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Friday, February 16, 2024

Critical evaluation of Pakistan’s second strike capability

Second strike capability is the ability of a state to respond to a nuclear attack through nuclear retaliation. The possession of this capability, confers a state, the ability to deter its adversaries from resorting to a first strike. States look to achieve the nuclear triad to make their second strike capability credible.

Nuclear weapons have significantly elevated the cost of war. States today, look to avoid direct wars, rather, they seek to enhance their capabilities to deter their adversaries. Second strike capability is the peak of deterrence and allows states to respond to a first strike pragmatically. Second strike capability is the ability of a state to respond to a nuclear attack through nuclear retaliation. The possession of this capability, confers a state, the ability to deter its adversaries from resorting to a first strike. States look to achieve the nuclear triad to make their second strike capability credible.

Pakistan achieved its nuclear triad and in turn developed its second-strike capability after it successfully tested its Submarine Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM), Babur-3 (a variant of the Ground Launched Cruise Missile, Babur-2) on January 9, 2017.

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According to the ISPR,

“Babur-3 SLCM in land-attack mode is capable of delivering various types of payloads and incorporates state of the art technologies including underwater controlled propulsion, advanced guidance and navigation features, duly augmented by Global Navigation, Terrain and Scene Matching Systems. The missile features terrain hugging and sea-skimming flight capabilities to evade hostile radars and air defenses, in addition to certain stealth technologies, in an emerging regional Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) environment.”

With a range of 450km, Babur-3 is supposed to be operated through the diesel-electric submarine, Agosta 90-B. The submarine-based launch system will allow it to launch at various angles, providing it flexibility and allowing it to remain undiscovered for a longer time. Moreover, it has been speculated that Babur-3 has the capability of being launched horizontally rather than vertically. This feature will permit it to remain disguised for longer, providing it an edge over vertically ejecting technology.

The attainment of Submarine Launched Cruise Missile will allow Pakistan to balance the strategic stability and deterrence in the South Asian region and to prevent the materialization of India’s hegemonic aims and designs that it seeks to achieve by deploying advanced sea-based technology and defense systems in the Indian Ocean.

Read more: 100 million deaths and more: The cost of an India-Pakistan nuclear war

Assessing Pakistan’s capabilities

The pursuance of second-strike capability, by Pakistan, was mainly for defensive purposes, against the increasingly offensive policies made by India, as it has recently been trying to add a character of ambiguity in its nuclear doctrines and policies, thus increasing the threat of comprehensive first strikes and pre-emptive strikes from India, especially to Pakistan. A second strike capability will deter India and will prevent it from resorting to a comprehensive first strike.

Besides, Pakistan has less strategic depth, in case India goes for a first strike, there are chances that the limited nuclear arsenals on land are neutralized. The lack of strategic depth and limited land area can make sea-based nuclear technology imperative for Pakistan’s survival mainly because sea based defense systems are subject to less vulnerability as compared to land-based defense systems, and will allow Pakistan to respond to the attack credibly.

Pakistan at the moment, however, does not possess nuclear-powered submarines, which are very important for enhancing the sustainability of missiles. Specifically, Nuclear Powered Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN), is capable of carrying both cruise and ballistic missiles and is able to remain submerged underwater for longer, as compared to diesel-electric submarines. Its acoustic quieting features make it quieter and difficult to detect. Diesel-electric submarines, however, are far from being invincible, as they are not quiet and thus can be detected, compromising their survival and consequently the credibility of the second strike.

India possesses SSBN, as in the case of its Arihant class submarines, along with nuclear-powered ballistic missiles, which provide it with assured second-strike capability. Pakistan, in the long run, will have to work to achieve SSBN, to enhance the credibility and effectiveness of its second strike capability. Another reason why SSBNs are essential for Pakistan is because of India’s advancing space technology, which will allow it to monitor the waters better. Conventional submarines have to come to the surface from time to time, and thus, locating them will be easier. As SSBNs can stay submerged for longer, their attainment will make Pakistan’s second-strike capability more credible.

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How India outsmarts its South Asian counterparts?

Moreover, India’s anti-submarine warfare capability may pose an increased threat to Pakistan’s submarines, through their detection systems. Pakistan, as already discussed, is likely to use conventional submarines for carrying missiles rather than nuclear-powered submarines. These submarines, probably Agosta 90-B, are not impregnable and can be detected by radars and other technologies stationed by India under its anti-submarine warfare system, and thus their survival can be compromised and Pakistan’s capability can be destabilized.

In addition to this, sea-based nuclear technology requires great economic resources and thus Pakistan will have to focus on the continuous development of its deterrent, which is difficult for it, considering the already burdened economy of the country. Furthermore, Pakistan will have to focus on its command and control system, to prevent the inadvertent use of the sea based launch, as in the case of sea based weapons, having a proper control system is imperative to prevent any unauthorized use.

The possession of this capability by Pakistan, which specifically is a sea deterrent, can promote an arms race in the seas. Both India and Pakistan have hostile relations and any increase in nuclear technology of one state stimulates the other state to attain an equal or greater power to balance the stability, in order to enhance their security.

Read more: How Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan saved Pakistan by making it a nuclear weapon state?

To conclude, though the urge to develop a credible second-strike capability by Pakistan, was driven by the aim to enhance deterrence and was the result of rational calculations, to deter its adversary from resorting to a first strike, and to prevent itself from the damage caused by the materialization of adversary’s hostile intentions, Pakistan is still a long way from making its second-strike capability assured. In order to attain an assured second-strike capability, Pakistan will have to focus on the enhancement and security of its submarine-based launch system and will have to take steps towards the attainment of advanced technologies to make its weapons survive for longer and to prevent them from being detected underwater.


The writer is a student at National Defence University, Islamabad. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.