Exploring the Impact of Submarine Saturation on Strategic Stability in South Asia

Author: Kupriyanov, Alexey1

Published in National Security Journal, 27 February 2022

DOI: 10.36878/nsj20220227.08  

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Due to the growing rivalry between local and external actors, the Indian Ocean region is increasingly the site of an underwater Cold War. India and Pakistan are actively developing their submarines, contributing to regional maritime saturation. While India plans to increase the number of conventional vessels and nuclear-powered submarines armed with nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, Pakistan is working on launching nuclear-capable cruise missiles from diesel-electric submarines. This maritime saturation leads to the emergence of new threats and the revitalisation of old ones. The danger of accidental collisions between nuclear-powered submarines and diesel submarines, in some cases both with nuclear weapons on board, is increasing. Mutual misunderstanding of strategic imperatives and mistrust can lead to accidental conflicts, and incidents on board nuclear submarines. This essay argues that it is necessary to raise awareness of these challenges and of strategic cultures in the region to prevent incidents with nuclear weapons.

Keywords: Indian Ocean, People’s Liberation Army Navy, Indian Navy, Pakistan Navy, Submarine


The impact of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and their second-strike capabilities on strategic stability in South Asia has been considered in a variety of previous studies.1 While containing valuable insights, these papers are largely outdated amid the rapidly changing situation in the Indian Ocean and South Asia. The beginning of the naval strategic race between the United States and China, the expansion of the sphere of Chinese interests into the Indian Ocean region, the strengthening of the China-Pakistan strategic partnership and the growing rivalry between India and China are transforming the Indian Ocean region into a space that is literally teeming with nuclear and conventional submarines of potential participants in an underwater Cold War.

Furthermore, the increased presence of surface vessels for anti-submarine warfare, unmanned underwater vehicles and underwater acoustic sensor networks also adds to the complexity of this rapidly changing maritime environment.2 These trends completely change the picture of what is occurring in the region.3 This essay will explore the positive and negative implications for strategic stability of saturating the Indian Ocean region with SSBNs and nuclear-capable diesel-electric submarines, concluding with some recommendations to address these conditions.

1 Dr Alexey Kupriyanov is a Senior Research Fellow in the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations within the Russian Academy of Sciences.