help it narrow the gap with China. The two sides will also hold talks on anti-submarine warfare (ASW), an area of sensitive military technology and tactics. The process of India-US security-burden sharing in the IOR should serve as a building block for an enduring navy-to-navy relationship that should grow into a shared ASW capability. At a time of a qualitative reordering of the Asia-Pacific, stability in the Indian Ocean region hinges on collaborative efforts by India and the United States to keep the seas open and peaceful.
Sylvia Mishra is a researcher with Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and is presently with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey, California. Her current research is focused on South Asian security issues and nuclear dynamics, India-US defence cooperation and disruptive technologies. She is a PONI Nuclear Scholar and an alumna of London School of Economics.