Recipe for Disaster: Israel & Pakistan’s Sea-Based Nukes

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Recipe for Disaster: Israel & Pakistan’s Sea-Based Nukes

Both Israel and Pakistan look to the sea to provide strategic depth. It’s a quest that could undermine stability.

The policy of a nation, Napoleon once quipped, can be read in its geography. For much of human history, the verity of such an assertion would have appeared self-evident. After all, what is geostrategy if not a state’s chosen response to a preexisting spatial reality? For many thinkers of the early modern era, a country’s geographical position shaped its strategic behavior, whether in times of peace or war. Maritime powers, some have noted, appear both more democratic and inclined to pursue alliances than their territorially obsessed continental counterparts. Amidst the swirling tides of global geopolitics, geography formed a key fundamental — an enduring physical truth — providing a degree of structure and continuity to otherwise arcane national strategies.

The dawn of the nuclear age, however, greatly eroded the importance attached to the study of maps. Nuclear weapons, with their terrifying and seemingly indiscriminate power for destruction, seemed to render cartographic musings somewhat irrelevant. In an era where the devastating effects of a single bomb could extend over land and sea, casting their radioactive shadow over bustling cities and sleepy hamlets alike; what did it matter whether a nation was urban or rural, maritime or continental?

The assumption that geographical factors play only a minor role in the formulation of nuclear strategy is, however, deeply flawed. Territorial insecurity and the attendant quest for strategic depth are profoundly embedded within the nuclear strategies of small to medium-sized powers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the evolving naval nuclear postures of two nations, which would seem, at first glance, to have little in common: Pakistan and Israel. Indeed, irrespective of numerous sizable differences — both in terms of institutional history and strategic culture — the nuclear force structures adopted by both countries’ small navies are disturbingly similar. In both cases, the perceived pressures of geography have played an enormous role in the conceptualization of naval nuclear deterrence.

Continental Suffocation, Maritime Oxygenation

Both Israel and Pakistan have decided to field tactical nuclear weapons aboard their small flotillas of diesel-electric submarines. While Pakistan is a declared nuclear power and Israel has opted to pursue a policy of nuclear ambiguity for the past four decades, both nations’ military thinkers echo each other in their frequent referrals to the sea as a source of strategic depth. This shared emphasis stems, in large part, from their growing sense of continental claustrophia. Both countries are territorially shallow, and resulting sentiments of vulnerability have helped shape and sustain already potent senses of embattlement.  

Israel’s Naval Nuclear Option

For strategists in Jerusalem, apprehensions over the widening demographic divide between Israel and its more populous Arab neighbors has been compounded by the severe political turmoil and uncertainty in the wider Middle East. In particular, there is growing concern that further waves of upheaval in the Arab world could produce a regional climate more staunchly hostile to Israeli interests. In addition to the potential existential threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, Israeli planners must also confront a rapidly changing conventional military environment – one in which the shallowness of Israeli territory increasingly acts as a major liability. Whereas in earlier years Israel’s very compactness generated certain operational benefits — by enabling its armed forces to maneuver with fluidity within interior lines – the diffusion of precision guided munitions (PGMs) and precision strike systems amongst Israel’s prospective antagonists has largely negated any such advantage. Hybrid and non-state actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah increasingly have the aptitude to “see deep and shoot deep,” while Iran continues to acquire a bristling array of ballistic missiles aimed at Israel. The Israeli Defense Force’s stationary bases and airfields are thus increasingly exposed to missile attacks. Hezbollah, for instance, is estimated to be sitting on a steadily growing stockpile of more than 40,000 rockets and missiles. In previous conflicts, Israel could rely on its command of the skies as a means of offsetting its numerically superior foes. In the long run though, the difficulties inherent in prosecuting hybrid actors concealed within crowded urban environments, along with the densification of cheaper and more capable anti-aircraft systems, are liable to impede the Israeli Air Force’s freedom of action. In sum, Israel’s continental exiguity acts as a growing constraint on its ability to guarantee the safety of its citizens from both conventional and nuclear attack.

The solution, suggests one Israeli naval officer, lies at sea – the country’s traditionally underfunded navy can play a greater role not only in dispersing the armed forces’ conventional firebases along the nation’s maritime flank – but also in ensuring nuclear survivability in the event of a large-scale atomic assault. Having almost certainly decided to place a portion of its nuclear arsenal at sea, Israel can better ensure the survivability of its second strike capability, as well as its ability to wage “broken-back” nuclear warfare from under the waves.

While Israel has never confirmed the existence of its naval nuclear deterrent, it is an open secret that, for the past decade or so, Israel has relied on its three, German-designed, Dolphin-class submarines, all of which are allegedly equipped with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Three more submarines have been ordered from Germany, and should join the Israeli fleet in 2013, 2014, and 2017, respectively. The trio of supplementary Dolphins will be upgraded models, equipped with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) systems. This should enable them to loiter in the congested waters off the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf coasts for longer periods of time. In the words of an Israeli admiral, the existence of the submarines provide a way of guaranteeing that the enemy will not be tempted to strike preemptively with non-conventional weapons and get away scot-free.”

Pakistan’s Quest for Maritime Depth

In Pakistan, meanwhile, last year’s decision to formally establish a Naval Strategic Forces Command should not be solely construed as a tit-for-tat response to India’s own advances in the naval nuclear domain (India launched its first indigenous nuclear submarine, the INS Arihant, in 2009), but also as an attempt to add a measure of strategic depth to Islamabad’s own growing nuclear arsenal. Despite the fact that India has publicly stated that it abides by a strict No-First-Use policy, Pakistan lives under the constant fear that India, the United States or both operating in collusion could swoop in and preemptively seize or destroy the smaller nation’s arsenal.

This deep-rooted paranoia is exacerbated by the growing conventional military imbalance between India and Pakistan. This asymmetry is particularly stark in the maritime sphere, as India steadily modernizes and expands its blue-water navy, and an underfunded Pakistan Navy struggles to make its case to an Army-dominated national security apparatus. There are growing concerns over Islamabad’s vulnerability to a naval blockade, given that 95 percent of its trade by volume is transported by sea.  

This has led some to conclude that the country urgently needs to nuclearize its submarine fleet. When interviewed, Pakistani commanders mention the precedent set by Israel’s alleged decision to place nuclear-tipped cruise missiles aboard conventional submarines, and suggest, somewhat provocatively, that Pakistan should follow suit. Another option, some have argued, would be stationing nuclear weaponry aboard surface ships and maritime-patrol aircraft. Not only would this provide the country with greater strategic depth, it would also extend some of the more dysfunctional elements of Indo-Pakistani nuclear interactions from land to sea. By threatening first nuclear use against an advancing Indian aircraft carrier strike force, Islamabad can hope to acquire escalation dominance and considerably dilute its larger neighbor’s coercive naval power.

Moreover, the introduction of nuclear weapons will have a major impact on the future of naval warfighting in the Indian Ocean. As veteran naval analyst Captain Wayne Hughes has noted, fleets caught under a nuclear shadow are compelled to operate under different principles. Most notably, ships must loosen up their deployment patterns and adopt more dispersed configurations in order to better shield themselves from the ripple effects of a nuclear blast. For Pakistani planners, acquiring nuclear-armed cruise missile submarines (SSG) would provide an opportunity to skew its existing power relationship with India in Pakistan’s favor, primarily by injecting a sizable degree of uncertainty and ambiguity in India’s tactical calculus, but also by preventing the Indian Navy from concentrating the bulk of its power projection platforms in one specific location.

The Damaging Effects of Continental Claustrophobia for Nuclear Stability

Needless to say, the strategic side-effects of both Israel and Pakistan’s continental claustrophobia have the potential to be highly destabilizing. Mounting concerns over a perceived lack of strategic depth have led to a privileging of offensive naval nuclear strategies, which fuse dual-use systems and doctrinal opacity with forward postures. In the event of a conflict, there would be no way for their adversaries to ascertain whether Pakistani or Israeli subsurface vessels are nuclear-armed or not. In addition to the radioactive “fog of war” that would float over naval combat operations, there are certain risks tied to both navies’ conventional ways of war that would likely carry over to their nuclear posture in times of crisis.

In an environment already marked by dual-use, it would be injudicious to assume that conventional and nuclear dynamics will evolve within tightly sealed vacuums. Both the Pakistani and Israeli navies have learnt to offset their numerical inferiority in times of war by engaging in daring asymmetrical maneuvers— Pakistan through the offensive deployment of its submarines, and Israel through the use of naval commandos and missile strikes. Notwithstanding manifold differences in terms of tactical approaches, offense has often been perceived as the best form of defense for small navies laboring under overwhelming odds.

In effect, weaker naval powers have, throughout history, manifested their desire to alleviate their vulnerability by engaging in acts of deception or preemptive attrition. Military historians and political scientists have demonstrated the extent to which it can be arduous for a military organization steeped in a specific operational culture to espouse an entirely different set of procedures and tactics under wartime conditions. While it has been reported that the elite crews aboard each Israeli nuclear-armed submarine have been subjected to a rigorous battery of psychological tests and are cognizant of the responsibilities that come with their nuclear role, the Pakistan Navy’s future command and control arrangements remain alarmingly obscure. If the same Pakistani naval officers charged with the conduct of conventional operations against the Indian fleet suddenly find themselves entrusted with strategic weapons, their organizational predisposition for “offensive defense” could be a recipe for disaster. The scattering of nuclear assets at sea, particularly aboard surface ships, also heightens the risks of a nuclear weapon being intercepted by a malevolent non-state actor, an already perennial concern when discussing Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal.

The Overriding Importance of Geography in Nuclear Strategy

Geography remains one of the most important determinants of a country’s nuclear strategy. Whether a country feels territorially secure or insecure has an immense impact on the shape and form of its deterrent. For relatively small coastal states such as Pakistan and Israel, the quest for maritime depth has given birth to naval nuclear force structures with the potential to undermine stability during a crisis regardless of the legitimacy or strength of some of their strategic concerns. While it remains unclear what can be done to alleviate both states’ sense of existential vulnerability, appreciating the extent to which a feeling of territorial claustrophobia undergirds much of their elites’ strategic culture could enable a better understanding of their nuclear trajectories.

Iskander Rehman is an associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow.