Pakistan tests Babur III Sea-Launched Nuclear-Capable Missile: How should India interpret this latest move?

In a major development on Monday, the Pakistan military confirmed that it had successfully tested a sea-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile (SLCM), the Babur III. In a public statement, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) department noted that the Babur III SLCM has a range of 450 kilometres and
“will provide Pakistan with a Credible Second Strike Capability, augmenting deterrence.” An independent open-source geospatial-intelligence handle on Twitter @rajfortyseven – well regarded by Indian and international military analysts – had geolocated the launch and estimated the speed of the missile to be 6,750 kilometres per hour.

While the release was silent about the submarine platform to which Babur III will be integrated, press reports suggest that the Pakistan Navy’s Agosta 90B class — the so-called Khalid class — submarines are a natural existing platform of choice; these submarines have cruise-missile launch capabilities. The SLCM itself is a variant of the land-launched cruise-missile (LLCM) system, Babur II. Pakistan had tested an enhanced version of this LLCM mid-December last year.

With the successful test of the Babur III SLCM, Pakistan is now a step closer to a functional nuclear triad, albeit in a very limited way. While this does complicate Indian strategic calculations in the event that the two countries go to war, it is important to establish three key points this test does — or does not — signify vis-à-vis Pakistan’s capabilities, doctrines and timing.

One, for close observers of Pakistan’s military, the test-launch of Babur-3 does not come entirely as a surprise. Pakistan had established a nuclear naval authority — the Naval Strategic Force Command — in 2013. Indian naval analysts have maintained that it was only a matter of time before the land-launched Babur system was adapted for submarine launches. But for a naval arm of a nuclear triad to be truly successful — in the sense of being survivable in event of combat — the type of submarines to be used to launch the missiles becomes equally important as the missiles themselves.

Ideally, a benchmark nuclear triad will incorporate nuclear-powered submarines that can stay under water almost indefinitely. Such boats, coupled to nuclear sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), can also be used for long-range force projection. The naval arm of the Indian nuclear triad is supported by the INS Arihant — a nuclear-powered submarine with SLBM capabilities — which was quietly commissioned by the Indian Navy in August last year. The premier weapons for INS Arihant are the K-4 SLBMs which reportedly have a range of 3,500 kilometres. The K-4s were tested in April last year. The existing Pakistani Khalid-class submarines are diesel-powered, based on dated French technology. The Babur III — as noted earlier — has a range of a measly 450 kilometres.

Of course, the targets for Pakistani submarines are quite different from that of India’s. The Indian Navy seeks to operate in the entire Indo-Pacific (to deter and deny Chinese capabilities) while the Pakistan Navy has a sole objective — to target India. For the former, nuclear-powered submarines are an imperative; for the latter, they are not.

Having said that, even with Babur III mated with the Khalid-class submarines, the Pakistani nuclear triad doesn’t come close to meeting international standards at this stage.

Two, a submarine-based nuclear-weapons system only makes strategic sense as a second-strike capability. The scenario that drives the deployment of such systems is where a country deters its adversary from initiating a nuclear first-strike by guaranteeing that it will meet the same with an assured retaliatory second-strike. As such, nuclear triads bolster deterrence and strategic stability. Submarine-based launch systems are much more survivable than land-based ones and relatively more immune to defensive systems that the adversary may have in place to deter and defeat a second-strike. India has a declared policy of a nuclear No-First-Use (NFU), driven by its conventional superiority over Pakistan which assures Indian policy makers that a nuclear first-strike posture is unnecessary. Given this — and the fact that Pakistan’s military remains fixated on India alone — how does one square it with Pakistan’s quest for a nuclear triad?

There are precisely three possibilities here. One, Pakistan does not believe in India’s NFU. This is plausible given the many statements from Rawalpindi brass along those lines. If this is the case – and admitting Pakistani paranoia – a submarine-launched nuclear-capability makes sense. Two, Pakistan believes in India’s NFU but still wants to go ahead with such a capability. This could be because of its long-standing obsession with matching India weapon-for-weapon however unnecessary it may be. In which case, Babur III is yet another example of Pakistan military’s vanity projects that have sapped so much of Pakistani resources and made the country dependent on extorting western powers.

Three — and this is the most troubling conjecture — Pakistan is prepared for nuclear war-fighting. In this scenario, the Pakistani naval nuclear capability exists as a third strike option, after having absorbed a massive retaliatory Indian second-strike in response to a Pakistani nuclear first-use which annihilates most of its cities and command chain. As far-fetched as this may be, for this to work (per Pakistani calculations), command over submarine-based nuclear weapons has to be delegated to the submarine captains. This increases the chances of rogue use — and forces India to contemplate the same grim scenario as with Pakistan’s land-based tactical nuclear weapons. But here, a caveat is necessary. For such an admittedly strange war-fighting posture to work, the Pakistan Army has to trust the Pakistan Navy sufficiently to share nuclear launch authority. This, in turn, will break its monopoly as custodians of the country’s crown jewels, with political consequences.

Finally, what should be made of the timing of the Babur III test? Not much. As tempting as it is to read this as a response to India’s new Pakistan policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi — and in light of the so-called surgical strikes of late October — there isn’t anything about the Babur III tests that is stunningly original. Granted, it is a major development. But New Delhi is unlikely to lose sleep over it. If this was indeed an attempt at nuclear signalling, Pakistan has failed. Could the Chinese have goaded the Pakistanis — following the Agni V and IV Indian tests of December — to do it? This is possible but, again, the efficacy of such a China-Pakistan signal to India is unclear.

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