04 September 2015
by John Kerin

Indo-Pacific nuclear sub threat to rival Cold War

The Indian and Pacific Oceans are becoming increasingly crowded with nuclear armed and conventional submarines increasing the risk of collision and nuclear conflict.

The warning is contained in a new Lowy Institute of International Affairs paper to be released on Friday which argues the region faces the greatest threat of a miscalculation involving nuclear armed submarines since the Cold War era.

"The regional contests for influence between the United States and China and China and India do not yet have the existential or ideological 'life or death character' of the Cold War," the paper by Professor Rory Medcalf of the ANU based National Security College and Brendan-Thomas Noone from the Lowy International Security Program says.

"But quite literally below the surface a new and dangerous competition is emerging as China and India in particular start deploying nuclear weapons at sea.

"Pakistan and North Korea are pursuing a more rudimentary capability, which will involve diesel electric submarines carrying nuclear weapons…but that adds a new and unpredictable dimension to regional security," the paper says.

Professor Medcalf told the Australian Financial Review nuclear submarines were seen as a "second strike capability" during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union which meant they acted as a deterrent to the other side making a first strike.

Submarines could survive the first strike and retaliate.

But he said with so many countries in the region acquiring or operating nuclear submarines (including the US and Russia) and the proliferation of conventional submarines, it posed a greater risk of underwater collision.

Australia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and South Korea are all expanding conventional submarine fleets.

The paper says during the Cold War there were estimated to have been between 20 and 40 submarine collisions at sea.

"Dangerous submarine incidents can occur even among allies in the post Cold War world, as shown by a potentially disastrous clash between British and French nuclear armed boats in 2009," the paper says.

"With the number of submarines operating in the Indo Pacific growing, particularly around choke points, the chances are such encounters will increase.

"As the Commander of US submarines in the Pacific Rear Admiral Phillip Sawyer has noted 'the more submarines you put in the same body of water, the higher the probability they might collide'
The paper says the risk of triggering a nuclear conflict remains low but could occur as countries such as China and India field long range nuclear weapons aboard their submarines for the first time – but crews lack sufficient experience with training and nuclear doctrine.

"There will likely be a long phase of initial instability as China and India start deploying nuclear submarines without the full command and communications systems and the training and doctrine so vital to a credible and secure deterrent," the paper says.

"Unless these systems are in place nuclear submarines could be a strategic liability, rather than a stabilising presence, particularly during conflict or crisis situations," it says.

The paper's release comes as Defence Minister Kevin Andrews on Thursday wound up a visit to India where he suggested Australia wanted to join the US, India and Japan in joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean - exercises seen as a counterweight to China's influence.

Mr Andrews said including more countries in exercises would help avoid military blunders in the region urging territorial disputes to be resolved peacefully.

India holds the so-called Malabar exercises in the Indian Ocean every year and this year Japan will join the wargames.

The first Australia-India naval exercise will be held later this month and the countries are also expected their first joint airforce exercises.

China's increasing assertiveness over territorial disputes in the South and East China Sea has angered its neighbors and raised tensions with the United States.