The reason why nations place a significant part of their nuclear arsenals on board nuclear-propelled ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) is because of their invulnerability, in comparison with static air force bases and missile sites or even mobile launchers. Once at its patrol station, a few hundred metres underwater, the SSBN is considered safe from prying sensors, including satellites.
From this top-secret redoubt, her battery of ballistic missiles poses the threat of a devastating riposte to any adversary who may contemplate a nuclear first-strike.
In this context, the final launch of India’s K-15 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), marking successful completion of its development programme, is yet another feather in the cap of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). This event denotes the achievement of mastery over a sequence of esoteric technologies by Indian scientists. These include safe underwater ejection of the missile, ignition of its rocket-motor at the moment of breaking surface, control during its ballistic-trajectory and precise delivery of its payload over the target.
All that remains to be tested is how the K-15’s nuclear warhead will fare during its hypersonic flight and white-hot re-entry into the atmosphere; and the kind of explosive yield that its nuclear blast will deliver. However, the last bit may remain an unknown, in view of India’s self-imposed 1998 test-moratorium and the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty.
The primary aim of India’s no-first use (NFU) nuclear arsenal has always been to deter China from threatening it or attempting coercion with its powerful nuclear arsenal. It is for this reason that Indian scientists have steadfastly persevered, since the early 1980s, in their endeavours to produce a missile capable of delivering a sizeable nuclear warhead out to an inter-continental range of 5,000-8,000km. Their worthy efforts were crowned by success, with the successful test-firing of the Agni-V last year, and India can now claim to have an effective, land-based, nuclear deterrent against China.
An SSBN, being a vessel of immense strategic value, has to be deployed with care and secrecy in areas which are not frequented by shipping traffic. Their patrol stations are, therefore, chosen in remote parts of the ocean where they can loiter for months at a time, without fear of detection or interference. The obvious corollary is that their missile range must be adequate to reach adversary targets from safe waters. For example, the Chinese Jin-class SSBN is armed with the JL-2 SLBM, which has a range of 8,000km and can target both San Francisco and Kolkata from the South China Sea.
In this context, it becomes obvious that the 750km range of the K-15 is grossly insufficient for it to zero in on targets in mainland China from home waters. To be a truly effective third leg of the nuclear triad, an Indian nuclear submarine will have to await the delivery of an underwater launched missile of intercontinental range, so that it can threaten desired targets from safe patrol areas in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea.
However, it must be recognised that the American, Russian and Chinese navies had all followed a similar route before achieving SLBM capability of intercontinental range. Installed on board the soon-to-be-commissioned SSBN Arihant, there is no doubt the K-15 will serve as the most valuable stepping-stone and learning tool for more capable SLBMs that will follow.
Nuclear deterrence is all about sending the right signals to the adversary and there is a school of thought that Pakistan has already misinterpreted, inadvertently or deliberately, a number of Indian signals. The K-15 must not add to this list.
Even as India sought deterrence stability with respect to China, it clearly understood that the latter’s strategic calculus and nuclear arsenal looked well beyond India to include the US and Russia. It is a most regrettable aspect of sub-continental geopolitics that Pakistan has been unwilling to acknowledge that India’s arsenal, too, was predicated on factors other than Pakistan and has consistently sought to acquire parity with India.
Regardless of India’s true intentions in undertaking the Pokhran I nuclear test in May 1998, Islamabad jumped to the conclusion that India had embarked on a Pak-centric nuclear weapon programme and accelerated its own ongoing bomb project. The test of the liquid-fuelled, nuclear-capable 150km-range Prithvi missile in 1988 and that of the 1,500km-range Agni the following year confirmed Pakistan’s apprehensions that India’s nuclear capability was intended, not against China, but itself. The range of these missiles seemed to confirm this. India’s much publicised ballistic-missile defence programme, the launch of the Arihant and the maiden display of Agni V during the Republic Day parade may have all added to this paranoia. None of these developments are meant to be Pakistan-centric, but the induction of the 750km K-15 SLBM will certainly fuel the fears of Pakistan.
In a related context, since nuclear weapons have a large kill radius, accuracy is a relatively minor consideration for the delivery system — as long as the targeting strategy calls for counter-value attacks against cities, envisaged in the current Indian nuclear doctrine. However, the mention of single-digit accuracy’ by the DRDO chief in the K-15 context raises the spectre of ‘counter-force’ targeting and an entirely different ball game.
Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions have acquired such a desperate edge that its fissile plutonium production rate, from China-supplied reactors, will soon enable it to acquire one of the world’s largest warhead inventories. Apart from inducting cruise missiles, Pakistan has also stepped into the dangerous realm of tactical nuclear weaponry, and, there has been intriguing mention of Pakistan Navy’s Strategic Forces Command being the ‘custodian of the nation’s second-strike capability’.
With India’s scientists having done their job well, it is high time India’s national security experts and analysts step on to the strategic stage and, apart from considering the strategic context of the K-15, reflect on the state of mutual suspicion, rather than the actual needs of deterrence and stability that seem to be driving the growth of nuclear arsenals on the sub-continent.
Admiral (retd.) Arun Prakash is a former chief of the Indian Navy and former chairman, Chiefs-of-Staff Committee.