What Lies Beneath

What Lies Beneath

The spread of submarines has ushered in a new security era in the Indo-Asia-Pacific

FORUM staff

There seems to be no stopping the arms race underway in the Indo-Asia-Pacific and the shifting nuclear balance in the region. With the April 2016 launch of a long-range nuclear missile from the INS Arihant, India’s first ballistic missile-carrying nuclear submarine, India joined China in successfully deploying armed nuclear-capable submarines to sea. Meanwhile, North Korea and Pakistan look to put nuclear weapons aboard diesel electric submarines, experts say.

The proliferation of sea-based nuclear weapons in the Indo-Asia-Pacific presents new opportunities and challenges as the overall arms race continues in the region.

These new ballistic missile-carrying nuclear platforms have the potential to deter a major war in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. However, they could also exacerbate tensions, accelerate the arms race, shift conventional nuclear deterrence strategies and lead to conflict if not properly managed, experts warn.

The modernization of China’s military during the past two decades, coupled with its aggressive stance on disputed island chains in the South China Sea and beyond, has largely propelled the race. Emerging countries are striving to acquire next-generation submarines, some with nuclear capabilities, and existing nuclear-armed powers, including the U.S. and Russia, are seeking to modernize their arsenals.

A Russian crew participates in a rehearsal for a Navy Day parade in Vladivostok in July 2016. [REUTERS]

“Nuclear deterrence does not exist in a vacuum. The deployment of nuclear weapons to sea by India and China will cause other powers in the region, including the United States and Japan, to change or bolster their conventional maritime capabilities,” according to the findings of a recent Lowy Institute for International Policy report. “Thus the maritime nuclear programs of China and India are of particular regional and global importance, given that they may affect the nuclear and conventional strategic balance among major powers,” Brendon Thomas-Noone and Rory Medcalf wrote in the report published by the Australia-based think tank and titled “Nuclear-Armed Submarines in the Indo-Pacific Asia: Stabiliser or Menace?”

China, India, Russia and the U.S. plan to significantly increase nuclear-armed attack submarines by 2030. Meanwhile, Australia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, North Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam all plan to invest in adding diesel-powered attack submarines to their fleets over the next decade, according to assorted media reports.

“Submarines are the original stealth platform — they clearly give us an asymmetric advantage,” Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) said in February 2016 testimony before a U.S. Congress committee in a push to garner funding for more submarines to counter Chinese naval forces. “Our asymmetry in terms of warfare because of submarines is significant. In the modernizing sense, we need to maintain that asymmetric advantage.”

“All of the players are changing their strategies when it comes to deterrence and issues of missile defense,” Miles Pomper, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told FORUM. For example, China and India are reportedly rethinking their “no first use” policies. Meanwhile, India and the U.S. began sharing information about Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean region, Adm. Harris confirmed in January 2017.

“India should be concerned about the increasing Chinese influence in the region,” USPACOM’s Harris said, according to The Indian Express newspaper.

As the number and sophistication of submarines — “particularly those capable of carrying nuclear weapons or of tracking and killing other submarines — increases, there is a slim but growing danger of accidental or inadvertent escalation,” Diana Wueger, faculty associate for research at the Naval Postgraduate School, wrote in the fall 2016 issue of  The Washington Quarterly, a global security affairs journal. “While SSBNs [ballistic missile-carrying nuclear submarines] may offer some added stability at the strategic or nuclear level, they may exacerbate conventional maritime arms races that could lead to crises with strategic effects,” she wrote in her article titled “India’s Nuclear-Armed Submarines: Deterrence or Danger?”

The Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Hampton surfaced at the North Pole.
[Senior Chief Petty Officer KEVIN ELLIOTT/

“As these different powers progress down these paths, it is clear that the maritime spaces of the Indo-Pacific will have an added nuclear dimension that may interact with conventional military forces in unexpected and dangerous ways,” the Lowy Institute authors wrote. “The possibility of Pakistan or North Korea also putting vessels to sea adds a new and unpredictable dimension to regional security.”

Given that the proliferation of nuclear-armed submarines seems unstoppable, mature command and control, training, doctrine, and communications systems, among other mechanisms, will be necessary to help ensure their deployment results in a new era of stability, experts say. Moreover, getting to this stable state may take decades, they say.

History of deterrence

In the mid-1950s, naval nuclear reactors enabled submarines to stay submerged and undetectable for extended periods. They also had the necessary power to conduct anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare and provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Fleets of SSBNs provided a second-strike capability in the face of a nuclear attack. That is, if a first strike destroys a nation’s land-based weapons, its sea-based systems could still attack. They were considered the third leg of the strategic nuclear triad after nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers. In essence, SSBNs provided mutually assured destruction, the key to deterrence in the U.S.-Soviet relationship. Given the apparent success of SSBNs to prevent a nuclear war between the U.S. and USSR for nearly 70 years, nations have historically viewed them as a stabilizing force.

“The idea that submarine-based nuclear weapons are stabilizing remains a key assumption of nuclear strategy,” Wueger explained.

In 2009, India announced the launch of a sea-based nuclear platform, the INS Arihant, on the notion that, “nuclear subs earn their keep every day of the year. Ballistic missile submarines save nations on that one fateful day, when the enemy’s political leaders look at our SLBMs [submarine-launched ballistic missiles] and stay their hand on the button,” Indian Rear Adm. Raja Menon, an expert on Indian submarines, wrote in his 2009 book, Just One Shark in the Deep Blue Ocean.

India advanced this position in its 2015 maritime strategy document, “Enduring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy,” which gave this explanation for its pursuit of nuclear-armed submarines: “Cold War experience has shown that reduction in the first-strike and increase in the second-strike (retaliatory) component considerably stabilizes and strengthens deterrence.” With its 2016 launch milestone, it joined China, Russia and the U.S. as a triad nation.

A Republic of Korea Navy submarine, the 1,800-ton Ahn Jung Geun, named after an independence fighter, participates in a fleet review near Busan, South Korea. [THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which went into force in 1970 and remains adhered to by more than 190 nations, only recognizes China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. as nuclear-weapon states. India and Pakistan, however, along with Israel and South Sudan, never accepted the NPT. North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003 after a period of apparent noncompliance.

Although many lessons can be learned from the Cold War era, a growing chorus of experts challenge whether deterrence strategies that worked in the 20th century will hold true in the rapidly changing Indo-Asia-Pacific in the current century. In addition, they wonder whether nations in their deterrence planning have failed to fully weigh the idea that sea-based nuclear weapons could be destabilizing.

For a start, the development of capabilities such as anti-submarine warfare and ballistic missile defense technologies will also factor in the evolution of deterrence strategies. For example, technologies that enable submarines to be more readily detected could change the battlespace calculus, given that nuclear-armed subs may be much more vulnerable than they were during the Cold War. Advanced anti-submarine technologies may be able to detect even the quietest of submarine engines and slightest of acoustic signatures.

How countries adapt conventional strategies also will complicate matters. In this century, adversaries, for instance, may decide to go after another nation’s second-strike capability by conventional means instead of assuming mutual vulnerability.

“India is likely to experience just such a situation as Pakistan and China build up their attack submarine fleets,” according to Wueger.

China is projected to increase its nuclear submarine fleet from seven to 15 by 2030 and its overall attack submarine fleet from 58 to 90, while India plans to increase its nuclear fleet from one vessel to two and its overall attack submarine fleet from 14 to 24 by 2030, making survivability an issue, especially in the interim. If one or both of India’s deployed SSBNs are destroyed, its second-strike capability would be compromised, she explained.

“Countries may not have thought hard enough about the sea-based piece of deterrence,” Wueger told FORUM. Moreover, they also need to consider “there is a conventional arms race going on alongside it.”

“Countries need to think about all of the costs associated with introducing nuclear-armed submarines, but it seems many haven’t really thought through the full cost of this [including opportunity costs] and whether their implementation really gets them where they want to go strategically. Are there other ways to get there that are better options with fewer risks and costs?”

Managing new capabilities and threats

Whether the deployment of sea-based nuclear weapons leads to stability will be decided by myriad factors, technical and political, experts agree.

“The interplay between the introduction of these weapons and existing regional tensions, notably over the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal, will matter,” according to the Lowy Institute report. “As India and China move ahead with their SSBN programs, issues such as command and control, nuclear doctrine, deterrence signaling and force posture will have to be addressed in order to maximize the chances that these platforms contribute to stability rather than promote instability.”

To a large extent, the development of the technology has outstripped the evolution of the operational structure to manage it effectively.

“Both on the technical and political deterrence level, a lot of things could go wrong because countries [that recently acquired nuclear submarines] don’t have all the systems in place and use them on a regular basis,” Pomper told FORUM.

Command and control systems in China and India have not reached the level of sophistication that the U.S. and USSR achieved during the Cold War. “As these countries learn to operate their new SSBNs, there will be risks of miscommunication and even of inadvertent escalation,” according to the Lowy Institute report. In addition, such nations don’t have force structures fully in place to support the weapons.

Although most doubt that North Korea’s capability to deploy SLBMs from submarines is very far along, there are also risks inherent in the research process. “To launch the missiles under the water is very, very complicated. I think it is still years away before that technology is developed,” Adm. Scott H. Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said during an April 2017 interview with various media in Seoul.

Another problem is that the process by definition is obscured. “Navies don’t talk much about submarine plans or doctrines because stealth is crucial for submarines, and their movements and operational patterns are matters of extreme secrecy,” Wueger said. Although current sea-based nuclear doctrine is not being explained in public, it is also not been adequately explored in private.

“Currently, there is little dialogue between India and Pakistan or China about how each side perceives naval, particularly subsurface, actions and how these states might mitigate worst-case thinking that could cause crises at sea to spiral,” Wueger wrote in The Washington Quarterly.

Nonproliferation and deterrence experts would like to see maritime security discussions started among these nations and more work done within these countries to address how to manage the increasing risks of an accidental incident and other challenges they face. “Nations need to improve communication and understanding and facilitate dialogue, formal and informal, where military and political people can have discussions,” Pomper said.

Many look to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to provide a mechanism for broader discussions to include member states as well as other regional players including Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States in such dialogues.

Politics may only complicate the development of sound doctrine, however. Speculation has mounted that China’s aggression in the South China Sea has been fueled by its quest to use the region to deploy its SSBNs in the Pacific without being detected. China appears to be building a submarine base at Yulin-East in the South China Sea, according to a March 2017 article in The Diplomat, an online magazine. Its force structure, including “the number and size of submarine piers, the vast network of munitions transport, and the large underground facility sheltered under a mountain” are indicative of its aspirations to make it a command and control center, The Diplomat reported.

Mitigating risk

Today’s emerging era of sea-launched weapons in the Indo-Asia-Pacific is complex and likely to challenge existing nuclear deterrence theory and practices, experts agree.

Nations, militaries and the security community at large must work together to devise ways to manage the development and implementation of sea-based nuclear weapons to mitigate potential perils that lurk beneath the subsurface and ensure that these powerful armaments increase stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific for the long term.

“Assuming that lessons are learned and potential crises managed in the decade ahead, advances in Chinese and Indian SSBN and SLBM technology may eventually contribute to a new phase of relative strategic stability where the existence of nuclear weapons keeps the peace and prevents their use,” the Lowy Institute authors concluded in their report.

Until the necessary technological and political advances are achieved and adopted, however, “There’s more likely to be instability in the short term,” Wueger told FORUM.

“In the near future it is going to be a problem,” Pomper agreed, “as long as countries are uneven in terms of development.”