Why An AUKUS-Like Nuclear Submarine Deal Between China And Pakistan Is Unlikely

Swarajya Staff

Mar 17, 2023, 04:00 PM | Updated 07:50 PM IST

China's Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine.
China's Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine.
  • An AUKUS-like deal between Beijing and Islamabad remains unlikely for both economic and strategic reasons. Here are two major reasons why.
  • The United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), and Australia recently revealed details of their plan to create a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

    This initiative aims to counter China's growing influence and military presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

    Through the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) pact, Australia will receive its first nuclear-powered subs from the US.

    This partnership enables Australia to access submarines that are more advanced and stealthy than conventional vessels, providing a counterbalance to China's military buildup.

    The Australian government is convinced that it requires submarines that can operate far from home bases, both as a deterrent and for attack capability in the event of a crisis. This is due to China's increased naval power and assertiveness, particularly in the South China Sea.

    The current fleet of Australia's Collins-class conventional submarines is expected to become obsolete by the 2030s.

    Nuclear-powered submarines have a significant advantage over diesel-electric boats as they can stay underwater for extended periods without the need to surface to recharge their batteries, thus avoiding detection.

    The AUKUS plan includes four phases.

    The first involves Australian personnel embedding with allies' navies and US submarines increasing visits to Australian ports for joint training.

    The second phase, starting in 2027, will see one UK submarine and up to four US submarines rotating through HMAS Stirling (Australian naval base).

    In the third phase, subject to approval, the US plans to sell Australia three Virginia-class submarines, with an option for two more.

    The final phase involves developing a new attack submarine, the SSN-Aukus, using a combination of UK and US technology.

    Both countries will build their own SSN-Aukus submarines, with the first entering UK service in the late 2030s and Australia receiving their first domestically built SSN-Aukus in the early 2040s.

    Australia will commence the construction of the shipyard required to build nuclear-powered submarines in Osborne, South Australia, this year.

    Will Pakistan Get A Similar Deal From Patron China?

    The US and UK offering Australia a lucrative deal on nuclear-powered submarines has led many to ask if the Chinese would come up with a similar plan to arm Pakistan with nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), given the patron-client relationship between the two countries.

    Similar questions have come up in the past in the context of India's development of a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines equipped with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles (SSBNs).

    The SSBNs will give India a credible nuclear deterrent at sea, ensuring the ability to respond to a nuclear attack on Indian soil with its own (also called second-strike capability).

    However, the answer remains the same as before — unlikely.

    An AUKUS-like deal between Beijing and Islamabad remains unlikely for both economic and strategic reasons.

    One, Pakistan is buying eight Type 39 Yuan-Class attack submarines equipped with air-independent propulsion or AIP.

    An AIP system gives a submarine the ability to remain submerged underwater, away from enemy sensors, for a long time without surfacing. A diesel-electric boat not equipped with an AIP has to snorkel frequently to recharge its batteries which power its propellers and other equipment.

    The process of snorkeling involves travelling just below the surface of the water with the submarine's periscope and generator exhaust pipe above the surface. Submarines have to rise to periscope depth and extend the snort mast above the water line — every day or two in some cases — so as to ingest air needed for running noisy diesel generators (which require atmospheric air) to charge their batteries.

    This significantly increases the risk of detection by enemy sensors.

    Radars on modern anti-submarine warfare platforms, such as the Telephonics' AN/APS-153(V) on the Indian Navy's MH-60R helicopters, can easily detect periscope and exhaust pipes of submarines, taking away the element of surprise critical for submarine operations.

    Thus, Pakistan will begin to receive eight new-generation submarines equipped with AIP before the end of this decade, adding to its fleet of French AIP-equipped submarines already in service.

    Pakistan's AIP-equipped submarines will have the capability to remain submerged relatively longer, although not as long as an SSN or SSBN.

    India currently does not have any AIP-equipped submarines and is unlikely to have such a boat in operation before the end of the decade.

    Two, Pakistan has successfully developed and tested its Babur-3 nuclear-capable submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM).

    The videos of the missile's tests released by Pakistan in the past confirm that Babur-3 has been designed to be ejected horizontally from submarine torpedo tubes, rather than vertically from a canisterized vertical launch system, which is used for ballistic missile launches.

    This capability will allow Pakistan to deploy the Babur-3 with its French Agosta 90B-class submarines that are currently in service, as well as the Chinese Type 039A submarines that it is acquiring from China.

    In other words, it will allow Pakistan to have a nuclear-strike option via its AIP-equipped submarines, which can remain submerged (i.e. difficult to detect) relatively longer than other conventional submarines.

    Pakistan has been unequivocal in this regard, announcing in one of its statements after a successful test of the missile that "Babur-3 capable of delivering various types of payloads and will provide Pakistan with a credible second strike capability, augmenting deterrence."

    The combination of Babur-3 and nearly a dozen AIP-equipped submarines by the mid-2030s, by when India will have a credible deterrent at sea with more than two SSBNs in service, will diminish any justification for Pakistan having an SSN or SSBN force of its own.

    Moreover, given Pakistan's precarious economic situation, which is unlikely to improve significantly in the foreseeable future, it would be financially unsustainable for Rawalpindi to maintain such a force.

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