Sunday, August 10, 2014

Should China and India Deploy SSBNs?

Is it destabilizing for China and India to build and operate nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs)?

This author says yes:

Regarding the Chinese and Indian ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) programs and their impact on international security, my arguments are: (1) they are not necessary; (2) noisy SSBNs are destabilising and should not be deployed; and (3) China's SSBNs are still far from being operational.

The second problem that he notes:

It is sometimes argued that SSBNs are a stabilising force, but this is the case only when the SSBN in question is quiet. Quiet SSBNs are difficult to find, giving leaders confidence that they will always have the ability to strike back should they be attacked, whereas noisy SSBNs are easy for an adversary to track, locate and destroy, encouraging a 'use it or lose it' mentality in times of crisis.

It is interesting that the author says that China keeps their nuclear warhead separate from their missiles. Apparently, China doesn't fear either a Russian or American nuclear first strike. On that first basis alone, you can say that the subs aren't necessary.

The third is true and is based on China and India not having subs as safe (nuclear launch-wise) as American--and presumably Russian--SSBNs, and I do worry whether China's subs will have safeguards to avoid mistaken launch given that they probably can't separate the warheads from the missiles while at sea.

I assume China should worry about India's subs in this regard.

But on the noise issue, I'm not sure he's right.

One, no matter how noisy they are, such subs are still mobile and so can't possibly be more vulnerable to destruction--and hence more dangerous from a "use it or lose it" attitude--than land-based missiles in silos that in today's world are vulnerable even to conventional precision weapons.

Having noisy SSBNs isn't a problem if the enemy does not have anti-submarine warfare (ASW) assets in a position to find and attack the subs. On this score, India has many advantages over China.

India can, if their SSBN missiles have a long enough range, send their subs south deep into the Indian Ocean where they could still launch missiles at China (or Pakistan). Could China dispatch sufficient ASW assets into such a large area to find and destroy SSBNs?

China discovered they had trouble sustaining a search effort in the south Indian Ocean while looking for that missing Malaysian 777 lost early in this year.

Can China do the same thing when their SSBNs would have to run a gauntlet of foreign ASW assets in the first island chain to reach the western Pacific? Which we have been operating in for more than a century?

Another way to keep even noisy SSBNs safe is to use a bastion strategy (which the author notes) that puts SSBNs in protected waters where friendly assets keep enemy ASW assets away from the SSBNs.

On this measure, India has the advantage, too. The Bay of Bengal could be secured by the Indian navy and air force as a protected area for their SSBNs. Yes, Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles could reach the area. But that doesn't sink SSBNs.

What does China have? The Yellow Sea? Where South Korea borders and which we exercise in regularly? In a perfect Peking world, China enforces their claims on the South China Sea and makes that their SSBN bastion. But control is now asserted rather than exercised.

At best, China has the small Bo Hai Sea and Korea Bay to use as bastions. Perhaps that is large enough. I don't know. Either or both are certainly smaller than what India can take advantage of.

I think the author is right that SSBNs don't make much sense for China and India now. And they could be a dangerous weapon at risk of accidental or unauthorized launch.

But if reliability and security are addressed, that reason is greatly reduced.

And if Chinese and Indian first strike potential increases, putting land-based nuclear missiles at risk, SSBNs do become the survivable leg of their nuclear arsenal--even if they are still noisy.

And using a bastion strategy helps preserve survivability.

So eventually SSBNs will be useful to China and India if they fear each other (or even America or Russia, which India have no reason to fear and which China clearly does not fear). And you don't make them overnight. So even if China and India don't deploy SSBNs, they'd be wise to keep building new ones while learning from their mistakes until they have safe and reliable SSBNs. This is what the author expects China to do.