ISLAMABAD — Days after Pakistan hinted that it possesses a sea-based second nuclear strike capability, Indian Defence Ministry officials remained silent on the matter, and outside observers were skeptical that the Navy had such a capability.
On May 19, the head of the Pakistan Navy, Adm. Asif Sandhila, inaugurated the Headquarters of the Naval Strategic Force Command (NSFC). A press release by the military’s Inter Services Public Relations stated the NSFC “will perform a pivotal role in development and employment of the Naval Strategic Force,” and was “the custodian of the nation’s 2nd strike capability.”
Beyond the announcement, Pakistan’s Navy has said little about the office or about the service’s capabilities.
In February, Sandhila told Defense News that the Pakistan Navy was mindful of India’s plans to complete the sea-based arm of its nuclear triad, and was “taking necessary measures to restore the strategic balance” in the Indian Ocean region.
Christian Le Mière, a research fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Pakistan’s sea-based deterrent is “most likely” the widely speculated submarine-launched variant of the Babur/Hatf-7 (Vengeance-7) cruise missile.
“The Babur is already nuclear-capable and is expected to be used on submarines,” he said. “I have not seen verifiable evidence of any tests for a submarine-launched version, but it is perfectly feasible that a [submarine-launched cruise missile] is now available.”
Analyst Usman Shabbir, with the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank, said Pakistan has been working on its sea-based deterrent for some time.
“When the Babur was first revealed in 2005, it was claimed that it is mainly designed to be deployed from submarines. There was at least that speculation,” he said.
The Navy “has pretty good experience in using similar systems; for example, both submarine-launched Harpoon and Exocet [missiles] use a similar system, and [the Navy] has operated both for a long time.”
Shabbir speculated that the Babur/Hatf-7 missiles might be fired from torpedo tubes, similar to UGM-84 Harpoons.
But Le Mière believes there may still be some room for doubt.
“The phrase ‘sea-based second strike’ suggests a surface vessel could also be used if a submarine-launched version is not yet ready,” he said. “But obviously, while a surface vessel is mobile, it is far less survivable and far more detectable than a sub.”
As for Pakistan’s neighbor to the east, Harsh Pant, international relations lecturer at the Department of Defence Studies at King’s College in London, said India is neither alarmed nor disadvantaged by this development.
“India had factored this reality into its force posture much before this acknowledgement,” Pant said. “I do not see this changing the ground reality, insofar [as the] India-Pakistan nuclear posture is concerned. Despite what outsiders might think, nuclear deterrence in South Asia remains robust.
“The real problem remains the role of non-state actors,” he added. “In that context, Pakistan’s sea-based second strike capability is more reassuring, because the non-state actors will not have as easy access to it as the land- or air-based one.”
He said, “Indian policymakers should welcome this development, as it removes the veil of secrecy over this issue.”
New Delhi analyst Nitin Mehta also cast doubt on Pakistan’s nuclear maritime capability.
“It is unlikely that Pakistan has the capability to design and develop a sea-based nuclear missile, since even China, which is known to be helping Pakistan in its nuclear capabilities, does not possesses a credible submarine-launched missile,” he said. “Pakistan could be developing an undersea nuclear ballistic missile, but it cannot do it on its own.”
Other analysts are not certain the Pakistan Navy can afford to undertake the responsibility of the nation’s second-strike capability.
Brian Cloughley, a former Australian defense attaché to Islamabad, said the size of Pakistan’s submarine force is too small to carry out such a task.
“Pakistan’s current submarine fleet is not adequate in numbers [although well-trained] to be able to undertake detection and effective interdiction of the Indian fleet, given its size — which is increasing, even if slowly,” he said.
Pakistan has two refurbished 1970s-era Agosta-70 and three 1990s-era Agosta-90B subs. The latter are equipped with air independent propulsion (AIP) or are in the process of being retrofitted with the AIP module, and incrementally entered service beginning in 1999.
Le Mière believes Pakistan could, at a stretch, maintain a constant deterrent patrol.
“Once all the Agosta-90Bs are fitted with AIP, this should theoretically allow for one submarine deployed for most of the time, with another in refit and another in reserve,” he said. “In theory, this allows for constant patrols, but in reality, problems with boats usually lead to gaps if there is a three-boat fleet.”
Le Mière conceded, though, this would cause other problems.
“This would be the majority of the Pakistani fleet dedicated to nuclear strike, or certainly dedicating a significant portion of its arsenal to nuclear-tipped Baburs,” he said. “Hence, whether this second-strike capability will in fact be deployed in a form of near-constant at-sea deterrence is questionable until Pakistan is able to procure further submarines to fill the conventional role, as well.”
Cloughley said the interdiction of India’s fleet “must remain [the Navy’s] first priority,” and he considers “conversion of the present assets to take Babur not only costly, but a most regrettable diversion of budget allocation.
“I would go so far as to say that, in present circumstances, it would be a grave error if such a program were to go ahead,” he added.
Pakistan has a requirement for 12 to 14 subs to meet Navy expansion plans. This would allow for a constant war patrol of at least one deterrent-tasked submarine, leaving other submarines to carry out more traditional tasks.
However, Cloughley is still certain that Pakistan does not require such a capability.
“[Pakistan] has plenty of nuclear-capable SSMs and strike aircraft, and does not need a Navy-oriented second-strike capability,” he said.
Correspondent Vivek Raghuvanshi in New Delhi contributed to this report.