India has embarked on a series of crucial weapons-systems tests that will result in the first deployment by air, sea and land of nuclear weapons by rival powers in Asia, in 2016.
The creation of what military planners call a nuclear theater in South Asia would pit India against neighboring foes China and Pakistan, nations with which India has fought a total of seven wars since 1947. The region comprises a population of 2.8 billion, nearly 39 percent of the world’s people, according to 2014 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.
India fought a 1962 war with China and has had six conflicts with Pakistan since attaining independence in 1947, mostly territorial disputes left unresolved by departing British colonial rulers.
The strategic game change in South Asia comes as India perfects its ability to hit targets anywhere in China with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles and establishes an ability to launch nuclear missiles from submarines.
The completion of India’s air-, land- and sea-based nuclear weapon triumvirate would place it on rough strategic par with China, its major rival for power in South Asia and Pakistan’s key ally.
“The reality of an arms race in South Asia is quite evident. For most Indian decision-makers, it is the China factor that remains the most important issue. (New) Delhi also fears a China-Pakistan axis, and so it feels the needs to be prepared for a ‘two-front’ war,” said Harsh V. Pant, an Asia security expert and professor of international relations at King’s College London, a British university.
China possesses about 250 nuclear weapons and Pakistan has up to 120, compared with India’s 110, according to a report published Nov. 23 by the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. research organization. Only the United States and Russia possess more.
The series of strategic events in South Asia started last Tuesday with the Indian military’s first successful test of the 2,500-mile-range Agni-IV, the first Indian ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear or conventional warheads deep into Chinese territory. It’s scheduled to be deployed by India’s strategic forces command in late 2015.
Later in December, India’s strategic weapons trailblazer, the Defense Research and Development Organization, is scheduled to test the road-mobile delivery platform of its first true intercontinental ballistic missile, the Agni-V. With a range of up to 3,400 miles, it would extend India’s strategic reach to the rest of China when pressed into service in 2016.
The achievement of that key objective of India’s land-based strategic weapons program would be accompanied in 2016 by the Indian navy’s deployment of its first nuclear weapons-carrying submarine.
Soon to begin sea trials, the Arihant is the first of three home-built Indian subs that would each carry either four or 12 missiles with a 2,200-mile or 440-mile range, respectively, strongly suggesting a choice of mission between targets in China or Pakistan.
The likely deployment of India’s first nuclear-armed submarine prompted China to dispatch its submarines on a tour of the Indian Ocean for the first time this year. Provocatively, the two conventionally armed submarines called at a Chinese-operated port in Sri Lanka, off the southern tip of India.
“With China spreading its wings in the Indian Ocean . . . nuclear submarines are considered critical by India to attain a credible second-strike posture vis-à-vis China. The real story here is the growing China-India distrust and how that has impacted the defense acquisitions in South Asia,” Pant said.
The strategic stakes in the Indian Ocean would be raised further if China were to agree to sell Pakistan the technology to build Chinese-designed nuclear-armed submarines.
China has added three of five Jin-class nuclear-armed submarines to its arsenal since 2010, each carrying a dozen ballistic missiles with a range of 2,900 miles, according to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence. It hasn’t yet conducted any operational patrols with the subs, according to the Council on Foreign Relations report.
Pakistani defense analysts said Pakistan was pursuing a deal for three nuclear submarines. The first would be built in China, and the other two at a Pakistani naval dockyard in Karachi.
However, there’s been no official comment from Pakistan or China since news of the proposed deal first surfaced in the Pakistani media in 2013.
Since 2011, India and Pakistan have proved their ability to strike targets up to 1,300 miles away, the equivalent of anywhere on each other’s territory. China’s Cold War-origin program has included missiles with a range equivalent to India’s Agni-V since 1980.
Pakistan’s strategic weapons program is exclusively India-focused, and that goal has restrained it from testing ballistic missiles of a range equal to India’s advanced Agni models.
Instead, it’s focused on developing the variety of its nuclear forces, which notably include short-range missiles capable of delivering so-called tactical nuclear warheads to deter an Indian military occupation of Pakistani territory.
In terms of fissile-material production, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program is the world’s fastest growing and could number 200 devices by 2020, the Council on Foreign Relations report said.
One concern analysts raise is that the expansion of strategic forces in South Asia – specifically India’s development of a submarine-based platform and Pakistan’s deployment of tactical nuclear warheads on short-range missiles – will lead both nations to end their practice of storing nuclear weapons away from their launchers. Such “decoupling” increases the time required to activate and launch nuclear-tipped weapons, providing a significant barrier to escalation.
“The short flight times of ballistic missiles between India and Pakistan exacerbate these tensions by sharply reducing decision-making timelines for government officials during a crisis,” the Council on Foreign Relations report said.