While U.S. and Soviet missile-carrying ballistic submarines (SSBNs) with their invulnerable second-strike capability have helped maintain nuclear deterrence – and as a consequence peace – during the Cold War, Chinese and Indian subs in Asian waters today could trigger instability and conflict for the simple reason that they are just still too easy to detect.
This is the argument put forward in a new paper by the Lowy Institute, which states that Chinese and Indian ballistic missile submarines are not yet technologically advanced enough and too few in number to provide their respective countries with an invulnerable nuclear arsenal that would deter an aggressor from launching a nuclear attack for fear of retaliation.
With both China and India modernizing their submarine fleets this, of course, may change in the long-run once Chinese and Indian SSBNs have reached a certain operational maturity level. Until then, however, strategic stability will be hard to come by given geopolitics and the noise created by Chinese and Indian subs patrolling in Asian waters.
The Chinese Type 094 Jin-class SSBN–“China’s first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent,” according to the Pentagon—is allegedly easier to detect than Soviet SSBNs from the late 1970s. Conversely, the acoustic signature of India’s Arihant-class SSBN “is not likely to be quieter than China’s Jin-class boats” the study notes.
Additionally, New Delhi faces the problem that its K-15 ballistic missiles purportedly only have a range of 750km, which means that Indian SSBNs have to cross busy maritime chokepoints to patrol along China’s coastline making them, in turn, more vulnerable to detection.
On top of that, lack of proper training and doctrine in addition to inadequate command and control systems adds to the unpredictability of Chinese and Indian ballistic missile subs and can furthermore contribute to uncertainty during times of crisis.
Existing maritime tensions could also be intensified by the race to deploy more SSBNs in Asian waters, according to the paper. For example, some naval analysts have argued that China’s construction activities and growing assertiveness in the South China Sea is triggered by the desire to turn this maritime domain into a bastion for its SSBN force.
“Former Japanese Admirals are among the strongest proponents of the view that China’s ‘covert purpose’ in trying to eject US surveillance from the South China Sea is to be able to deploy SSBNs undetected into the Pacific in order to hold U.S. cities at risk during a crisis,” the paper states.
Add North Korea and Pakistan to this mix — both countries have aspirations to field nuclear-armed subs — along with burgeoning Chinese and Indian ballistic missile defense capabilities and regional stability in Asia based on a Cold War deterrence model seems a long shot to say the least.
This is particularly true should governments in the region decide to deploy their SSBNs too early in a tense political situation. “Much of the risk inherent around the proliferation of nuclear weapons at sea in the Indo-Pacific will depend on whether the Chinese and Indian governments choose to deploy their undersea nuclear forces prematurely,” the study notes. “Given the scale of investment going into these programs, and the intense national pride and prestige attached to such iconic great power weapons, naval commanders may be reluctant to underscore to their political masters the true limitations of their nascent SSBN assets,” it adds.
As a remedy to as quickly as possible overcome this instability phase caused by the SSBN race in Asia, the paper suggests confidence building measures, a China–India maritime security dialogue as well as a U.S.–China strategic stability dialogue. However, these actions can only do so much to address the underlying problem. Paradoxically, given the current political landscape in Asia, the United States and other powers interested in strategic stability in the region can only hope that Chinese and Indian SSBN programs mature quickly.