Soon a brash naval captain may pose a bigger risk of triggering a nuclear crisis between India and Pakistan than a religious terrorist.
China is likely to conclude a sale of eight conventional submarines during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Islamabad on April 20, more than doubling Pakistan’s fleet. Analysts say it may be the first step in helping Pakistan gain the ability to fire nuclear weapons at sea, keeping pace with rival India.
The submarine sale will add to tensions in regional waters as Prime Minister Narendra Modi bulks up India’s navy to prevent China from gaining a foothold in the area. Xi’s visit, the first by a Chinese head of state to Pakistan since 2006, will also outline investments in gas pipelines, highways and rail links that will give China access to the Arabian Sea, in part through territory claimed by India.
While Pakistan’s efforts are still “embryonic,” its naval commanders want to follow Israel’s example of equipping conventional submarines with nuclear-tipped missiles, Iskander Rehman of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based policy research group, said in a March 9 report. Nuclear weapons at sea pose a greater risk than stationary land-based arsenals because they are submerged and harder to detect.
“We are now entering a new era whereby naval interactions will occur under a perpetual nuclear shadow,” Rehman said by phone. “My main concern is less the risk of nuclear terrorism, but rather the dangers tied to naval friction within a newly nuclearized maritime domain.”
Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear program in the world, according to the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. Its arsenal, built with the help of Chinese technology, stands at between 100 and 120 warheads, compared with China’s 250 and India with between 90 and 100.
While India began sea trials for its first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine in 2009, Rehman says the nation is still years from deploying a nuclear weapon at sea. In February India increased its defense budget by 11 percent to $40 billion and approved the building of six nuclear-powered submarines.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government approved a proposal to buy eight Chinese submarines, Rohael Asghar, chairman of a parliamentary panel on defense, said earlier this month. It may be signed during Xi’s visit, he said.
Tasnim Aslam, spokeswoman of Pakistan’s foreign ministry, said she had no more details on the submarine sale.
Closing the gap
“Pakistan has been compelled to develop full spectrum nuclear weapons to maintain its deterrence,” she told reporters on Thursday in Islamabad. “We see very aggressive doctrines emanating from India, so we maintain our credible deterrence.”
China’s defense ministry didn’t immediately respond to faxed questions about the type of submarines to be sold and whether it’ll help Pakistan achieve a sea-borne nuclear deterrent.
The initial objective of Pakistan’s new submarines will be to counter India’s naval dominance in the Indian Ocean, according to Li Jie, a senior researcher from the Chinese Naval Research Institute in Beijing. The vessels will probably be China’s most advanced air-independent propulsion S20 model armed with homing torpedoes and anti-ship missiles, he said.
“The sale will accelerate the process of Pakistan building an underwater warfare platform,” Li said. “It will significantly close the gap in submarine capabilities between the two Indian Ocean rivals.”
Pakistan’s navy at present operates five French diesel-electric submarines: three purchased in the 1990s and two dating from the late 1970s. Aside from India’s lone operational nuclear-powered submarine, it has 13 diesel-electric ones, among which about half are in service.
Pakistan signaled its intention to develop a maritime nuclear deterrent when it established the Naval Strategic Force Command Headquarters in 2012. The force would be the custodian of the “nation’s second-strike capability,” according to a statement on a Pakistan military website, referring to the strategy of responding to a nuclear attack with atomic weapons.
Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai told a seminar in Washington D.C. last month that Pakistan plans to expand its nuclear arsenal with weapons deployed on ships or submarines within a “few years.” Kidwai is a former head of the Pakistan military’s Strategic Plans Division, which directs the nation’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Since conventionally powered diesel-electric submarines aren’t equipped with vertical launching tubes most commonly used for firing missiles, they would need to modified to fire horizontally from torpedo tubes, according to David Brewster, a specialist in Indo-Pacific security at the Australian National University in Canberra. China would probably help Pakistan with this “although that would be kept under wraps,” Brewster said.
China helped Pakistan in the 1980s to obtain nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them, and it may be motivated to help it obtain sea-borne nuclear weapons as a balance to India, he said. “The more resources and distraction that Pakistan can soak up, the better from China’s perspective.”