By Luisa Kenausis, Scoville Fellow
There’s a lot going on in nuclear weapons news, all around the world. It’s already a challenge to stay on top of the daily headlines about North Korea and Iran. To help you stay up-to-date on nuclear issues everywhere else, we at the Center are starting up Broken Arrow News: a weekly summary of all the news related to nuclear weapons and nuclear security—and not about North Korea or Iran. In U.S. military lingo, a “broken arrow” refers to a incident involving the loss of a nuclear weapon. Here, we’re bringing you the nuclear weapons news that’s been ‘lost’ in the last week.
The first installment is a review of nuclear news from the entire month of May. There’s a lot to cover, so we’ll be posting this one in sections. After this, we’ll be posting a weekly summary. You can find all of these posts on our Nukes of Hazard blog.
China lands bombers, including nuclear-capable, on South China Sea island
On May 18, China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) announced that it had successfully landed several bomber aircraft on an island in the South China Sea, including a nuclear-capable H-6K bomber. Based on video released by the PLAAF, the unnamed island is believed to be Woody Island, located in the middle of the South China Sea. This is the first time that China has landed bomber aircraft in the region, although it is believed to have previously landed fighter jets. Landing bombers in the South China Sea is a significant advance for China because it extends the operational range of Chinese bomber capabilities: if the island used in the May 18 exercise was Woody Island, Beijing’s long-range bomber range now effectively includes the whole of Southeast Asia.
There is also some concern about China’s next moves in the region. According to analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, recent satellite imagery suggests that China has constructed operational, bomber-capable airstrips on three of the Spratly Islands in the southern region of the South China Sea. If China starts landing its bombers on the Spratlys in the future, Beijing’s effective bomber range could potentially cover U.S. military facilities on Guam, as well as northern Australia.
India and Pakistan
In the Indian Ocean, the risk of nuclear war between India and Pakistan is on the rise
In early April, Vox published a useful explainer on the increasing risk of nuclear war between India and Pakistan. India deployed its first submarine armed with nuclear missiles in August 2016. In response, Pakistan quickly set out to acquire its own nuclear-armed submarine. Pakistan conducted its first flight test of a nuclear-capable submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) in early January 2017, using a design based on an existing Pakistani ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). Pakistan conducted another successful test of the new SLCM in late March 2018, bringing Pakistan one step closer to deploying a sea-based deterrent.
Prior to 2016, both India and Pakistan could only deliver their nuclear weapons via air-based and ground-based platforms. Compared to bomber aircraft and ground-launched missiles, submarines are generally considered the most survivable platform for nuclear weapons because an adversary would be unable to reliably target submarines in the case of a disarming first strike attempt. Therefore, generally speaking, submarine-based nuclear weapons are believed to strengthen nuclear deterrence by providing an assured second-strike capability and therefore dissuading rivals from attempting a disarming first strike. In the case of India and Pakistan, though, the introduction of nuclear-armed submarines increases the danger of nuclear war by weakening the chain of command and control over nuclear weapons.
Pakistan has not yet deployed a sea-based nuclear deterrent, but is expected to soon base its new SLCM on up to three of its French-made submarines. The Pakistan navy is also purchasing eight nuclear-capable attack submarines from China (scheduled for delivery in 2028), which may also be armed with the SLCM.
As Vox reports, both India and Pakistan have kept their ground-based nuclear weapons in a de-mated state, with nuclear warheads stored separately from the missiles that would be used to deliver them. Keeping weapons and delivery systems de-mated reduces the risk of an unauthorized or unintentional launch. On a submarine, however, nuclear weapons are fully assembled before the sub leaves the port, ready to launch at a moment’s notice if ordered.
All this is made far worse by the incredibly tense environment in which Indian and Pakistani nuclear-armed submarines will operate. The dynamics between India and Pakistan themselves are dangerous, but the role of terrorism in the region makes a bad situation worse. In September 2014, for example, a Pakistani frigate was attacked by members of al-Qaeda on the Indian Subcontinent—some of whom were officers in the Pakistan Navy. The Zulfiqar incident raised significant alarm about the ability of terror groups to infiltrate the Pakistani military at the time, but the danger of terrorist infiltration will become much more severe when Pakistan deploys nuclear-armed submarines.
India deploys new submarine-launched, nuclear-capable missile with range of 435 miles
In closely related news, Newsweek reported in mid-May that India has equipped its new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the K-15 Sagarika, on its Arihant nuclear submarines. The new SLBM has a range of up to 435 miles. Reporting by India’s Zee News notes that Indian scientists “are already working” on an even longer-range SLBM codenamed K-4, which has been successfully tested four times, although its most recent test in December 2017 was a failure. The K-4 will be able to strike targets nearly 2,200 miles away (up to 3,500 kilometers).