Asia's Coming Nuclear Nightmare
While the world focuses on the dangers that a nuclear-armed Iran could present in the Middle East, a potentially more dangerous and unstable nuclear proliferation is occurring in the Indian Ocean.
In the coming years India, Pakistan, and perhaps China will likely deploy a significant number of nuclear weapons at sea in the Indian Ocean. This could further destabilize already unstable nuclear relationships, creating a real risk of a sea-based exchange of nuclear weapons.
Observers have long seen India-Pakistan nuclear rivalry as the most unstable in the world, and South Asia as the most likely location of nuclear conflict. This is not just academic speculation. Foreign diplomats have been evacuated from Islamabad on several occasions from fears of an impending nuclear exchange with India.
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India has a “no first use” (NFU) nuclear-weapons policy of sorts, although it is increasingly subject to caveats and exceptions. But Islamabad refuses to adopt an NFU policy and indeed has announced a long list of actions that it claims would justify a nuclear response against India. Pakistan is also busy miniaturizing its nuclear weapons for tactical use, thus reducing the threshold for Pakistani nuclear action.
Importantly, Pakistan sees its nuclear arsenal not only as a deterrent but also as an enabler, providing an umbrella under which it can sponsor sub-conventional attacks against India. In the face of terrorist attacks such as those in Mumbai in 2008, Delhi has found its options constrained by concerns about a possible Pakistani nuclear response. But few are confident that India's restraint can be maintained in the face of another serious cross-border attack that is proved to have been sponsored by Pakistan.
Both India and Pakistan are now in the process of moving their nuclear weapons capabilities into the maritime realm.
India is the furthest down this track, having launched its first indigenous nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine INS Arihant in 2009 (expected to be commissioned this year); it is also in the process of building two more so-called SSBNs. Further, India is developing nuclear-tipped Dhanush short range ballistic missiles for deployment on offshore patrol vessels. India has leased a nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine and has plans to construct up to six more SSNs (unlike SSBNs, SSNs are not armed with nuclear ballistic missiles). Pakistan is following India's lead, having recently established a Naval Strategic Force Command Headquarters with the declared intention of developing a sea-based deterrent. This may involve nuclear-armed conventional submarines supplied by China, rather than SSBNs.
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Some nuclear weapons states have created a nuclear “triad” in order to have an assured second strike capability. While such an assured capability can help stabilize a nuclear relationship, according to a recent Carnegie report, taking the India-Pakistan nuclear dynamic into the maritime realm may in fact create greater instability.
One issue is an ambiguous mix of conventional and nuclear capabilities at sea, including the deployment of nuclear missiles on Pakistani conventional submarines and on Indian missile boats. Uncertainty over whether a platform is carrying nuclear weapons creates a risk of an inadvertent but highly escalatory attack on an opponent's nuclear capability. Another concern is that maritime nuclear capabilities could lower Pakistan's already low nuclear threshold. Islamabad may be tempted to conduct a demonstration nuclear attack at sea, believing it will not be escalated on land. A further problem is Pakistan's reported propensity to delegate nuclear authority to field commanders, which could create considerable risks if submarine communications are interrupted.
China is also a major player in the nuclearization of the Indian Ocean. China's role in creating a nuclear-armed Pakistan is a big factor in the distrust that characterizes the India-China security relationship. In the 1980s, China supplied Pakistan with weapon plans along with fissile material, and facilitated the supply of missile technology. Any further moves by China to develop Pakistan's maritime nuclear capability will only cement India's threat perceptions about China.