MONCh discusses the potential security risks related to Pakistan’s indigenous SLCM
On 29 March, Pakistan Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) announced that the country had just successfully carried out a second test-fire of its indigenously developed Babur 3 Submarine Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM). According to the press release the missile was launched, like the first time in January 2017, from a submerged platform off Pakistan’s coast in the Arabian Sea and flew 450km to strike a target at an undisclosed location in the Indian Ocean.
The ISPR indicates that the Babur 3 is capable of “delivering various types of payloads and will provide Pakistan with a credible second strike capability”, clearly referring to the capacity of the new SLCM to carry nuclear warheads. It is also reported to feature terrain hugging and sea skimming flight capabilities to evade hostile radars and air defences, as well as underwater controlled propulsion, advance guidance and navigation features. Finally, ISPR footage of the test firing confirms that the Babur 3 is designed to eject horizontally through submarine torpedo tubes instead of vertically from a vertical launch system (VLS).
As such, all points in the direction of Pakistan preparing itself for fitting its new SLCM capability on its French ‘Agosta 90B’ class submarines (and possibly the Type 039A submarines it is reportedly acquiring from China) to be likely deployed in the Indian Ocean, a region where tensions between two of Asia’s nuclear powers (Pakistan and India) have been rising constantly and where an increase in the number of submarines patrolling the waters reflects the various interests at stake (see article ‘Choke Points – Anti-Submarine Warfare’ in the latest issue of Naval Forces, II/2018).
However, while Pakistan appears to be ‘merely’ preparing a powerful second-strike capability, experts on the region question the extent to which arming Pakistan’s submarines with nuclear warheads would really be the right solution to ensure crisis stability in a country engaged in a civil war and in a rather tense relationship with its Indian neighbour.
In their paper ‘Safer at Sea? Pakistan’s Sea-Based Deterrent and Nuclear Weapons Security’, published in the 2017 fall issue of the Washington Quarterly, Christopher Clary and Ankit Panda note that ‘crisis’ stability “is commonly defined as a measure of the incentives for countries in a crisis not to attack first. The more that a pre-emptive strike is advantageous, the less stable is any crisis characterised by reciprocal fear of attack.” They argue that Pakistan arming its submarines with Babur 3 SLCMs would undoubtedly contribute to decreasing crisis stability in the region for three main reasons. Firstly, with the increase in submarine activity in the Indian Ocean, countries such as India have been substantially ramping-up their anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities and activities; if the Indian Navy were to embark in an ASW mission and to detect a Pakistani submarine, it would have no way of telling whether it is carrying SLCMs with nuclear payloads or not and might therefore strike pre-emptively. Secondly, the location of Pakistan’s submarines, when not on patrol at sea, is clearly known by other countries in the region that can continue to monitor their movements through satellite images; any change to the situation might trigger an ASW mission from concerned neighbours, again risking to prompt a pre-emptive strike if the submarine comes within a range of 450km from any major neighbouring cities. Finally, in the event that an ASW mission might not succeed in detecting a patrolling submarine, there remains a risk that any concerned neighbour might choose to attack and destroy communication facilities instead. Since Pakistani officials currently appear intent on maintaining sea-based nuclear weapons under centralised control, this is as likely a scenario as any other.
Another point of concern with Pakistan arming its submarines with Babur 3 carrying nuclear warheads, according to Clary and Panda, is the assertive control aspect. Currently, Pakistan’s land-based nuclear weapons have been protected by three physical safeguards: nuclear warheads are stored in disassembled form, with components such as triggers kept separate from the fissile material cores; warheads are de-mated from missiles thus requiring technicians to attach the warhead on the missile prior to use; functional equivalents of Permissive Action Links (PAL) require a code to be entered in order to arm the weapon for use. Such safeguards would be much more complicated to implement for nuclear weapons deployed aboard submarines, and while it would be possible to keep warheads partially disassembled and de-mated, Clary and Panda point to the fact that this would be counter-intuitive to the notion of sea-based nuclear deterrents being the most survivable portion of a nuclear arsenal: it would mean maintaining centralised control, and therefore exposing the submarine to the risks highlighted above.
Finally, the civil war that has been taking place in Pakistan since 2001 has not only led to over 60,000 people’s lives lost to terrorist-related violence in the country; it has also resulted in terrorist attacks targeting military sites that could potentially be associated with the country’s nuclear weapons programme. This has included attacks on Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission’s facilities in 2003 and 2006, and on a large facility associated with ordnance production in 2008, amongst others. Since Pakistani submarines, when not on patrols, are based in two homeports (Pakistan Naval Dockyard in Karachi and Jinnah Naval Base in Ormara) it would therefore not be difficult for anyone wishing to target these submarines in order to steal nuclear arsenal to plan such an attack, a possibility that is particularly worrisome when considering that Pakistani naval bases have also already been targeted by terrorist-related violence, including an attack on Naval Station Mehran in 2011 and another one on Pakistan Navy ship PNS Zulfiquar while docked at Naval Station Mehran in 2014.
As such, Pakistan may have successfully test-fired its indigenous SLCM for the second time, but quite a few issues for concern remain before Babur 3 can be deployed on the country’s submarines and become an effective second-strike capability. Indeed, aside from the fact that the country has yet to successfully test-fire the new capability from a submarine, there are a number of key considerations to be made in relation to the security aspect of having a SLCM capability that can carry nuclear warheads. As rising tensions in the Indian Ocean add-up to continuing tensions with India, it remains questionable whether Pakistan’s second-strike capability will actually contribute to protecting the country rather than expose it to further risks – both from the inside and the outside, in fact.