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On July 26, 2009, India’s the first nuclear submarine was launched in the presence of Indian Prime Minister Mahoman Singh. The Arihant is a SSBN – meaning a submarine with nuclear propulsion and armed with long-range nuclear missiles. Also, Brazil is building its first nuclear submarine. Economically, politically and in cultural-civilizational terms, the world has become multipolar. Now we are seeing that the “emerging” powers are beginning to impact the global security architecture, too.

By Michael Liebig


When trying to assess the Indian and Brazilian nuclear submarine programs, some seemingly abstract matters of security policy need to be clarified first. The term „global security architecture“ would imply statics. Short of war, dramatic change – like the collapse of the Soviet Union – is quite rare in the realm of international security. But the present international security system is indeed changing – slowly, but profoundly.

There can be little doubt that in next two decades the United States will remain the biggest military power on earth. On September 10, 2009, the US Congress passed a defence budget of about $700 billion, including the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but without „indirect“ defence spending not formally part of the Pentagon budget. The worldwide military expenses are estimated at about $1.5 trillion. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates the US share in worldwide military expenditures at about 42%, China about 7%, France and Britain 4.5% each, Russia 4%, Germany and Japan 3% each, India a bit more than 2%, and Brazil a bit less than 2%.

These figures seem to reflect the relative military strength of the leading power in today’s world, but they do not necessarily tell us what the actual military capacities of these powers are. Also, neither the absolute nor the relative size of military expenditures provide an answer to the question how much national security is bought with them? And this leads to the next question, what is national security?

Obviously, national security cannot be reduced to military power as such. National security has economic, diplomatic, intelligence and politico-cultural components as well. But as long as there are sovereign nation states with differing national interests in this world, they will not renounce military capabilities to guarantee their national security. This in itself is not the problem. The all important question is how do states define their national security?

National Security: Superiority vs. Deterrence

We cannot discuss here national security in terms of competing theories on international relations. Instead we simply distinguish two elementary conceptions of national security regarding its military dimension:

  • A “maximalist” concept of national security aims at military superiority on a regional or global scale. Typically, such a strategic conception has been pursued by the United States for the past century: The USA must be not only the strongest military power on earth, but must be militarily stronger than every conceivable combination of competing powers.
  • A “minimalist” concept of national security regarding its military dimension would focus on military deterrence. In essence, deterrence means that national military forces possess the capacity to credibly demonstrate to any potential adversary that he will suffer unacceptable damage in case of military aggression. Subsumed under such deterrence capacity is the ability to prevent a potential adversary to engage in blackmail by military threats or violate vital national interests – including those outside the national territory.

The core concept of military deterrence – preventing military aggression, blackmail and violation of vital national interests – is valid among conventionally armed states as well as among nuclear states. However deterrence becomes dysfunctional when a non-nuclear state faces a nuclear state. The probability that a non-nuclear state will become the victim of nuclear aggression might be close to zero, but that does not apply to its vulnerability of being blackmailed or its vital interests being violated by a nuclear state.

In a world with nuclear weapons, deterrence is only assured for nuclear states. There are only two options left for a non-nuclear state: Allying with a nuclear state – an option fraught with intractable question marks. Or, remaining non-nuclear while possessing the capacity “to do it” on rather short notice if necessary – a rather questionable proposition, also.

The Case of India

Since 1998, India is officially a nuclear state and it has a nuclear doctrine which is called „minimum credible deterrence“. This doctrine was not invented in India, but in France. Under General de Gaulle, France became a nuclear power – and did so by indigenous means. For the French nuclear force de frappe the doctrine of dissuasion tout azimut was developed. France’s nuclear deterrence was to be be effective „in all directions“ against potential aggressors – not only against the then-Soviet Union. Because ground-based and aerial nuclear weapon systems have no assured survivability under conditions of a nuclear first strike, France built four nuclear submarines equipped with long-range nuclear missiles. Four such nuclear submarines were seen as the sufficient minimum, so that always one or two SSBNs could operate somewhere in the depth of the oceans. The subs being practically undetectable, a potential aggressor would face the prospect of a devastating retaliatory, second strike.

Britain and China followed the French model of a minimum, but plausible nuclear deterrence with a few SSBNs. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has also moved in the direction of „minimum credible deterrence“, reducing its fleet of SSNBs from approximately 60 (in 1989) to probably 10 at present.

Since the 1990s, also Israel has nuclear-armed submarines. These submarines, built in Germany, are armed with long-range cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. Three of these Dolphin Class submarines have conventional, diesel-electric propulsion, two others, still under construction, have a German air independent propulsion system (AIP) which permits long underwater endurance roughly comparably with with nuclear submarines. The strategic significance of the AIP propulsion system can be deduced from the fact that American firms tried to take over HDW naval enterprise in Kiel producing the AIP system. Another indicator is that the US Navy leased from the Swedish Navy the submarine Gotland, equipped with HDW’s AIP propulsion, system for extensive anti-submarine warfare exercises off the US west coast.

The Indian SSBN Arihant will probably be in an operational state in one to two years, only. And before India disposes of at least four other nuclear submarines for a minimum, but plausible nuclear deterrence, years will pass. But with the launching of the Arihant, India’s nuclear capacity has transcended a merely regional context. One can assume that within a few years India will also be in the possession of missiles with intercontinental range (ICBMs) for its SSBNs. India has developed and built the Arihant, including the nuclear reactor, by indigenous resources, but it has been technically assisted by Russia. Also, India has leased from Russia an Akula Class nuclear submarine which is used for training the crews of the Arihant Class SSBNs.

Brazil’s Nuclear Submarine Program

On September 7, 2009, Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva and French President Nicolas Sarkozy reached an agreement for the delivery of 36 fighter bombers Dassault Rafale, most of which will be built in Brazil. The French-Brazilian arms deal caused considerable attention in the international media. However, there is another French-Brazilian arms deal which in the long term will be far more important. When Sarkozy and Lula met on the December 23, 2008, they made an agreement on the delivery of French submarines and submarine technology. On the September 7, 2009 the contract was formally signed between the Brazilian Navy and the French naval enterprise DCNS, in which the French state has a 75% stake. A DCNS release states:

  • DCNS will act as prime contractor for four conventional-propulsion submarines to be built by the Joint Venture that will be set up by DCNS and Brazilian partner Odebrecht. The submarines will be designed in cooperation with Brazilian teams under DCNS design authority to meet the Brazilian Navy’s specific needs: They will be ideally suited to the protection and defence of the country’s 8,500-kilometre coast. The first submarine is scheduled to enter active service in 2015. DCNS will produce key advanced-technology equipment in its own plants.
  • DCNS will provide design assistance – under the Brazilian Navy’s design authority – for the non-nuclear part of the Navy’s first nuclear submarine, which will be built by the Joint Venture to be set up by DCNS and Odebrecht.
  • DCNS will provide prime contractor assistance to Odebrecht for the construction of the naval shipyard that will build the five submarines covered by today’s contract, as well as a naval base for the Brazilian Navy.

Most likely the four conventional subs will have AIP propulsion, but point 2 of this release is surely the most important. It refers to the technology transfer for the construction of Brazil’s first nuclear submarine. The nuclear reactor for the submarine is being developed and built indigenously in Brazil; already since 1979 the Brazilian Navy has worked on the development of a nuclear reactor for the propulsion of ships and submarines. This project is well advanced. In the second half of the next decade, the first Brazilian nuclear submarine could operational – and more will follow. These nuclear submarines will be SSNs – i.e. not carry ballistic missiles. But, as for example the Israelis have demonstrated, long-range cruise missiles can be fired from the torpedo tubes of submerged submarines. Therefore, the Brazilian nuclear submarine program has not only regional, but strategic implications. An indication that this is so, is the „Fourth Fleet“ of the US Navy covering the South Atlantic, which had been deactivated in 1950, but was reactivated on July 1, 2008.

The Aircraft Carrier “Club”

There is a second naval system, besides nuclear submarines, indicating whether states define their vital interests only on a regional level or on a global level: Aircraft carriers. There is a remarkable overlap between states having nuclear-armed and/or nuclear-propelled submarines (USA, Russia, France, Great Britain, China, India, Israel and now Brazil) and states possessing aircraft carriers (USA, Russia, France, Great Britain, India, Brazil, Italy and Spain).

The US Navy has 11 aircraft carriers. They are by far the biggest and technologically most advanced carriers; and the US Navy has an unmatched experience in operating them. Britain has two carriers, which will be replaced by two 65,000 t aircraft carriers in the next decade. France has one aircraft carrier (Charles de Gaulle) and plans the construction of a second one. Russia has one aircraft carrier (Admiral Kuznezov) and is building a second one. India has one ex-British aircraft carrier and is building a second one. In addition, India bought the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov from Russia and has modernised it; this carrier should be operational next year. Italy and Spain each have a smaller (18,000t) and middle-sized aircraft carrier (28,000t). And Brazil has the aircraft carrier Sao Paulo, the former Foch of the French Navy. China has announced the construction of three aircraft carriers.

It appears that the exclusive „club“ of the states with nuclear submarines and/or aircraft carriers is largely identical with the top flight of economically and politically leading states. The members of this „club“ are all among the top 12 in global GDP ranking. Exceptions are Japan, Germany – for historical-political reasons – and Canada.

GDP (IMF, 2008) Aircraft Carriers SSBNs
USA 14,264,600 11 18
China 4,923,761 (3) 3 (multiple)
Japan 4,401,614 0 0
Germany 3,667,513 0 0
France 2,865,737 1 (1) 4
Britain 2,674,085 2 (2) 4 (3)
Italy 2,313,893 2 0
Russia 1,676,586 1 (1) 10 (8)
Spain 1,611,767 2 0
Brazil 1,572,839 1 1 (multiple)
Canada 1,510,957 0 0
India 1209,686 1 (2) 1 (multiple)

The graph does not include nuclear “hunter/killer” submarines (SSNs), except in the case of Brazil. The figures in brackets indicate units under construction or planned, in the case of Russia and Britain replacing existing SSBNs.

The main driving force changing the global security system is the economic dynamic of China, India and Brazil. There is obviously a correlation between growing economic power and widening security needs. To say that formerly poor countries can now “afford” expensive and sophisticated weapon systems and are therefore engaging in a new type of “arms race,” is missing the point. The “emerging” powers do have their national security needs: Protecting territorial integrity, including maritime economic exclusion zones (EEZ) and averting pressure and blackmail by military threats. A growing share in the world economy necessitates the protection of maritime trade routes and raw material supplies. Doing that is both necessary and legitimate – provided that the military dimension of national security is subsumed under the guiding principle of deterrence. There are no indications that the national security strategies of the “emerging” powers would deviate from the principle of deterrence.

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