Second Age of Arms Race in Indian Ocean and India’s Test of K-15 SRBM

In late August 2018, according to Indian defense officials, local and international media sources three short range ballistic missiles were fired from INS Arihant for the first time. Before that India never exhibited the capacity of INS Arihant. Indian newspaper stated that all three-short range K-15 missiles followed their trajectory with high accuracy from the 20-meter-deepsubmerged position about 10 km off the coast of Vizagwith close to zero circular error probability.

K-15 is a short range ballistic missile, which before 2018 was last tested in November 2015. K-15 Sagarika is solid fueled two stage sea launched ballistic missile that can carry payload of about 1000 kg and weighs almost 10 tons. K-15 missile was fired from India’s most treasured and closely guarded secret INS Arihant, which is the first of five SSBNs (Submersible Ship Ballistic Missile Nuclear).

Arihant also made it to the international news and local Indian media during Doklam crisis when news broke out that the SSBN is decommissioned because the hatch was left open in the submarine that caused serious damages to it. The news of hatch was took up by India’s national newspapers maintaining that as INS Arihant is based on Russian design with nuclear reactor sealed in a double hull, hence under normal circumstances water could just not enter into the submarine, also because of the warning systems. However the question still remains that if the water entered into the SSBN due to opened hatch, why did the warning systems fail and why are the sailors and officers of the Indian navy not properly trained to handle nuclear armed, nuclear powered submarines?

Such incidents raise serious alarm as they challenge the mechanisms and measures that ensure safety and security of nuclear materials and facilities.

India has always claimed that command and control of its nuclear weapons and arsenals is in the hands of its civilian leadership. But this one incident reveals that reality is otherwise. Even when the civilian leadership enquired whether Arihant could be used against China, they were told that second strike capability would not work as INS Arihant was decommissioned. This revelation explicitly challenges the notion well appraised around the globe that India’s nuclear program is under the control of civilian leadership because reality is contrary to it.

Significant aspect with second strike capability and sea based nuclear weapons is that they cannot be kept in de-mated form till the last moment and hence are mostly in cannisterized form. Two factors which are considered as the requisites for handling cannisterized weapons are professional expertise and safe launching pad. Indian Navy yet has to master these requisites for safety and security of nuclear weapons in the sea.

Moreover, states must adopt pragmatic approach in the command and control of nuclear assets in sea because it is difficult to exercise complete civilian control on nuclear submarine which has to remain submerged in sea for at least 6 months. Thus, although civilian control of nuclear assets looks more promising but is not pragmatic and realistic when it comes to handling sea based weapons and assets. Hence, in the light of afore mentioned reasons clarity in command and control systems would ensure stability in an arena where miscalculation and ambiguity is highly likely.

Another significant aspect in this development is not the test of K-15 itself but the classical action-reaction chain, which is becoming more of a syndrome in case of South Asia. India being larger state with better economy to spend on its defense, mostly initiates technological developments, which are countered by Pakistan to maintain deterrence equilibrium. But, this time India tested its sea launched short range ballistic missile from submerged platform after Pakistan announced second successful test of Babur-3 (SLCM) from submerged platform through horizontal launch.

Indian test of SRBMs is not considered as threat by international media and analysts because they cannot reach Islamabad with the range of 700-750 km. However, purpose of nuclear weapons is to create terror, which these small range naval ballistic missiles have the capacity to create in the Indian Ocean. Moreover, these tests will enable India to develop and successfully test the intermediate and long-range sea launched ballistic missile from submerged platforms, thus igniting the arms race in Indian Ocean.

In all this fiasco of nuclearizing the Indian Ocean littoral to South Asia, it is high time that both parties realize that there is no end to this arms race. One after another technology is coming and one after another arena is militarized and nuclearized to have an escalation dominance, which is eliminating the chances of stability for South Asia. Arms build-up according to the security needs is right of every state but larger goal must be to acquire stability in the region, which largely depends upon the will to not use the common goods for bolstering military capabilities. It is time where both countries must realize that not every sphere should be turned into conflict and CBMs should be signed for the arenas like sea, glaciers, cyber and outer space to contain the arms race from spreading into zones which are beneficial for all human kind.

Ahyousha Khan
Ahyousha Khan
Research Associate at Islamabad based think-tank Strategic Vision Institute