New Delhi has reason neither to be particularly alarmed by the launch nor to gloat over the faking of the video of ‘Babur’.
Last month, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) announced the successful test of the country’s first Submarine-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM), Babur-3. Tested from an underwater mobile platform, the reportedly nuclear-capable SLCM hit the target accurately.
With a claimed range of 450 km, this is the sea-based variant of Babur, the ground-launched cruise missile that Pakistan had first tested in 2005 and which is now believed to be in service. The ISPR claims Babur is equipped with an ‘advanced and modern navigation and guidance system which combines inertial navigation system, terrain contour matching, digital scene matching and area correlation and global positioning system satellite guidance’. Interestingly, similar capabilities have been attributed to Babur-3 too.
Just a day after the test, questions came to be raised on the launch and hit. Imagery analysts found plenty amiss with the video released by the ISPR. Be that as it may, India has reason neither to be particularly alarmed by the launch, nor to gloat over the faking of the video.
There is little doubt that Pakistan is working towards this technology as part of its full spectrum deterrence. Sooner rather than later, and with Chinese blessings, the technology will be a part of Pakistan’s repertoire of strategic capabilities. Therefore, what should preoccupy India is the precise role that Pakistan envisages for the missile and how it is likely to use the capability.
It may be recalled that it was in 2012 with the inauguration of its naval Strategic Forces Command (SFC) that Pakistan had first indicated its desire to take its nuclear weapons out to sea. What is interesting in the Pakistani approach to development of nuclear capabilities is its knack of finding ways of circumventing long and classical pathways to deterrence by taking short cuts or jugaads to meet the immediate purpose. Babur-3 is a good example.
Instead of equipping itself with a survivable second strike capability through nuclear-powered submarines equipped with submarine-launched ballistic missiles, Pakistan has chosen to place whatever missiles it has on whichever surface/sub-surface vessels it has. So it was that ballistic missiles were reportedly placed on surface ships in 2013, even as the intent to place nuclear-capable missiles on Agosta submarines after necessary modifications to missile dimensions to fit it into its torpedo tubes was announced. Babur-3 seems to have achieved that objective.
For a country that refuses to give up terrorism as an instrument of state policy against India, finding multiple ways of deterring a conventionally superior military from retaliating to its provocations is a compulsion. On land, Pakistan believes it has found an answer to this in the idea of battlefield use of low-yield nuclear weapons.
Indeed, the ‘tactical nuclear weapon’ has been tom-tommed as the ideal platform to project a low threshold with high brinksmanship. At sea, nuclear tipped cruise missiles on submarines are now being suggested to further this strategy.
While Pakistan is projecting this as a second strike capability or a step towards its search for survivability, that should not be read as the primary purpose of this move. Its real intention is to raise risks and uncertainties to deter India by complicating naval strategy with the deployment of nuclear-tipped SLCMs alongside conventional variants on multipurpose naval platforms.
What if such a ship was to be hit by an Indian conventional missile without the knowledge that it was carrying nuclear tipped cruise missiles too? Would it be taken as an attack on nuclear capability leading to a nuclear response?
Though such an action would result in an Indian nuclear response that could well prove suicidal for Pakistan, Rawalpindi is actually hoping to derive deterrence benefits from the prospect of such an escalation. It is the possibility of such a mix up that is supposed to deter India from offensive actions.
Unfortunately, Pakistan does not seem to have thought through some of these issues and their dangerous potential repercussions. The risks that Pakistan hopes to create for India could well boomerang with severe repercussions for itself. Moreover, its own naval strategy will be challenged. If the platforms carrying nuclear missiles need to survive to enhance strategic reserve, then they should remain out of harm’s way.
But if they are to simultaneously carry out conventional land attack missions, they must deploy to areas from where they can undertake these missions, even if they face the risk of taking a hit themselves. So, how would naval vessels, on which both conventional and nuclear missiles are deployed, behave?
In response to Pak moves, India does not need to make any material change in its arsenal. What the country needs to focus on is the credible communication of the assuredness or certainty of retaliation to cause unacceptable damage in case of any initiation of nuclear use. India must continue to emphasise the distinction it makes between nuclear and conventional weapons and the fact that any nuclear use would invite a disproportionate response.
For deterrence, it is necessary that the adversary knows and understands the futility of his first action. More could be achieved by reinforcing the public profile of the nuclear command and control at military and political levels, the survivability of structures and processes, including the chain of command at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels to assure nuclear retaliation.
Pakistan’s efforts at finding short cuts to deterrent capability are good attempts at strategic jugaad. Like the proverbial hare, it is eager to win a race it is running with its own paranoia. India can afford to be the tortoise with a clear focus on building only as much as is necessary.
Nuclear weapons, after all, are only good for deterrence. No nation, not Pakistan either, can hope to protect itself through their use. Raising the bogey of their use every now and then could either lead to the threat losing its edge, or to the threat actually leading to escalation. The choice is Pakistan’s to make.
(The writer is Senior Fellow and Project Head Nuclear Security at Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi)
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