Nuclearisation of Indian Ocean pushing Pakistan, India closer to war: report

The acquirement of nuclear-armed submarines by Pakistan and India has increased the chances of a destructive war between the two countries, reported Vox.
Islamabad has publicly stated that the decision to arm Pakistan Navy with nuclear submarines is a direct response to New Delhi, which announced the deployment of its first nuclear submarine, in August 2016, according to the American news website.
In theory, the presence of nuclear missiles on submarines had made any war between the two adversaries potentially unwinnable, and ultimately, futile, the US-based news website underlined.
As Pakistan and India have now achieved completion of the nuclear triad, both have the capability to strike each other by land, air and sea. In the event of a nuclear war, the submarine is traditionally considered the ‘safest’ bet, as it can survive a first strike by the enemy, and retaliate effectively.
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Pakistan and India are arch enemies and bilateral relations between the two countries have been uneasy at best ever since becoming independent in 1947. More recently, they have also been locked in a nuclear arms race.
Vox notes that as the race spirals over into the Indian Ocean, the number of atomic weapons on the sub-continent is increasing, the chain of command and control over these weapons is at risk of being loosened, and they are now being placed in an environment where things can go horribly wrong.
“The nuclearisation of the Indian Ocean has begun,” Zafar Jaspal, a nuclear security expert at Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University, told Vox. “Both states have now crossed the threshold,” he added.
The report has compared the situation in South Asia to the nuclear standoff on the Korean peninsula, although it admits that Islamabad and New Delhi have managed to avoid international scrutiny over their nuclear programmes. It has also warned of a nuclear conflict arising from a surprise attack, as inexperienced officers control atomic weapons in contested waters.
Accidents, mishaps and attacks
According to Vox, United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom and France all have nuclear-armed submarines that are also powered by nuclear propulsion. They can travel underwater, virtually undetected, for months, limited only by the availability of food for their crew, for which they have to come to the surface.
Pakistan, Israel and India, on the other hand, have nuclear-armed submarines that are powered by diesel-electric engines. Compared to the elite class of hardware owned by major world powers, these tend to make a lot more noise, and can only stay submerged for two weeks at most. These submarines are, therefore, easier to track.
Vox further reported that despite spending billions of dollars on the Arihant, India came close to a colossally embarrassing disaster when a hatch on the submarine was left open and seawater flooded the propulsion compartment. The Indian Armed Forces blamed a ‘human error’ for the mishap, and the defence ministry tried to ‘hush-up the whole incident’.
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In a startling revelation, the American website claims that even the political leadership in India was kept in the dark about events surrounding the incident.
The Hindu later reported that the submarine was undergoing ‘extensive repairs’.
The US-based news website also highlighted that another Indian nuclear submarine is sitting dry in the dock after ‘an unspecified accident’ damaged sonar equipment on it. INS Chakra was on loan from Russia, and Moscow has already billed India US$20 million for repairs.
Pakistan has also announced that it has successfully tested a submarine-launched cruise missile which has the ability to carry nuclear payloads and is in the process of putting nuclear-tipped warheads onboard its French-built nuclear submarines.
It has also reached a deal with China to buy eight more diesel-electric attack submarines that can be equipped with nuclear weapons. These are scheduled for delivery in 2028, according to Vox. Islamabad has also signalled its willingness to put nuclear missiles on surface vessels, as it moves away from a doctrine of ‘minimum credible deterrence’ to ‘full spectrum deterrence’.
Command and control
Putting nukes in the hands of officers at sea weaken the chain of command and control over atomic weapons, the American website claims. It also adds to chances of an accidental exchange of fire which could result in a full-on nuclear war on the sub-continent.
As Pakistan and India look for the membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), both have implemented vigorous checks for the safety and security of their existing arsenals.
The ultimate authority over nuclear weapons in both countries rests with civilian leaders. Pakistan, for its part, has established a state-of-the-art system for the safety of its nuclear weapons. There is a National Command Authority (NCA), headed by the prime minister in Islamabad, which must authorise the decision to use nuclear weapons.
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However, Pakistan and India keep their nuclear systems de-mated, which means that the nuclear warheads that power missiles are kept in different locations. Vox further reported that India also keeps its ‘trigger or detonator far from the fissile core’. At sea, in contrast, these measures are not implementable.
The website revealed that warheads and missiles have already been assembled and stored in the same place at sea, and individual submarine captains have ‘significant freedom to decide whether to launch their nukes’.
“The new danger for both countries is that the problem of command and control over the submarines becomes very tenuous,” Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist and frequent visiting scholar at Princeton University, told Vox.
“With land-based weapons, the warhead is separated from the delivery system. You can’t do that with warheads on a submarine. When it leaves the port, it is already armed.”
“Either you do not give the arming code to the captain … or you give it to him before he leaves the port and he can, of his own accord, launch a nuclear missile,” he stated.
Traditionally, the weakest link in the chain of nuclear command at sea has been the problems associated with communicating with submarines.
Normal radio communication is not possible with a submerged sub, and to communicate with central command, these machines use very low frequency (VLF) and extremely low frequency (ELF) radio transmissions. Voice messages are not possible at these frequencies, so only coded messages and text messages are put through. These dispatches are also one-way, and submarines cannot reply or ask questions of the central command.
“Essentially the submarine is on its own,” Hoodbhoy said to the news website, adding that “it can’t communicate back” unless it sticks an antenna above the water surface and compromises its location.
There have also been concerns that if a first strike by any nation destroys land-based communications networks of the other, nuclear-armed submarines of the country will essentially operate on their own.
Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is managed by an elite agency within the military called the Strategic Plans Division. The American website notes that the SPD projects an image of calm professionalism.
In Islamabad, Vox reporters also met Director SPD Arms Control Brig Gen Zahir Kazmi who told them that the country “is very much alive” to the dangers of managing nuclear weapons at sea. “We are confident but not complacent,” he was quoted as saying.
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Kazmi recognised the responsibility of safeguarding the weapons in the face of a challenging domestic security environment but bristled at any suggestion from Americans that Pakistan’s military might not be up to the task of protecting its most important assets.
“Managing nuclear safety and security is not a white man’s burden only,” he said. “Pakistan is managing its responsibilities quite well. There is a deliberate tendency to forget that Pakistan’s record is as good, if not better, than that of the US.”
The involvement of the United States in the affairs of the Indian Ocean has been met with fierce criticism. Publicly promoting the facade of neutrality, the Americans have in secret signed commercial agreements with India that allow New Delhi some benefits afforded only by signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Vox outlined.
Pakistan is also moving towards ‘full spectrum deterrence’, which represents a significant shift from the doctrine of ‘minimum credible deterrence’ it previously followed. The development of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons is the clearest example of this, Vox noted.
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