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Thursday, March 30, 2023

Sea Based Nuclear Deterrence and Maritime Knowledge

Nuclear submarines’ inherent stealth, mobility, and flexibility make them a formidable stabilising element when deployed hundreds of feet below the surface in dark swaths of ocean. Despite the importance of sea-based nuclear deterrence, the focus on maritime knowledge in Pakistan is unfortunately very limited.

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Ignorance is bliss, 18th-century poet Thomas Gray is reputed to have said. A few years back, a young researcher from an Islamabad-based think tank contributed an opinion column for a national daily on nuclear deterrence, technically, the second strike capability. It mentioned that sea-based deterrence is ‘not a proven concept’. The writer could be forgiven for we live in a country where successive generations in academia, young university graduates, and even scholars in think tanks have ad nauseam used their verbal, written and oratory skills dissecting continental issues.

They have grown up hearing and learning about land-centric matters, wars fought on land, trifling nonissues in domestic politics, etc. Sea, oceans, or maritime matters are alien not only to the commoners but too large segments of the country’s intelligentsia as well. Dominant part in the armed forces is drawn from Punjab, a province with rich cultural traditions but an abysmally low grasp of anything related to blue water, though dwellers here routinely relish seafood. The country’s diplomatic corps is quite wanting on maritime issues; the foreign office seldom talks about the Indian Ocean or Indo-Pacific. And in FO press briefings; there are rarely any questions on maritime security. Until recently, the syllabus of the CSS examination barely included anything worthwhile on maritime issues.

Read more: Ukraine: Did nuclear deterrence breakdown?

Understanding the matter better

The problem compounds when the national debate on nuclear matters remains exceedingly narrow and mostly restricted to a select group of officials from the strategic communities. Interestingly, it’s quite the opposite in our neighborhood to the east. The Indian foreign services are brimful with gifted names; retired and serving diplomats are authors of internationally acclaimed books; others are often found expressing erudite views on nuclear and maritime security matters in international conferences organized by globally renowned think tanks like Carnegie, Rand, Stimson, etc.

One cannot overstate that it was the nuclear submarines that managed and sustained overarching international security order during much of the cold war. These platforms constituted what could be conveniently termed the most robust component deterrent equation (triad). A nuclear weapon embarked on a submarine operating underwater provided an assured ability to respond. It thus eliminates any incentives for would-be attackers or adventurers. It was well-established that ground-based strategic bombers and even missiles kept in hardened underground silos could be destroyed in a decapitating (preemptive) destabilizing first strike.

The initial US war planning was predominantly based on pre-emption against the Soviets. The retaliatory solution was found in nuclear weapons carrying submarines propelled via a nuclear reactor. The nuclear propulsion allowed these submarines an indefinite submerged time (endurance) without fear of detection. This was much against conventional diesel-electric submarines with limited staying power underwater and fairly good chances of detection once recharging batteries, a process called snorkeling.

Suitably deployed hundreds of feet below the surface in the dark swathes of oceans, the inbuilt features of stealth, mobility and flexibility made nuclear submarines a formidable stabilizing element. The retaliatory options began to enter US war planning in the late 1950s. This was also the time when Submarine-launched the ballistic missile (SLBM) program, Polaris kicked off in the United States. By 1960 the US had fully developed these missiles. In 1971, a new version of SLBMs, Poseidon started to replace Polaris. Both the US as well as British nuclear submarines carried these missiles. The ranges, warhead capacity and accuracy kept advancing steadily all these years.

It may be noted that once operationally deployed both, conventional as well as nuclear submarines usually do not transmit or communicate with shore authority lest radio signals are picked up by an adversary and position of submarine-compromised. The difficulty, therefore, is for a shore authority attempting to communicate with its submerged submarine in crisis as it patrols underwater away from homeport in distant parts of the ocean. This problem was resolved earlier and has since continued to improve over time with advances in technology. Various shore-to-submarine communication techniques including extremely low frequency (ELF) and VLF broadcast communications provide submarines with a high degree of stealth and flexibility.

Read more: Nuclear Deterrence and National Security

The US has today 5,400 nuclear weapons, 1,744 of which are deployed and ready to be delivered. The weapons are kept onboard submarines and 80-foot-deep missile silos. The ready and fully mated missiles include almost 400 silo-based ICBMs and a comparable number of warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The United Kingdom has an estimated 120 operationally ready and available nuclear warheads, all embarked onboard submarines. France maintains an arsenal of nearly 300 deployed nuclear weapons. Most of these are on submarines, with the remaining on air-launched cruise missiles. Israel has reportedly retrofitted its conventional German Dolphin class submarines with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

None of the universities in Pakistan, including National Defence University, Islamabad which boasts of a large think tank can claim to have someone accomplished in sea-based nuclear issues or for that matter with a deep understanding of larger maritime security cum naval subjects. The classical role of navies in deterrence, reinforcing strategic deterrence, diplomacy, or constabulary operations is barely understood. For someone to claim a solid grip or perceptive eye on what is currently unfolding in Indo-Pacific would be nothing short of self-delusion.

The discourse in the majority of the national and international conferences organized by local universities, national think tanks, and even talk shows on electronic media centers on discussions other than naval or ocean-related security matters. It took seven editions of AMAN exercises (since 2007) underwritten by sustained efforts and resources of the Pakistan navy to penetrate the thick crust of continental settings in the country’s landscape.

Read more: Pakistan’s nuclear weapons: Guarantor of deterrence and survival

Sadly, this is so when over the past two decades most of the countries in Asia and Pacific regions have profoundly swung their strategic gaze from land to sea. China once, a deeply inward-looking country, snowfields numerically the world’s largest fleet of warships. The maritime domain of what is called the Indo-Pacific is the loci of developing great power rivalry. It is also at the center stage of evolving alliances, unraveling strategic agreements and contesting for naval dominance above and beyond nuclearization. There are new players in the Indian Ocean and a newfound love for wielding political and military sway over Islands, particularly those in the Western Indian Ocean. The Islands have suddenly discovered their worth as never before in history and are now eagerly willing to sell themselves to the highest bidder.

Until recently, few if any students in the universities in Pakistan attempted to take up higher studies in maritime or maritime security-related subjects. This is especially true for academia in Punjab. This scribe recalls how, in 2012, a young aspiring PhD scholar faced difficulty finding a suitable advisor at a leading university in Lahore when she decided to undertake her doctoral studies on “geopolitics in the Indian Ocean.” Despite having a history that dates back to around 1882, the university had never attempted a PhD on such a subject. As luck would have it, not only did the student scholar earn her doctorate with flying colors, but she today heads a department in another leading women’s university at Lahore. Her study became a pioneering work in academic circles in Punjab. Thanks to the Pakistan Navy and its presence in Lahore The Pakistan Navy War College, with its rich library and diverse faculty, extended full support to the prospective scholar.

Interestingly, when in 1995–96 the Pakistan Navy first decided to upgrade its staff college to a war college and contemplated moving the institute from Karachi to Lahore, it could only do so in the teeth of stiff opposition from the country’s civil-military bureaucracy. There was strong vocal opposition despite the fact that the Navy had made a strong case for such a move. Over the years, through the Naval War College, the navy has reached out to the bureaucracy, academia, entrepreneurs, media, and others in Lahore and beyond to expand maritime culture. This has resulted in a wider understanding of maritime security and its relationship with national security, above and beyond an appreciation of the role of the navy in the economic and strategic wellbeing of the country. Several students have since taken up maritime subjects in higher education institutes, while interest in the blue economy is on the rise. Alongside, a memorandum of understanding has been inked between the Naval War College in Lahore and six leading universities for joint research studies and organising events. A private university in Lahore now runs a vibrant Center of Research and Innovation in Maritime Affairs.

A major surface area under the government’s sway is the exclusive economic zone of Pakistan. It’s much larger than most federating units in the country. Pakistan’s monthly oil import bill is estimated to be USD 1.2 billion. The oil goods all come via sea. More than 95 percent of international telecommunications traffic travels through 438 transoceanic cables. These cables vary in size from 17 mm to 50 mm and measure some 1.2 million kilometres in length. The cables crisscross ocean floors and provide voice and data transfer links all over the world, including Pakistan. The submarine cables are more reliable than satellites and have a far greater capacity to transmit data across continents and islands.

Pakistan’s telecommunications system comprises eleven submarine cable systems, with Karachi and Gwadar as landing stations. The two stations provide resiliency in the event of a cable fault, damage, or failure. The bulk of the in-country services, including internet, e commerce, etc., reside on fully functional and operationally available submarine cables. Hardly any of the 82.9 million internet users in Pakistan would know that his facility only functions via a submarine cable. International reports cite that PTA, the authority responsible for safeguarding and maintaining these cables in its area of responsibility, is grossly ill-prepared to handle any disruption or digital disaster, much less recovery, should a fault occur in any of the underwater cables. This is so despite Article 113 of the Constitution of the Seas, UNCLOS-82, ratified by Pakistan in February 1997, which seeks every state to adopt laws and regulations making it a “punishable offense” for ships or persons subject to its jurisdiction to break or injure a submarine cable beneath the high seas, either willfully or through culpable negligence.

Thus, for Pakistan, the seas are crucial enablers of oil transit, data transit, and trade transit. It is also a medium for power projection, diplomacy, and bolstering strategic deterrence. Fixed high-value targets on land, as well as moving wheeled machines, will always be picked up by satellites or other arrangements. Their electronic transmissions will be as well. It is only the sea-based capacity that is unpredictable and could go largely undetected. An example from Australia is instructive. The country recently entered into an AUKUS agreement to bolster its submarine fleet with nuclear propulsion. This will eventually provide Australian submarines with an extended submerged stay in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Pakistan has neither a claim on Antarctica nor any military naval base on any of the islands in the Indian Ocean. India has bases in Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, and Duqm (Oman). With a stepped-up effort, India may soon have military facilities in Kenya, Zanzibar, the Comoros, etc. What’s more, the Indian and United States navies have improved their operational flexibility and combat potential through the reciprocally serving logistics exchange agreement (LEMOA).

In June 2020, Stephan Fruhling, a professor at the Australian National University, while contributing a policy paper for a journal, had this to say:

“No other weapon system embodies the menacing, but also out-of-sight, presence of nuclear weapons better than the stealthy nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) that have, for six decades, ceaselessly prowled the world’s cold ocean depths, waiting for an order that has never come.”

Read more: All eyes on Pakistan’s nuclear program

SSBNs on continuous at-sea deterrence missions remain the mainstay of the nuclear forces in the United States and France and the sole platform carrying British nuclear weapons. Despite Russia’s significant investment in road-mobile missiles, SSBNs also remain an important element of its nuclear forces.

So, who is to blame for Pakistan not being able to catch up with India and mature its sea based assured second-strike capability? The answer resides in the history of our wars as much as in the academic culture prevalent in the professional institutes of Pakistan’s armed forces. If there is one constant in Pakistan’s politico-military chronicles, it is this: a willful refusal to learn from the mistakes and massive miscalculations of the past.

The land forces’ planning is mostly tactical; maritime military planning is strategic and long-term. In the late 1960s, the United States, with support from Great Britain, depopulated the island of Diego Garcia, 800 km south of the Maldives. The natives of this tiny island in India were forcibly evicted and relocated on other islands. Diego Garcia has since served as a secret military base for the United States in the Indian Ocean. In October last year (2022), a US ballistic missile nuclear submarine docked on the island for the first time. With China’s entry into the Indian Ocean, more nuclear platforms should now be expected in the years ahead.

Pakistan needs a second-strike capability for survival. The current politico-economic situation can delay its acquisition, but it cannot deny the need for such capabilities. The academic debate on nuclear issues must open up, particularly in the country’s professional military institutes. Our intellectuals must not be allowed to undermine nuclear deterrence. The self-imposed cognitive shackles and needless secrecy on nuclear issues must be removed. Critical national strategic matters require wide-ranging debate, from the grass roots to the highest professional and policy-making levels. The earlier our intelligence wakes up to this reality, the better it will be for Pakistan.

The writer is a senior fellow at Pakistan Navy War College. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.