Amid naval jostling in the East China Sea and nuclear rumbles on the Korean Peninsula, it is easy to miss a missile making a splash in the Indian Ocean.
Security watchers are understandably focused on North Asia at the moment, where it is hard to tell if the next headline won't be about a North Korean nuclear test or, even worse, an exchange of fire between Chinese and Japanese ships. Yet India has recently sent a signal that it cannot be ignored as part of the increasingly complicated strategic equation across Indo-Pacific Asia.
The widely-known facts are few and simple. On January 27, the day after Indian Republic Day, India conducted a test flight for a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Most reports suggest the missile had a range of 700 to 750 km.
But what is important is that India is working towards the ability to launch a nuclear weapon from a submarine. In theory, this would give New Delhi a second-strike capability — the confidence in being able to shoot back effectively after sustaining a nuclear attack. Submarines are often considered the ultimate second-strike platform because they're hard to find and hard to target, notwithstanding the potential for rail- and road-mobile launchers to achieve something similar.
To be sure, India has a long way to go before it can be confident in deterring, say, China with a fleet of nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarines, or SSBNs. For now, its sole SSBN, is basically a technology demonstrator. It's not clear if the INS Arihant, notionally launched in 2009, will ever really conduct deterrent patrols.
And there are serious technical challenges ahead in arming this vessel or the 3-6 such boats the Indian Navy hopes for in its future fleet. As Andrew Winner has asked, can India miniaturize a nuclear warhead to fit these relatively small missiles, and can it do so without further nuclear testing? Is New Delhi stuck with the relatively modest range of this armament? And what does that mean for its ability to genuinely deter China, given the risks of having to patrol close to the Chinese coast in some hypothetical future crisis?
Bear in mind that currently the China-India nuclear balance is asymmetrical — Beijing can deter Delhi but Delhi is less confident it can deter Beijing. That reminds us that the biggest questions here are about geopolitics and crisis management.
Assuming that it is only a matter of time before India has a nuclear-armed Navy, will that be on balance stabilizing or destabilizing for the Indo-Pacific strategic picture, whether India-China relations or India-Pakistan relations? In other words, would it make war more or less likely, and more or less devastating? Some early assessments are not heartening.
Given the massive consequences of miscalculation in a future nuclear-armed confrontation, however hypothetical it may seem at the moment, it would make sense for these powers to start discussing such matters in earnest.
China and India have agreed in principle to begin a dialogue on maritime security. As a co-author and I have argued in a previous report, it's time they began talking about nuclear stability too.