Sea-based nuclear deterrence and maritime culture 

A nuclear power requires a second-strike capability

A few years back, a young researcher from an Islamabad-based think tank while contributing an opinion column for a national daily 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, 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 non-issues in domestic politics and so on. Seas, oceans or maritime matters are alien not only to commoners, but amongst large segments of the country’s intelligentsia as well.

The dominant part of the armed forces is drawn from Punjab, a province with rich cultural traditions but abysmally low grasp of anything related to blue water, though its dwellers 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 had any worthwhile content on maritime issues.

The problem compounds when national debate on nuclear subjects remains exceedingly narrow, mostly restricted to a select group of officials from the strategic community. 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 easily be termed as the most robust component in the deterrent equation (triad).  A nuclear weapon embarked on a submarine operating underwater provided an assured ability to respond. It thus eliminated any incentives for any would-be attacker or adventurer. It was well-established that ground-based strategic bombers and even missiles kept in hardened underground silos could be destroyed in a decapitating (pre-emptive) destabilizing first strike.

The initial US war planning was 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 afforded these submarines 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 snorkelling. 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 the time when submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) programme, Polaris also got underway. By 1971, Poseidon, the advanced version of SLBM, had started to replace Polaris. Both the US as well as British nuclear submarines carried these missiles.

At the height of the Poseidon programme (in the late 1970s), 31 nuclear-powered submarines of the US Navy carried 16 missiles each. And every missile could carry up to 14 independently targetable nuclear warheads to deliver these with twice the accuracy of the earliest version.

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

The academic debate on nuclear issues must open up, particularly in the country’s professional military institutes. Our intellectuals must not be allowed to blunt nuclear deterrence capacity. The self-imposed cognitive shackles on nuclear issues need to be removed. Critical national strategic issues require wide ranging debate, from the grassroots to the highest professional and policymaking levels. The earlier our intelligentsia wakes up to this reality the better it would be for Pakistan.

None of the universities in Pakistan, including the 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 deep understanding of larger maritime security-naval and attendant 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 the Indo-Pacific would be nothing short of self-delusion. The discourse in the majority of the national and international conferences organized by local universities, think tanks and even talk shows on electronic media centre on discussions other than naval or ocean-related 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 the country’s continental landscape.

Until recently few if any in the universities in Punjab attempted to take up higher studies in the maritime or maritime security related subjects. This scribe recalls how in 2012, a young aspiring PhD scholar faced difficulty to find a suitable advisor in a leading university of Lahore when she decided to do her doctoral studies on ‘geopolitics in Indian Ocean’. Despite having a history that dates back to 1882, the university had never attempted a PhD work on such a subject. As luck would have it, not only did the student scholar earn her doctorate with flying colours but today heads a department in another leading woman’s university at Lahore. Her study became a pioneering work in academic circles of 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 a 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 bureaucracy, academia, entrepreneurs, media and others in Lahore and beyond to expand maritime culture. This has resulted in a wider understanding of maritime and ocean matters besides appreciation of the role of the Navy in the economic and national strategic security of the country. Several students have since taken up maritime subjects as part of higher studies while interest in blue economy is on the rise. A private university in Lahore now runs a vibrant Centre 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 of the country. Pakistan’s monthly oil import bill is roughly $1.2 billion. All oil goods come via sea. More than 95 percent of global telecommunication traffic travels through 438 transoceanic submarine cables totalling some 1.2 million Km in length. These cables crisscross ocean floors and provide voice and data transfer links all over the world.  Pakistan telecommunication system comprises 11 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 and e-commerce and so on, reside in fully functional and operationally available submarine cables.

International reports however 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 of cables should it suffer a fault. This is so despite Article 113 of the constitution of sea, UNCLOS-82 ratified by Pakistan in February 1997, rendering it mandatory for 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”.

Seas are crucial enablers of Pakistan’s oil transit, data transit and trade transit. They are also a medium for power projection, diplomacy and deterrence.

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. 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 perhaps resides as much in the history of our wars as in the academic culture prevalent in the professional institutes of Pakistan’s armed forces.  If there is one constant in the politico-military chronicles of Pakistan, it is this: obdurately refusing to learn from grave mistakes and massive miscalculations of the past.

The academic debate on nuclear issues must open up, particularly in the country’s professional military institutes. Our intellectuals must not be allowed to blunt nuclear deterrence capacity. The self-imposed cognitive shackles on nuclear issues need to be removed. Critical national strategic issues require wide ranging debate, from the grassroots to the highest professional and policymaking levels. The earlier our intelligentsia wakes up to this reality the better it would be for Pakistan.

Muhammad Azam Khan
Muhammad Azam Khan
The author is a freelance journalist who frequently contributes on maritime and security related issues. He can be reached at: [email protected].

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