INS Arihant isn’t going to insure India against nuclear blackmail, and Pakistan knows it
“The time has come again”, an editorial writer at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Panchjanya raged during the Kargil War, “for India’s Bheema to tear open the breasts of these infidels and purify the soiled tresses of Draupadi with blood. Pakistan will not listen just like that. We have a centuries-old debt to settle with this mindset. It is the same demon that has been throwing a challenge at Durga since the time of Mohammad bin Qasim”.
“Arise, Atal Behari!” Panchjanya exhorted the then-prime minister. “For what have we manufactured bombs? For what have we exercised the nuclear option?”
Almost two decades since the prime minister chose to disregard this less-than-sage advice, his successor announced that India has a nuclear-weapons triad. India has long had nuclear weapons that can be launched from aircraft and land; now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced that it can deliver them from the depths of the ocean.
INS Arihant’s first nuclear weapons-bearing patrol, Modi said, gives “a fitting response to those who indulge in nuclear blackmail”. The thing is it won’t end the problem — and Pakistan knows it.
From their base near Rambilli, on India’s eastern coast, INS Arihant — and its future sisters, INS Arighat and the second still known just by the code S4 — will guarantee that annihilation can be delivered even if China or Pakistan launch a first strike that wipes out India’s surface nuclear arsenal. Lurking under the sea for extended periods of time, nuclear-powered submarines are almost impossible to detect.
The reach of India’s fledgling nuclear submarine fleet is limited. The K-15 Sagarika missile fitted on the Arihant has a range of just 700 kilometres, placing most key Pakistani cities outside its reach. To target China, the Arihant would have to make its way into the South China Sea, a long and hazardous journey. However, India is testing the 3,500-kilometre range K-4 missile.
Even if Beijing eliminates India’s 130-140 nuclear warheads in a first strike — destroying the four-odd squadrons of Mirage and Jaguar combat jets tasked with a nuclear role, as well as the missile arsenal — retaliation from the depths of the ocean will be assured.
Like any rational nation-state, China isn’t likely to be willing to sacrifice Shanghai, Guangzhou or Beijing to destroy the Indian state — which is why any war larger than a limited conflagration in the Himalayas is unlikely.
In Pakistan’s case, though, the dynamics — and the challenge — is fundamentally different: Islamabad uses its nuclear weapons to enable offensive conventional warfare.
From the outset, Pakistan’s strategic establishment understood that the inexorable weight of India’s population and industrial resources would always pose an existential threat to their country. The only means to achieve strategic parity was to tie India down by placing stress on its historic fault lines of caste, ethnicity and religion were stressed. Then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru would later called this “an informal war”.
In 1971, India demonstrated that this “informal war” wasn’t cost-free: aiding low-grade insurgencies in India had ended up costing Pakistan half of its self.
In 1972, then Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto summoned his country’s nuclear scientists to what has come to be known as the Multan meeting. He gave Pakistan’s top scientists three years to build a nuclear bomb. His quest failed. From the death row cell to which he was despatched, Bhutto lamented: “The Christian, Jewish, and Hindu civilisations have this capability. The communist powers also possess it. Only the Islamic civilisation is without it.”
Events helped the man who hanged Bhutto — General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq — deliver the bomb. The West, in desperate need of General Zia’s help in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, turned a wilful blind eye to Pakistan’s theft of nuclear technology and blueprints.
In March 1983, Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission’s Munir Ahmad Khan was able to carry out the first sub-critical test of a working nuclear weapon code-named Kirana-1. Indian intelligence assessed that by 1984, Pakistan had at least one working nuclear weapon — and that changed everything.
From 1986, Pakistan ratcheted up support to the Khalistan movement. The next year, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi launched Operation Brasstacks, a massive military exercise intended to signal that punishment would follow if Pakistan didn’t back off. Islamabad handed out a threat of its own — the use of a nuclear bomb.
Rajiv Gandhi, in some quarters, was reviled for being a coward — but that’s just too facile. The Khalistan insurgency, through its long course, cost India 21,613 lives. Even a small nuclear weapon detonating over Mumbai or Delhi would have cost millions — and retarded India’s economic progress for a generation.
In 1990, as the insurgency in Kashmir erupted; in Kargil; in 2001 after the strike on India’s Parliament; in 2008 after the 26/11 attacks: each of these occasions saw New Delhi contemplating war and backing off. Put bluntly, a low-grade war in Kashmir doesn’t justify risks that could cost a city.
Nuclear weapons are different from all other kinds of weapons: their use makes the idea of victory or defeat in war irrelevant. There is a guaranteed outcome for both sides: annihilation.
India’s growing investments in ballistic missile defence show Modi’s strategic advisers understand the problem. The purchase of the S-400 system will also allow India to defend strategic theatres — like Mumbai or New Delhi, or a strike corps’ position — against short-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles with ranges up to 3,500 kilometres and speeds of up to 5 kilometres per second.
There is no such thing, outside of Star Wars, as a shield against ballistic missiles, but the S-400 will act like a sieve — destroying, at least, a significant percentage of incoming warheads.
India is simultaneously working on its own ballistic missile defence system with the Prithvi Air Defence missile and the Advanced Air Defence coupled with the Swordfish radar, which some in government hope will become operational some time in the next decade.
Even the best missile-defence systems can be overwhelmed by sheer numbers — a problem complicated by the fact that interceptors can’t distinguish between missiles carrying real warheads and well-made dummies. In one study, experts George Lewis and Theodore Postol showed even Iran and North Korea could defeat the United States’ Standard Missile-3 and GMD (Ground-Based Midcourse Defense) interceptors using relatively simple techniques.
Islamabad is already working to defeat India’s anti-ballistic missile systems by engineering multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs, which release several warheads from a single missile. This obviously increases the number of interceptors needed for each offensive missile making missile defence every-more cost-ineffective.
In general, real-world experience of missile-defence has not been heartening as studies conducted by defence contractors or governments. The United States’ Government Accountability Office, in one damning study, concluded that just 9 percent of Scud warheads launched during the Iraq War had been engaged and destroyed.
Even Israel’s much-advertised Iron Dome, recent studies have suggested, intercepted just 32 percent of threatening rockets in the 2012 Gaza crisis preventing — at most — two deaths, 110 injuries and $7 million in damage. These missiles were, it should be noted, relatively crude and slow-moving.
The answer to nuclear blackmail isn’t more nuclear weapons. It is learning to fight small wars under the shadow of nuclear weapons — a dark art Pakistan has excelled in. That means developing covert means needed to target and annihilate. This involves patient capacity building work — of which there is little sign.
Modi’s efforts escalate the costs of the informal war for Pakistan — notably through cross-border shelling, and the cross-Line of Control strikes in 2016 — were amplifications of well-used techniques. Like their predecessors, they have failed to deter Pakistan: violence in Kashmir has risen, not diminished.
For India, struggling to achieve great power status, even one bomb on one city is too high a price to pay. Television commentators sometime urge India to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff — but they’re not going to be the ones held accountable if the bluff turns out not to be a bluff.
For all its hysteria — and its witch’s brew of mythological allusion and history — the Panchjanya editorial identified the problem correctly. India doesn’t have a nuclear blackmail problem; it has a Pakistan problem, which no number of nuclear weapons are going to solve.