30 Jan

By: Saima Sial

Last week, Pakistan successfully test-fired an indigenously-developed submarine launched cruise missile called Babur-3, with a range of 450 km, providing Pakistan, which thus far relied only on land/air-based nuclear capabilities, a credible second-strike capability. Although the platform on which the system would be deployed hasn’t been publicly announced, conjecture is it would most likely be the Agosta-90 B diesel electric submarines in Pakistan’s naval fleet. The submarines, though conventional, have greater undersea endurance owing to their Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) technology. For Pakistan’s undersea deterrent to be operational, it would require the submarine’s tube, currently designed for Exocet SM39 anti-ship missiles, to be retrofitted for Babur-3. Having already demonstrated its capability to miniaturize nuclear warheads, by testing the Nasr missile, the Babur cruise missile system reliably serves the purpose of completing Pakistan’s nuclear triad.

This nuclear deterrent at sea, patterned along the likes of Israel’s Dolphin class diesel-electric submarine, is not a complete surprise as Pakistan had already established the headquarters of the Naval Strategic Forces Command (NSFC) in May 2012. Owing to its lower acoustic signature, improved battery performance and longer submersion times, the Agosta submarine would have great deterrence value for Pakistan. Armed with Babur, the submarine would be able to target critical counter-value and other strategic targets along India’s coastline as well as make the deployment of an Indian aircraft carrier hazardous.

After India launched its first nuclear-powered submarine Arihant, armed with ballistic missiles, back in 2009, Pakistan’s apprehensions of a possible disarming first strike by India increased, owing to its distrust in India’s declared no-first-use (NFU) doctrine. Policy makers in Pakistan advocated that a ready arsenal aboard nuclear submarines armed with canisterized missiles and aided with ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability would encourage a pre-emptive strike tendency in India and “impact the delicate strategic balance of the region.” Therefore, Pakistan believes that the development of Babur will restore the nuclear balance in the Arabian Sea. This development needs to be seen strictly in the regional context, not the broader context of the Indian Ocean.

With the fruition of the recent deal with China to purchase eight attack submarines, (first four stated to be delivered by 2023), Pakistan would have a fully operational ‘sea-based, nuclear, second-strike triad.’ Not only would this development add another dimension to Pakistan’s maritime deterrence, it would also affect the freedom of Indian naval deterrent operations. History has been witness that in times of war, India has kept its aircraft carrier in bay with significant forces assigned for its defense. Pakistan’s recently-acquired capability would further complicate Indian naval deployment of the aircraft carrier.

Furthermore, the nuclearization of the Indian Ocean highlights the challenges of command and control (C2) as well as communication, which are equally applicable to both India and Pakistan. To mitigate these challenges, Pakistan has reportedly established a very low frequency (VLF) submarine communication facility in November last year, to facilitate secure communication with its submarine force. Needless to say, problems of C2 structure have troubled all nuclear powers that have established the naval leg of the nuclear triad.

The Indian nuclear submarine, armed with K-15 Sagarika submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), is a deterrent currently poised against Pakistan. Hence, a naval nuclear deterrent force, though limited, would still add to enhancing the stability of the deterrence equation between India and Pakistan. Babur-3 is the first step in moving towards developing a nuclear triad by Pakistan. In the long run, Pakistan may well move in the direction of acquiring an assured second-strike capability.

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