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India completes the nuclear triad, turning South Asia's strategic equation on its head | The World Weekly

Since conducting five nuclear weapons tests apiece in May 1998, South Asian rivals India and Pakistan have been steadily developing their strategic arsenals. The nuclear competition dates back to the region's first test detonation, by India in 1974, so both had developed the capability to deliver warheads, by warplanes and land-based missiles, before the 1998 tit-for-tat exchange of tests.

The delivery capacity of both countries has since rapidly improved, with the development of opposing fleets of missiles capable of hitting any target on each other's territory, and the miniaturisation of plutonium warheads for battlefield use.

Concurrently, they have built the fastest growing stockpile of nuclear warheads in the world. Pakistan currently possesses enough fissile material to arm 100-120 nuclear warheads, while India isn’t far behind with 90-110, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The Council on Foreign Relations, a US think-tank, in November 2014 said Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme is the fastest growing in the world, and that it could enrich enough plutonium for 200 warheads by 2020.

Only the five permanent members of the UN Security Council have more.

Parallel to that, the strategic policies of both nations have been clearly stated: India has voluntarily adopted a no-first-strike policy, while Pakistan has refused to, citing the overwhelming numerical superiority of India's conventional forces. Thus, theoretically, the South Asian theatre had reached a strategic stalemate: India and Pakistan would be able to carry out a single wave of strikes against each other, after which both would become incapacitated and unable to launch any further nuclear weapons.

Nuclear race

That entire equation is about to be set on its head. India is undertaking the final trials of its first nuclear-armed Arihant-class submarine, which would make it the sixth country in the world capable of launching atomic weapons from air, land and maritime platforms, unnamed Indian officials have told the media. The INS Arihant could be commissioned as early as this month, providing India with a 'second-strike' capability - giving it a significant edge over Pakistan for the first time since the 1998 tests.

Pakistan test-fires a Shaheen-III intermediate range ballistic weapon at an undisclosed launch site on December 11, 2015

Nonetheless, India's impending induction of nuclear-armed submarines in 2013 prompted Pakistan to ask China, a close ally, to supply it with the technology to reproduce its Jin-class nuclear-armed submarines; Beijing has not taken a decision yet.

“The reality of an arms race in South Asia is quite evident," Harsh V. Pant, an Asia security expert and professor of international relations at King’s College London, told The World Weekly. "For most Indian decision-makers, it is the China factor that remains the most important issue. Delhi also fears a China-Pakistan axis, and so it feels the need to be prepared for a ‘two-front’ war.”

Thus South Asia has become the first region, ever, where three nuclear-armed combatants share borders that contain a population of 2.8 billion, nearly 39% of the world’s people, according to 2014 estimates by the US Census Bureau.

The strategic game change in South Asia comes amid a recent push by India to perfect its ability to hit targets anywhere in China with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, and develop the ability to launch nuclear missiles from submarines.

Since 2011, India and Pakistan have proved their ability to strike targets up to 1,300 kilometres away, the equivalent of anywhere on each other’s territory.

In December 2014, the Indian military conducted its first successful test of the 4,000-kilometre-range Agni-IV, the first Indian ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear or conventional warheads deep into Chinese territory; it is still undergoing user-trials, the last carried out last November, ahead of its induction.

Similarly, India’s strategic weapons trailblazer, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), in January 2015 successfully tested the road-mobile delivery platform of its first true intercontinental ballistic missile, the Agni-V; with a range of up to 5,500 kilometres, it will extend India’s strategic reach to the rest of China when it is pressed into service.

China’s Cold War-origin programme has included missiles with a range equivalent to India’s Agni-V since 1980.

Both Agni variants have been fast-tracked for deployment by India's strategic forces command in the next couple of years.

Those advancements, in turn, prompted Pakistan to demonstrate its ability in March and December 2015 to successfully fire an intermediate-range missile, the Shaheen-III missile, which splashed down in the Indian Ocean after flying nearly 2,800 kilometres, far enough to reach Israel. Pakistan has said that the Strategic Plans Division of its military is capable of further extending the reach of its Shaheen and Ghauri missile variants by adding additional solid or liquid-fuel 'stages' to their propulsion systems.

Choppy seas

India is also making progress on developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), having first test-fired a 750-kilometre-range K-15 variant in January 2013. Last September, the DRDO publicly acknowledged having readied the 3,500-kilometre-range K-4 SLBM.

However, both are in early stages of development and India will not, in practice, become the world's sixth country with air, land and sea-based nuclear platforms until its SLBM arsenal becomes a proven technology.

India needs to show the world it can capably and effectively operate the nuclear-armed submarine, Jon Grevatt, Asia-Pacific defence-industry analyst for IHS Jane’s told Bloomberg on February 26. The “important milestone" is part of a bigger strategy to ensure its security, he said. "The Arihant is a stepping stone for India. I don’t think it will alter the balance of power in the region unless India has a fleet of four or five such submarines."

China began combat patrols of an armed nuclear-powered submarine last year, the Washington Times reported in December, citing the US Strategic Command and Defence Intelligence Agency.

The Asian nuclear powers' technical capabilities are equivalent to what the Western nuclear triad powers - Britain, France and the US - achieved in the 1980s. Chinese and Indian nuclear submarines are relatively noisy and thus easily detectable by Western forces.

They cannot, however, detect each other, adding a dangerous element of the unknown to their strategic competition, which has risen noticeably since the 2013 appointment of Chinese President Xi Jinping, with his plans to develop China's navy into an ocean-going force.

A sand sculpture bearing a message of peace for India and Pakistan stands on the Indian beach of Puri on January 17, 2013

Provocatively, China has deployed conventionally armed submarines in the Indian Ocean since 2014, with the vessels calling at Chinese-operated ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka to pick up supplies, much to India's chagrin. In retaliation, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has since maintained the presence of a navy vessel in the South China Sea, where China is embroiled in a territorial dispute with five neighbouring countries that also pits it against the US.  

The maritime frictions will worsen as China and India extend the range of operations of their nuclear-armed submarines in due course, analysts said.

"You will probably see more friction in maritime sub-regions such as the South China Sea or the Bay of Bengal, which China and India increasingly view as their future bastions" for nuclear ballistic-missile submarines, Iskander Rehman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution’s foreign policy programme, told Bloomberg. "Tensions will no doubt arise from subsurface encounters in such areas, particularly as both conventional and nuclear submarines continue to proliferate throughout the Indo-Pacific region."

In turn, those frictions could persuade China to supply Pakistan, its biggest defence customer, with technology to build Jin-class nuclear-armed submarines, building on the tensions with India, analysts said.

"There will likely be a long phase of initial instability as China and India start deploying nuclear missiles on submarines," the Lowy Institute for International Policy, a US think-tank, said in a report issued last September. "Chinese and Indian nuclear-armed submarines - along with possible Pakistani... units - may remain detectable by adversaries, making their activities unpredictable in times of crisis."

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