Tom Hundley, VOX
2 April 2018
KARACHI, Pakistan — The Karachi Naval Dockyard, home port and strategic nerve center for Pakistan’s fleet, sits on a sliver of land bracketed between Port Grand, a “family fun” pier that features kiddie rides and a panoramic view of warships at anchor, and Machar Colony, a sprawling slum where cattle graze on garbage and a million human inhabitants live in nearly unimaginable squalor.
It was here, during the quiet predawn of May 6, 2014, that four rogue naval officers walked up the gangway of the PNS Zulfiqar, a 4,000-ton frigate that was preparing to put to sea. A guard inspected their ID badges and saluted. Once on board, their plan was to join up with another group of six militants disguised in marine uniforms who were approaching the Zulfiqar in an inflatable dinghy. Together they hoped to hijack the ship and use it to attack a US Navy patrol in the Indian Ocean.
But an alert sailor on board the frigate noticed something was wrong. The men in the dinghy were armed with AK-47s — not the standard weapons used by Pakistani marines. When he challenged the group in the dinghy, a gunfight quickly erupted. While the attackers fired automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, the sailor shredded the dingy with an anti-aircraft gun, killing all six. Hearing the commotion, navy commandos from another vessel rushed to the scene, but it still took several hours to regain control of the ship from the four rogue officers already on board.
Eventually all of them were killed, the last one blowing himself up after he was cornered. The audacity of a bloody attack inside one of the most heavily secured naval facilities in Pakistan was jarring enough.
Even more jarring was the source of the attack: al Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for the strike and praised the dead men as “martyrs.” Five more naval officers implicated in the plot were later arrested, charged with mutiny, and sentenced to death. The Zulfiqar incident is the most serious in a long string of deadly security breaches at Pakistani military installations, from multiple attacks on nuclear facilities near Dera Ghazi Khan (2003 and 2006) and on the air force bases at Sargodha and Kamra (2007 and 2012) to the gruesome 2014 attack on a school for the children of military officers in Peshawar that left more than 140 people dead, including 132 children. But even if Pakistani bases have been hit before, the Zulfiqar strike is particularly alarming. That’s because Pakistan is preparing to arm its submarines and possibly some of its surface ships with nuclear weapons — which means terrorists who successfully fight their way into a Pakistani naval base in the future could potentially get their hands on some of the most dangerous weapons on earth.
The Pakistan navy is likely to soon place nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on up to three of its five French-built diesel-electric submarines. It has also reached a deal with China to buy eight more diesel-electric attack submarines that can be equipped with nuclear weapons. These are scheduled for delivery in 2028. Even more disturbing, Pakistani military authorities say they are considering the possibility of putting nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on surface vessels like the Zulfiqar. Pakistan says its decision to add nuclear weapons to its navy is a direct response to India’s August 2016 deployment of its first nuclear submarine, the Arihant.
A second, even more advanced Indian nuclear submarine, the Arighat, began sea trials last November, and four more boats are scheduled to join the fleet by 2025. That will give India a complete “nuclear triad,” which means the country will have the ability to deliver a nuclear strike by landbased missiles, by warplanes, and by submarines. The submarine is the key component. It’s considered the most “survivable” in the event of a devastating first strike by an enemy, and thus able to deliver a retaliatory second strike. In the theology of nuclear deterrence, the point of this unholy trinity is to make nuclear war unwinnable and, therefore, pointless. When it comes to India and Pakistan, by contrast, the new generation of nuclear submarines could increase the risk of a devastating war between the two longstanding enemies, not make it less likely. India and Pakistan have gone to war four times since 1947, when Britain partitioned what had been a single colony into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. They have been in a state of constant hostility ever since, and for the past two decades, they have been locked in a frightening nuclear arms race on land.
Pushing the contest into the Indian Ocean makes the situation even more dangerous by loosening the chain of command and control over the weapons, increasing the number of weapons, and placing them in an environment where things tend to go wrong. “The nuclearization of the Indian Ocean has begun,” Zafar Jaspal, a nuclear security expert at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University, told me. “Both states have now crossed the threshold.” This should be setting off alarms throughout the international community. Growing numbers of nuclear weapons will soon be deployed to submarines patrolling some of the most bitterly contested waters on earth — and controlled by jittery and potentially paranoid officers on perpetual high alert about a surprise attack from the other side. The result is a game of nuclear chicken every bit as dangerous as the “my button is bigger than yours” competition between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un on the Korean Peninsula.
The difference here is that this one is going almost completely unnoticed. Putting nukes on submarines makes a nuclear war much more likely The modern nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarine is arguably the most fearsome weapon ever conceived. The US Navy’s 18 Ohio-class boats can each carry 154 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. They can travel beneath the sea for months, virtually undetectable, and their range is limited only by the crew’s endurance and food supply. When we talk about nuclear submarines, we talk about two different, but related, things: what powers the subs, and what kinds of weapons they carry. The US, Russia, the UK, France, and China have nuclear-powered submarines that are also armed with nuclear weapons. Israel is thought to have submarines that are armed with nuclear warheads, but they’re powered by diesel-electric generators. That matters because those types of submarines, unlike the nuclear powered ones made by America and other major world powers, are noisy — and thus easier to track — and can generally stay underwater for only a week or two at most.