India’s naval deterrence a recipe for disaster
India’s new nuclear-powered Arihant submarine keeps on board an array of missiles armed with a nuclear payload. New Delhi also plans to induct Arighat, its second such SSBN, thanks to Russia’s assistance in the technology transfer of its Akula-class. The South Asian country has achieved another milestone, albeit while sacrificing its policy of separating its nuclear payload and the delivery system or missile. India has thus proven its doctrine of “no first use” to be a farce.
The 6,000-tonne INS Arihant not only undermines the concept of deterrence in South Asia, but it also exponentially boosts the risk of command and control failure, accidental war and fatal technological fiasco.
India’s operational nuclear triad compels Pakistan against keeping its nuclear warheads separate from the delivery system. The absence of mating of the two meant that the countries needed a few hours of preparation to prepare and launch their nuclear cargo. This crucial time also meant that there was some room to rule out accidental firing as a failure of command and control systems. In the case of India, the commander of the submarine can now make the catastrophic decision to fire nuclear weapons, bypassing the decision-making hierarchy. The risks are higher in the Indian armed forces, where hyper-nationalistic sentiments have been a key determinant for promotions and appointments, at least since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office.
Ideally, the prime minister should authorize the launch of a nuclear attack. INS Arihant is part of the Strategic Forces Command, which reports to the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA). Headed by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, the NCA’s executive council advises the Modi-led political council on the use of nuclear weapons. Now, with the bypassing of the additional technical protocols required for joining the delivery system with the nuclear warhead, the concept of civilian control over the firing of nuclear weapons becomes devoid of significance. The commander can fire the missile without civilian authorization under various scenarios, including a threat to the survival of the captain of the submerged vessel or lack of communication.
India’s operational nuclear triad compels Pakistan against keeping its nuclear warheads separate from the delivery system.
Notwithstanding the command and control issues, the Indian Navy’s record of keeping safety measures supreme is anything but impeccable. The sustainability of a naval deterrent force comprising half a dozen or more SSBNs first hit the seabed when INS Arihant met with an accident last year. The cause of the extensive damage was blamed on human error, for “water rushed in because a hatch on the rear side was left open by mistake.” However, experts averse with Akula-class subs rejected the purported cause of the mishap as there is no hatch on its rear side. India’s burgeoning nuclear triad not only faced questions of safety, but also civilian supremacy: Doval and the NCA were allegedly not informed until 10 months after the catastrophe. The woes of the $2.9-billion top-secret project remain shrouded in mystery.
Another Akula-class submarine, INS Chakra, last year met with an accident, damaging its sonar domes. And, in February 2014, INS Sindhuratna caught fire, killing at least two personnel, with the accident blamed on poor maintenance practices. Adm. D.K. Joshi, the naval chief, had to resign after similar back-to-back fiascos.
Now it is not just India’s no first use doctrine and the credibility of its command and control protocols that have run aground, but also the global trust in New Delhi’s ability to maintain the 83 megawatt nuclear reactors powering its potent submarines.
Beneath the operation of India’s expanding nuclear triad lies the saga of its fissile material supply chain. To keep global public opinion favorable for its membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, India has been consistently understating its nuclear stockpiles as well as its nuclear arsenal. According to Western researchers, India never accounted for its naval propulsion reactors, one of which powers the INS Arihant. Three exhaustive studies — by the International Panel on Fissile Materials, the Institute for Science and International Security, and IHS Jane’s 360 — reveal the amount and enrichment level required to fuel India’s nuclear submarine reactors. New Delhi embarked on the adventure for naval nuclearization in 1985, 13 years ahead of its overt declaration in Pokhran.
India not only has greater needs for weapons-grade and weapons-usable fissile material for SSBNs, but also for its multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities, and 1,000-kilometer-range Nirbhay cruise missile program. Thanks to the India-United States Civil Nuclear Agreement, it can maintain its need for a vast stockpile of weapons-usable reactor-grade plutonium and uranium backed by continuous production pace. It doesn’t get more ironic than the fact that Russia-assisted SSBNs will run on US-facilitated nuclear fuel.
Pakistan’s answer to India’s build-up has been its investment in developing MIRVs and refining its submarine-launched Babur cruise missile. Once again, New Delhi has forced Islamabad to cross another deterrence threshold to maintain regional stability. This time around, Washington is ever more complicit. India’s flawed pursuit of a nuclear triad under the leadership of religio-nationalist hawks could potentially bring us closer to a nuclear war.
– Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic based in the GCC with a career in writing on diplomacy, security and governance. Besides other honors, he won the Jefferson Fellowship in 2000 and UNAOC Cross-Cultural Reporting Award 2010. Twitter: @naveed360