India recently announced its first submarine armed with ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads has completed its first patrol. Islamabad seeks way to respond but financial crisis complicates strategy

by Farhan Bokhari

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan has vowed to counter India's successful launch of a nuclear-powered submarine, a move that has thrown off the delicate military balance between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

Islamabad said New Delhi's latest action will intensify an arms race that could draw China into the mix. Pakistan is hemmed in by a financial crisis that could force it to turn to Beijing for military assistance.

"No one should doubt Pakistan's resolve and capabilities to meet the challenge posed by the latest developments," said Mohammad Faisal, a spokesman for Pakistan's foreign ministry. Faisal's comment came three days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Nov. 5 said the Arihant, India's first domestically built nuclear-powered submarine, had recently completed its first patrol.

India plans to build three more nuclear subs. The country's leaders say the program will complete a "triad" and give India the ability to deliver nuclear payloads from land, air and sea.

The submarines will greatly enhance India's "second strike capability." A submarine fleet is widely recognised as the most reliable platform that a country first hit by nuclear weapons can use to fire off a response.

Pakistani officials warn that India's triad will force Islamabad to respond in kind so as to deter Indian decision-makers from considering the nuclear option during a future conflict.

The deployment of a nuclear submarine marks a disturbing development for the two South Asian countries. "This development will only fuel the nuclear race," said a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad who asked not to be named.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India and Pakistan each possess up to 150 nuclear weapons. "India's decision to produce nuclear-powered submarines is a major escalation in the nuclear field," said Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general in Islamabad. "Pakistan will certainly try to match in kind. Once you also place your nuclear weapons on submarines, which are extremely hard to detect, the nuclear decision-making becomes much more complex. There is now a major question mark on how Pakistan will respond, and also how China will respond."

Another Western diplomat pointed out the possibility of Beijing leasing nuclear-powered submarines to Islamabad. China has been a close ally of Pakistan and has geopolitical interest to counter India's militarily moves.

India reportedly spent more than $12 billion on the Arihant. Many experts are skeptical that Pakistan, currently suffering a balance of payments crisis, has spare billions that could be used to develop a similar submarine.

Submarine leasing is nothing new. Russia in the past leased a nuclear sub to India. "I wouldn't be surprised if we hear one day that the Chinese have simply followed with Pakistan what Russia did with India some time ago," the second Western diplomat said.

China has already begun deepening its ties with Pakistan's navy. It has a contract to supply four new conventional submarines to Pakistan by 2022 and another four by 2028. This is on top of having supplied fighter jets and land-based weaponry to Pakistan's air force and army.

Pakistan accounted for 42% of China's total arms sales from 2000 through 2014, according to a report released by U.S. think tank Rand.

Pakistan could also consider building more nuclear bombs and placing some weapons deep underground, where they could better survive a first strike. "What is certain is that we are just not going to sit idle while India gains a nuclear edge to threaten us," said a senior Pakistani government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Pakistan will have to counter the challenge of India's home-built nuclear submarine, one way or the other."

Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said Pakistan has time to formulate a strategy as India has yet to deploy at least four ballistic-missile-carrying submarines. He said other major nuclear powers like the U.K. and France have built at least four nuclear submarines to be able to "hide at least one at any given time."

Deep down, Wezeman said, submarines "are difficult to find and destroy."

Pakistan and India have fought three major wars and many skirmishes during their 71-year history. They continue to deploy large military forces across the mountainous Kashmir region, which has been a flash point since 1947, when the countries became independent.