By Sher Bano*
Just a few months ago, in October 2020, India secretly commissioned its first nuclear missile tracking vessel ‘VC-11184’. However, this information was made public very recently in March 2021, while all the trials and tests were conducted last year. The commissioning was postponed on account of the COVID-19 global pandemic. With this, India has become the fifth country in the world to acquire such capability. Though acquisition of such a vessel would enhance India’s overall ballistic missile defence shield, its employment during a crisis would deteriorate the delicate strategic balance in the region. The enhancement in the Indian missile defence shield specifically at sea would likely undermine the effectiveness of Pakistan’s delivery systems especially the ballistic missiles. Other than that, it could raise the chances of Indian miscalculation and would increase India’s temptation to go for a ‘splendid first strike’ based on assumption that the missile tracking vessel would detect any incoming missile being fired in retaliation.
Currently, only four other countries China, Russia, France, and the US have been operating the same vessels that can detect the missiles launched at the sea. VC-11184 can detect missiles from a much longer range or one can say unlimited range because it has the ability to navigate in the ocean. The vessel has 15,000 tons displacement and consists of three ‘dome-shaped antennas’ with sensors and other electronic warfare equipment. Power of about 14 MW would be generated by the ship in order to provide power to its tracking radars and sensors. However, as of now most of the information pertaining to the capabilities of the vessel is being kept secret by the Indian Navy. As per reports, the vessel would be jointly operated by India’s ‘DRDO’ (Defense Research and Development Organization), ‘NTRO’ (National Technical Research Organization), and the ‘Indian Navy’.
Indian acquisition of such an offensive and aggressive capability at sea would likely have serious implications for the strategic stability of the region. It would provide India with a greater sense of security in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This would likely undermine the effectiveness and viability of Pakistan’s cruise and ballistic missiles in a crisis situation. The probability of absorbing the opponent’s retaliatory strike undermines the deterrence capability of the state that aims to deter the enemy through its ballistic and cruise missiles. Hence this deterrence instability would result in the subversion of strategic stability between the nuclear-armed rivals in South Asia by decreasing the vulnerabilities of the state having ballistic missile defense. Moreover, India’s enhancement of ballistic missile defence would also threaten the nuclear deterrent stability leading to strategic instability. One other destabilizing factor would be the intensification of the arms race between the two states. The Indian leadership having the false sense of confidence that they are invulnerable to any retaliation by Pakistani strategic forces might go for an offensive strike whenever there is a crisis situation. Furthermore, the Indian missile defence shield would complement the counterforce and surgical strike temptations of the hawkish Indian leadership. Hence such deployment by India would push both the states towards pre-emption.
In light of India’s growing naval modernization and enhancement of its ballistic missile defence system at sea, Pakistan needs to re-think about its counterbalance strategy. In this regard, it might be more feasible for Pakistan to increase the size and further modernize its ballistic missile force. Pakistani missile designers can increase the speed of missiles and further enhance their effectiveness to penetrate the Indian missile defenses. Furthermore, Pakistan needs to arm its missiles with advanced technologies that could defy the ‘ISR’ (Intelligence, surveillance, and tracking system) of the Indian defensive weapons. In this regard, Pakistan can also utilize its ‘MIRV‘ (Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles) technologies in order to make the Indian missile defence overwhelmed by ballistic missiles flurry. MIRV can launch weapons directed at different targets which can also be used against missile defence. While simultaneously it can also destroy or disrupt the radars. Pakistan may also improve its missile efficacy by employing and developing chaff, jamming, decoys, thermal shielding, warheads that have a low infrared signature, evasive trajectories.
The fragile strategic balance of the South Asian region being threatened by India’s ambitions to become the regional power and enhancement of its offensive capabilities have made it obligatory for Pakistan to develop its sea-based nuclear capability. There would be very less incentive for any state to go for the first strike if both states have the invincible second-strike capability. Moreover like India, Pakistan might also need to develop an early warning system that can monitor and detect the Indian missiles. Lastly, since the South Asian region does not consist of any arms control measure that could resist any crisis leading to assured destruction, it’s high time for a conflict resolution and arms control mechanism that could restrict the use of offensive capabilities by the nuclear adversaries.
*The writer is working as a Research Affiliate at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), a non-partisan think-tank based out of Islamabad, Pakistan.