An incremental deterrence

India moved one step closer to acquiring a nuclear triad when, on January 27, it conducted the final developmental test of its 700 km range K-15 missile from an underwater platform. The triad would enable India's military to launch nuclear weapons from aircraft, land-based missiles, and submarines. Such a triad is intended to enhance India's deterrent against its rivals. Still, it will take many years, and many more technological steps, for India to field a robust triad. Each of these steps will improve the capabilities and increase the invulnerability of India's nuclear delivery systems, thereby incrementally enhancing the credibility of India's deterrent. At the end of the road lies a better, but still far from perfect, deterrent.

The land-based and airborne legs of India's triad are already operational. The Indian air force's Sukhoi-30s and Mirage-2000s can deliver nuclear payloads to Pakistan, and to central China, but they cannot reach major cities in eastern China unless they are refuelled in flight. Aircraft are also the most vulnerable leg of the triad.

India's land-based missiles provide more assured delivery options against Pakistan and China. India's 700 km range Agni-1 and 2,000 km range Agni-2 can hit all major Pakistani targets from less vulnerable launch sites away from India's borders. However, they fall short of China's east coast cities. To reach these, India must field the 3,500 km range Agni-3, the similar-ranged Agni-4, which is a modified Agni-2, and the 5,000 km range Agni-5, which is a three-stage version of the Agni-3. Still, over the next five to 10 years, Pakistan and China could acquire missile defences for their main cities, and these would somewhat blunt India's missile capabilities against those targets.

The naval leg of India's triad is the most challenging. Three additional technological steps will be necessary to credibly operationalise this leg. First, India must complete sea trials of the Arihant nuclear-powered submarine, and then conduct operational patrols of the vessel that include test flights of the K-15. This may take three to five more years. Even then, a single submarine with 700 km range missiles is not really invulnerable. While it would be less vulnerable when on patrol in relatively safe waters, it would be more vulnerable in port, as well as when patrolling close to heavily defended target coasts (the limited range of its missiles will require it to move near such targets). India must cross a second and third technological threshold to lessen the vulnerabilities of its nuclear submarines.

The second threshold is to acquire submarine-launched missiles with greater ranges, such as the 3,500 km range K-4. The third is to acquire a fleet of three to four nuclear-powered submarines, so that at least one is always on patrol during military contingencies. This will take perhaps 15 to 20 years, and by then Pakistan and China could acquire defences that diminish India's missile capabilities against their major cities.

Simply put, India is unlikely to deploy a genuine nuclear triad until 2030 or 2040. This will require huge expenditure, and would provide for a better but still not assured deterrent.

Beyond just fielding the three legs of its triad, India will have to continuously modernise them so that each remains invulnerable, is under firm command and control, and can overcome rival defences. Invulnerable forces must be highly mobile, able to evade a first strike, and yet be launched at short notice. However, dispersing nuclear forces to make them less vulnerable compounds the problem of establishing solid control over them. Another complicating factor is missile defence. Washington and Moscow prevented defences from undermining deterrence through the anti-ballistic missile treaty, but such a treaty between New Delhi, Islamabad, and Beijing is very unlikely.

Finally, there is the question of deterrence itself. Nuclear deterrence aims to inflict unacceptable damage on one's rivals and thereby deter major military threats from them threats such as a nuclear attack, a major conventional conflict, or coercion. Yet each successive technological advance in India's nuclear forces does not really deter successively greater threats from its rivals. Thus, the additional costs of developing better technologies may not bring commensurate security benefits. These are the challenges of maintaining the stability and credibility of India's deterrent.

The writer is an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and author of 'Containing Missile Proliferation',

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