Nuclear Stability Projections South Asia 2022

South Asia has three nuclear weapons state with China officially categorised as a nuclear weapons power, India and China continue to be out of this ambit which is reserved for the P 5 members of the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States.

Nuclear stability in South Asia in 2022 is expected to remain on track with limited possibility of derailment except for a Black Swan scenario, nevertheless the trajectory in terms of doctrine, delivery systems, warheads and related areas needs some attention and will be covered herein.

Doctrinal Issues

In terms of doctrine, India and China are expected to continue commitment with the No First Use or NFU. Pakistan will sustain “First Use,” policy based on a threshold of existential threat even though recent development of tactical nuclear system as the Nasr indicates the same in a battlefield scenario with India as well.

There is an assessment that China may turn to Launch on Warning (LOW) posture, whether this can be achieved in 2022 given attendant requirements of surveillance, detection and early warning required to be able to carry out LOW strike is not very clear for now

The nuclear warheads are de-mated but China is assessed by the United States to be moving to a “launch-on-warning posture,” for land-based ICBMs.

The PLA’s Launch On Warning [LOW} or “early warning counterstrike” (预警反击), posture is being supported by credible, “space and ground based sensors, and that this posture is broadly similar to the U.S. and Russian LOW posture,” as per the United States Department of Defence [Pentagon Report].

SIPRI however believes that mating has not taken place even for China’s SSBNs in nuclear deterrence patrols.

China’s nuclear posture will be dictated by the ongoing discussions on the issue with the United States.

Beijing is mainly focusing on parity with Moscow and Washington. The attendant consideration is that capability development to face the premier nuclear powers would provide a deterrent vis a vis India.

However in the medium term perspective it is believed that over the next decade, the People’s Republic of China [PRC] will expand and diversify its nuclear forces with a view to achieve what is being stated as, “mutually assured destruction,” capability thus replicating the United States and Russian matrix. This projection is based on an increase in the number of warheads and delivery capability.

The aim of the PRC is to develop new nuclear warheads and delivery platforms that at least equal the, reliability, and/or survivability of some of the warheads and delivery platforms currently under development by the United States and/or Russia.

China’s progressive assistance to Pakistan in developing a nuclear arsenal to pose a challenge to India needs consideration.

India’s “minimum credible deterrence,” is increasingly veering towards China with development of longer-range missiles with commitment to NFU which has been qualified with caveats as recorded by SIPRI.

The role of nuclear weapons in Pakistani military doctrine is ‘full spectrum deterrence posture’ implying the use of nukes as a means for deterring a conventional military offensive by India which presupposes that multiple integrated battle groups could be below Pak nuclear threshold. Development of, “short-range, lower-yield nuclear-capable weapon systems,” including tactical nuclear Aircraft and air-delivered weapons such as gravity bombs provides such a capability.

China’s progressive assistance to Pakistan in developing a nuclear arsenal to pose a challenge to India needs consideration.

Nuclear Warheads

SIPRI estimates China has 350 nuclear warheads, an increase of 30 from 2019, possibly due to DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) likely to carry more warheads. 270 warheads are assigned to China’s operational land- and sea-based ballistic missiles and to nuclear-configured aircraft and remainder for new systems in development.

The development of lower yield weapons however indicates that there may be a degree of flexibility that would be provided to the national leadership and in the future possibly military leaders at the Theatre Command to use these in the case of a crisis.

The development of low yield nuclear weapons by the United States against a Taiwan invasion force could lead to China also creating such an arsenal for proportionate response and conflict control as per the Pentagon Report.

For this purpose, the DF-26 is being developed for precision strike and could be used as a tactical or battlefield nuclear strike option.

The Pentagon Report estimates that China will have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027 and 1,000 warheads by 2030 an increase from the low 200 plus at present. This would imply an annual increase of at least 100 warheads for which it is supposed that capability exists.

India is estimated to have inventory of about 156 nuclear weapons, an increase of roughly 6 from 2019 which are operationally assigned to the nuclear triad as estimated by SIPRI. These could increase to over 160 – 170 in 2022

Pakistan is estimated to possess approximately 165 nuclear warheads an annual increase of 5. Thus in 2022 a growth of upto 170-180 can be estimated.

Air Launched Delivery Systems

China is developing the nuclear triad with the H-6N (B-6N) air-to-air refuelable bomber which is reported to be nuclear capable.

Correspondingly developing two new air-launched ballistic missiles (ALBMs), ‘one of which may include a nuclear payload,’ “ variants of the Dong Feng-21, or DF-21 (CSS-5), medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM)”.

H 20 strategic bomber with 8500 kilometres and a stealthy design is now under development.

SIPRI estimates 48 nuclear bombs are assigned to aircraft by India with Mirage 2000H fighter-bombers certified for delivery of nuclear gravity bombs and the IAF’s Jaguar IS fighter-bombers also having a similar role. The Rafale could well take on this as 18 fighters have so far been delivered to the Indian Air Force.

Pakistan Air Force is estimated to use Mirage III and Mirage V aircraft for gravity bombs and nuclear-capable Ra’ad ALCM which is under development.

Mention is made by SIPRI of Ra’ad (Hatf-8) air launched cruise missile (ALCM) with a range of 350 kilometres with an improved version, the Ra’ad-II with 600 km range though SIPRI believes that these have not been deployed as estimated by SIPRI.

Ground Based Missiles

China is estimated to have an arsenal of 100 ICBMs which will grow to 200 by 2025 as per US Department of Defence quoted by SIPRI.

With reference to the regional environment, PLA Rocket Force is developing dual-capable DF-26 (CSS-18) intermediate-range ballistic missile with estimated maximum range exceeding 4000 km which could also be possessing, “manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle (MaRV) that is reportedly capable of precision conventional or nuclear strikes against ground targets, as well as conventional strikes against naval targets,” as per SIPRI. 100 launchers are estimated to be deployed.

The DF-21 a two-stage, solid-fuelled mobile missile is another possibility.

SIPRI estimates that India’s Strategic Forces Command operates four types of mobile nuclear-capable ballistic missile: the short-range Prithvi-II (250 kilometres) and Agni-I (700 km); the medium-range Agni-II (>2000 km); and the intermediate-range Agni-III (>3200 km) which are held by the Army.

Agni-IV (>3500 km), Agni-V (>5000 km) could be under development for deployment shortly while Agni-VI (6000 km), is in the design stage of development as estimated by SIPRI.

In 2022 given recent tests of Agni V carried out by India’s Strategic Forces Command, deployment of the Long Range system can be anticipated.

Canisterizing the Agni V is a step that may be ongoing as per SIPRI which may lead to pre-mating. This is also likely in the case of the SLBMs carried by nuclear submarines.

Multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) are reportedly under development.

India has a sub sonic cruise missile development programme Nirbhaya but the contours of the same are not clear so far.

Pakistan’s current nuclear-capable ballistic missile arsenal comprises short and medium-range systems as estimated by SIPRI. These include Abdali (also designated Hatf-2), Ghaznavi (Hatf-3), Shaheen-I (Hatf-4) and Nasr (Hatf-9). Ghaznavi was test launched at night in January 2020. Ghauri (Hatf-5), with a range of 1250 km; and the two-stage, solid-fuelled, road-mobile Shaheen-II (Hatf-6), with a range of 2000 km is also available for deployment. Shaheen-III, is currently in development but has been test launched only twice—in 2015 and early 2021—and is not yet deployed and has a claimed range of 2750 km as per SIPRI. Ababeel a version of Shaheen is said to capable of delivering MIRV in the future.

Babur (Hatf-7) ground-launched cruise missile is likely to be operational with 700 km range Babur 2 under development.

Submarine Launched Capability

PLA Navy (PLAN) has six Type 094 SSBNs of which four are estimated to be operational, the Type 094A are not yet operational as estimated by SIPRI.

Type 094 submarines can each carry up to 12 three-stage, solid-fuelled Julang-2 (JL-2 or CSS-N-14) submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) estimated maximum range in excess of 7000 km

Type 096 next generation SLBM is under development which will be equipped with JL-3 capable of carrying multiple warheads and have a range of more than 10 000 km.

Indian Navy, INS Arihant has 12 two-stage, 700-km range K-15 SLBMs (B-05). 12 are being deployed with second SSBN, INS Arighat, which is being fitted out as estimated by SIPRI.

In November 2018 Arihant completed its first ‘deterrence patrol’.

Subsequent SSBNs will have 8 launch tubes to hold up to 24 K-15s or 8 K-4 missiles, a two-stage, 3500-km range SLBM that is being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) with extended-range versions: the K-5 SLBM of 5000 kms range. India has trialled the Dhanush missile, a version of the dual-capable Prithvi-II can be launched from a surface ship

Pakistan has Babur-3 submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) with the Navy’s Hashmat-class diesel– electric submarines and may also be fielded with eight air-independent propulsion-powered submarines from China.

Role of Nuclear Weapons in Strategic Contestations in 2022

The role of nuclear weapons in strategic contestations in South Asia in 2022 is expected to be limited given the contests are essentially limited to territorial sovereignty issues.

While Pakistan has adopted an asymmetric strategy vis a vis India, this is well below the threshold and in the bottom quarter of the escalation ladder. There are many steps before nuclear consideration comes into the strategic framework.

However, leaders in India and Pakistan are expected to “flash,” nuclear capabilities as a political tool for internal shaping of public opinion with political objectives and thus have to be considered appropriately without over reactions.