Pakistan’s successful test of the Babar III, a Sea-Launched Cruise Missile (SCLM), was a gamechanger in the nuclear equation in the region, and also represented Pakistan’s completion of the third leg of the Nuclear Triad (air, land and sea). By giving Pakistan second-strike capability, it has probably added to the security of the region.
However, this second-strike capability moves the conflict up a notch, and gives Pakistan an enhanced capacity to launch countervalue strikes. Pakistan has responded to the Indian testing of the Sagrika SLBM, and in the process has achieved a second-strike capability too, thereby setting the region firmly in the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine which bedevilled the entire world when it was in place between the USA and the USSR during the Cold War.
It is ironic that Pakistan and India should be setting up a new nuclear balance at a time when the USA is contemplating the renewal of its aging nuclear arsenal. The question now is not whether the two opponents can inflict damage upon one another, but whether they can hold the world hostage because of the prospect of nuclear winter.
The USA and Russia are still capable of inflicting nuclear winter on the world, and at the height of the Cold War, this terrible event was a real prospect. It was postulated that if the two opponents unleashed enough of their atomic bombs on each other, so much dust would be thrown up that the earth would become obscured from the sun, so that little or no sunlight would reach it. As a result temperatures would plummet, and all life would die of cold. Eventually, the dust could clear, and light would reach the earth, but there would no longer be any life on the planet.
This prospect ended with the Cold War, but was revived when India went nuclear and Pakistan followed suit. Nuclear winter calculations have not been done for an Indo-Pak conflict, and it remains unlikely, because the original model included the use of hydrogen bombs by both sides, while the USA and USSR were postulated to attack targets in three continents: North America, Europe and Asia. An Indo-Pak contest would not involve hydrogen bombs, for while Pakistan has not tested such a weapon, the Indian test (one of the 1998 Pokhran tests) failed. While it might be argued that it is possible to develop a weapon without a test, and that even a failed test would provide information that would lead to weaponisation, postulating nuclear winter as a consequence of conflict might well be going too far, especially as any conflict would be geographically limited.
However, hydrogen bombs are probably going to be one of the next goals of both nuclear establishments, now that they have completed the triads. The sea leg is particularly significant, because it means the survival of the deterrent is guaranteed even if the other side launches a first strike which is counterforce: one directed at the other side’s nuclear arsenal, such as the missile sites of the land leg of the triad, and the airbases where the Air leg (planes carrying either bombs, ALCMs (air-launched cruise missiles) or ALBMs (air-launched ballistic missiles) is stored. It is possible for naval vessels carrying nuclear weapons to be at sea, presenting a much more mobile target than missile sites and airbases which are fixed.
However, counterforce targeting has to be accurate, not because collateral damage is to be avoided, as because the target must be hit. There is little advantage in causing massive destruction to a probably uninhabited part of the enemy’s country, if the targeted missile is undamaged, and free for use. That is the reason why the USA and USSR both ‘hardened’ their missile sites, both to prevent those missiles being destroyed, and to enable their being fired even if there had been a nearby nuclear detonation.’
Countervalue targets represent targets such as dams, railway marshalling yards, and ports. And also population centres. Concentrations of population represent ultimate targets of value. The USA chose to attack targets of value in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on the only occasion nuclear weapons have been used. Even if a country’s land and air legs of the triad have been destroyed, it can use its sea leg.
The sea leg has two broad advantages. First, it can only be neutralized if the vessel carrying it is sunk. If the weapons are carried on board a submarine, the best weapon against them are other submarines. As submarines are expensive vessels, navies often prefer antisubmarine destroyers, which may also have helicopters specially designed for antisubmarine warfare, which can be used for other functions. More important, subs can be located anywhere in international waters, and are not easily detectable. If they carry SLBMs, they may comfortably launch from halfway around the world. With the missiles possessed by the Indian and Pakistan Navies, they can launch at both coastal targets and against the other’s interior, while remaining comfortably in international waters.
There is thus a pressing need to carry the SLBMs and SLCMs on nuclear submarines rather than the diesel-electric submarines in service in both navies. Nuclear subs can remain at sea virtually indefinitely, and under it as well (having a separate air purification technology installed). Nuclear subs need only surface to meet the needs of the crew for resupply, and rest and recreation. India is already operating an Akula-class Russian nuclear submarine as the INS Chakra, but it plans upto four Arihant-class nuclear subs by 2023, of which the Arihant has already been commissioned this August, and another, the Ardhaman, Is being prepared for sea trials.
Because the doctrine depended on MAD, the USA and the USSR agreed that they would not develop anti-missile missiles, though that is what the USA’s Strategic Defence Initiative was. It ultimately led to the end of the Cold War. While Pakistan may not be able to develop an anti-ballistic missile missile, it can opt to complete its triad by working on obtaining a nuclear submarine fleet. The presence of all the service chiefs as well as the Chairman Joint Chiefs at the Babar III test indicates the importance all attached to it. While inter-service rivalry might exist over which is to control the nuclear weapon, the triad means that each service has its own.
Now that each service has entered the nuclear age, it might be well to face the future, where the two rivals might see themselves locked into an ever-increasing nuclear spiral. Pakistan is behind in not having nuclear submarines. The next step would be to acquire them. Then one side might proceed to beef up its air leg by acquiring bombers that can not only fire ALCMs, but remain in the air, cruising for long periods. The need for secure satellites will drive the need for their own satellites. India is the one that, so far, has initiated major changes in the nuclear balance. Pakistan has merely followed suit. India should realise that, if it continues to follow the old Cold War nuclear calculus, Pakistan will follow suit. In the process, both might well be bankrupted. India would do well to remember that Russia lost the Cold War without a shot being fired because it could not afford the expense of the arms race.
Hydrogen bombs are probably going to be one of the next goals of both nuclear establishments, now that they have completed the triads.