In May 1998, the sun-scorched deserts of the Indian state of Rajasthan shook with a succession of nuclear explosions. Barely two weeks later, in a seemingly tit-for-tat response, Pakistan conducted its own series of detonations, in the remote western hills of Baluchistan. Both nations’ previously concealed nuclear capabilities had suddenly burst out into the open, giving a new and terrifying form to the enduring rivalry that had convulsed the subcontinent for decades. Caught off guard, the international community reacted with indignation and dismay. Concerns over nuclear escalation in the event of another Indo-Pakistani conflict refocused Washington’s attention on South Asia and triggered the longest sustained level of bilateral Indo-American engagement in history. This had the unexpected benefit of enabling both democracies finally to find common ground, after many years of acrimony, chronic mistrust, and squandered opportunities. Fears of mass terrorism in the wake of 9/11 and subsequent revelations of extensive proliferation emanating from Pakistan added urgency to Western desires to preserve a modicum of crisis stability in South Asia, as well as to prevent any form of escalatory behavior that could spiral into nuclear conflict or further the spread of radioactive material.
More than ten years later, however, the international community’s sense of urgency seems to have waned, and the evolution of the nuclear postures and arsenals of both New Delhi and Islamabad no longer appear to evoke the same degree of concern, or even interest.
Symptomatic of this ebbing attention is the detached, disinvested manner in which much of the world has witnessed the ongoing shift of South Asian nuclear capabilities from land to sea.
When in July 2009 India launched its first nuclear submarine, S-2 (also known as the Advanced Technology Vessel, or ATV, and ultimately named Arihant), in a dry dock in the eastern port of Visakhapatnam, the reaction of much of the world to the event was remarkably subdued. The event was perfunctorily acknowledged abroad, and in India as well, as a technological and symbolic milestone in the nation’s rise to great-power status. Barring Pakistan, which reacted immediately and sharply to the news, scant commentary—scholarly or journalistic—was made about the impact that the introduction of sea-based delivery systems would have on the South Asian nuclear equation.
This article seeks to address this issue directly, asserting that it is only a matter of time before Pakistan formally brings nuclear weapons into its own fleet. The study first examines the key causes and motivations behind both nations’ lurches toward naval nuclearization. For both nations, a variety of factors explain the pursuit of sea-based deterrence. In particular, China’s nuclear role in the Indian Ocean is examined, both as a key enabler of Pakistani naval nuclearization and as a potential future military actor in the Arabian Sea. The second section charts the dangerous path that Indian and Pakistani navies appear to be taking, a path that combines dual-use systems (most notably nuclear-tipped cruise missiles), cultivated doctrinal ambiguity, and brinkmanship to render the future of nuclear stability in South Asia exceptionally bleak. It is argued that if this haphazard naval nuclearization remains unchecked, its destabilizing effect will spill over into the Persian Gulf and beyond. Without a concerted effort to integrate sea-based nuclear assets more effectively into both nations’ strategic thinking and into a bilateral dialogue, New Delhi and Islamabad may be unable to avoid escalation in a crisis and, ultimately, skirt nuclear disaster.