The Sea is Deep, Dark and Dangerous

Naval strength is pre-requisite to establishing country’s credentials as a regional maritime power

Cmde Anil Jai SinghCmde Anil Jai Singh (retd)

The year 2022 has been significant for India as it celebrated 75 years of its independence from centuries of global rule and the ravages of partition. It also marked the emergence of a 21st century India as a confident power, proud of its rich heritage and historical civilisational values, seeking its legitimate place at the global top table.

The Indian Navy, as one of the country’s principal instruments of both foreign policy and national security also reflects this confidence with its ability to project power as a force for good. The commissioning of the country’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant on 2 September 2002 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, marked a significant milestone in the navy’s development as a balanced, multi-dimensional blue water force with the ability to protect and further the country’s maritime interests anywhere in the world.

In keeping with its theme of being a credible, cohesive and future-proof combat ready force, the Indian Navy has been maintaining a very impressive operational tempo over the years, furthering India’s maritime interests and its strategic objectives with this year being no different. On 15 August 2022, seven Indian naval ships proudly hoisted the national flag in six different continents extending from Brazil to Singapore to commemorate 75 years of the country’s independence (Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav).

This not only symbolised India’s cultural ethos based on its belief of Vasudhaiva Kutambakam or ‘The World is one family’, but also sent an important message of the Indian Navy’s reach and ability to project power wherever in the world it may be required. This was followed in September with the commissioning of INS Vikrant. In mid-October, INS Arihant, the country’s first nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) successfully fired a ballistic missile and established the efficacy of the complex command, control and communication architecture required to launch a nuclear armed ballistic missile from hundreds of metres below the surface of the sea, thousands of miles away in the ocean.

This underlined the navy’s capability to pre-empt an incoming nuclear attack or to deliver a devastating retaliatory second strike at a precise time on a precise target at a single command from the National Command Authority located well inland, at a time when it may be under attack itself. The success of this firing validated the efficacy of India’s nuclear triad and established the credibility of India’s strategic deterrence capability. This was followed in November by Exercise Malabar, which has come to represent India’s pivotal role in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), the informal grouping of four nations (Australia, Japan, India and the USA), committed to furthering its main objectives of ensuring a rules-based maritime order and a free and open Indo-Pacific. Besides these, the navy continued with its mission-based deployments with over a dozen ships operating across the Indio-Pacific on different missions with the underlying emphasis being on enhancing regional maritime domain awareness (MDA).

INS Vikrant


The emergence of the Indo-Pacific as the global geopolitical centre of gravity has focussed attention on the maritime domain. China’s rise and the emerging great power rivalry with the United States is going to define the future geopolitical and geoeconomic contours of the region and the world. The Indo-Pacific is home to more than 60 per cent of the global population and generates about 64 per cent of the global GDP.

Globalisation, maritime connectivity, economic imperatives and trade dependencies will ensure that this region will remain at the epicentre of global affairs well into the second half of the 21st century. Nine of the world’s top 10 navies operate in this region, nine of the world’s 10 largest ports are located here, and six of the 10 declared and undeclared nuclear powers are resident here. As the existing pre-eminent maritime power in the Indian Ocean, India, therefore, has to develop the necessary capacities and capabilities in the maritime domain to retain that edge and ensure that it is able to shape the outcomes in the region and not allow itself to get shaped by them.

In the last few years, the Indian government has taken some impressive initiatives to establish the country’s credentials as a regional maritime power with an enhanced resonance in various global fora. In 2015, during his visit to Mauritius, the Prime Minister had enunciated the vision of Sagar (Security and Growth for All in the Region). The Sagar doctrine now underpins many of the regional security initiatives through an inclusive and cooperative capacity building approach. He also spoke of the blue chakra in the centre of India’s national flag as representing the importance of the ocean economy for India. At the commissioning of INS Kolkata at Mumbai in 2016, he highlighted that a competent and strong military was essential for ensuring peace. This almost echoed President Franklin Roosevelt’s words spoken over a century ago, in 1902, who had said that a good navy is not a provocation for war, but is the surest guarantor of peace.

During the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2019, India introduced the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) with seven pillars, including one on maritime security, though many of the others also relate indirectly to the challenges in the maritime domain. The IPOI operates under the aegis of the EAS and is part of an inclusive and cooperative framework amongst its members.


Maritime Security

In 2021, in its capacity as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, India led a high-level open debate on Enhancing Maritime Security: A case for International Cooperation. Chaired by the Prime Minister, this was the first debate of its kind on this subject where he outlined five key principles on trade, disputes, natural disasters, environment and connectivity.

In addition to these, India has taken a leadership role in revitalising and supporting other institutionalised regional mechanisms like Bimstec, the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium on addressing maritime security. On December 1, India assumed the presidency of the G-20. This platform will provide it the opportunity to address issues related to climate change and the blue economy.

The nature of the maritime threat has undergone a transformation over the years. It now includes a much wider spectrum of challenges detrimental to the maritime domain and to good order at sea. Conventional state-on-state conflict with navies and coast guards pitted against each other has given way to more prevalent less-than-war situations with navies indulging in dangerous brinkmanship that has the potential for unintended escalation.

However, of greater concern is the non-traditional and trans-national threat. Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, piracy, gun running, human trafficking, illegal migration, narcotics smuggling, the omnipresent spectre of maritime terrorism and a plethora of environmental, man-made and natural calamities threaten maritime security and the lives and livelihoods of people dependent on it. Each of these threats requires a different response strategy and no nation can shoulder this alone. The shared responsibility of ensuring the safety of the seas has led navies to adapt their force structuring towards a cooperative engagement capability. However, that does not detract from the military role of navies and their raison d’etre. Hence the need for high end combat platforms remains as much an imperative as ever before.

The advancement in technology, the enhanced area of maritime interest and the multitude of fast developing maritime threats has highlighted the requirement of enhancing the surveillance the vast oceanic space. India has taken the lead in enhancing regional MDA. Besides the ships on mission-based deployments mentioned earlier, it deploys its air and space-based assets to enable a wider area coverage. This is further augmented through information sharing arrangements through White shipping agreements with like-minded countries and the establishment of the Indian Ocean Region Information Fusion Centre (IOR-IFC) near the national capital.


Sea Dependence

India is essentially a maritime nation. Its dependence on the sea for its economic well-being and its future sustainable development is going to shape its responses to the maritime environment. More than 90 per cent of its trade by volume and over 74 per cent by value travels over the sea. This is going to increase exponentially in absolute numbers as the country grows from its current USD 3 trillion economy to its intended USD 5 trillion within the next few years and to a projected USD 10 trillion economy in the first half of the next decade.

More than 80 per cent of India’s energy requirement are met from the sea, primarily from imports. Despite the government’s efforts to diversify into other sources of energy, the demand for crude oil and gas is going to continue increasing for the foreseeable future as the Indian economy grows. The criticality of this resource for its energy security and its impact on India’s foreign policy has been evident during the current global energy crisis caused by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. India’s sourcing of crude oil from Russia, amongst other things, has definitely influenced India’s response to the conflict. It has faced international criticism which has led to some uncharacteristically acerbic responses from the country’s foreign policy establishment.

The country’s Exclusive Economic Zone extending 200 nautical miles into the sea and covering an area of 2.03 million sqkm will provide the resources for the country’s future sustenance. Its 7,516 km long coastline with 13 major ports and over 205 non-major ports covering nine states and four Union territories provides livelihoods to a large coastal population. All this has been well understood ever since India became independent. K.M. Pannikar, India’s renowned naval historian and distinguished diplomat, wrote at length on the importance of sea power for India.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister, while visiting the cruiser INS Mysore in 1958 had said: “We cannot afford to be weak at sea. History has shown that whoever controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s seaborne trade at its mercy and, in the second, India’s very independence itself.” This awareness of the opportunities and challenges for India has often been reiterated but failed to get the traction it deserved. It is only now that there is a shift to maritime consciousness which is shaping the country’s approach and responses to its maritime imperatives.

India has been blessed with a favourable maritime geography with its peninsular land mass jutting into the Indian Ocean and providing it a well-defined eastern and western seaboard. The two island chains in the east and the west provide it strategic depth. The Andaman and Nicobar islands are of particular strategic importance as they lie almost at the entrance to the Malacca Straits, through which more than 70,000 ships transit annually, carrying trade and energy for most of the nations in the western Pacific western pacific nations, including China, which regards this vulnerability as its Malacca Dilemma. India must leverage this advantage to its benefit with a robust maritime security architecture that is both resilient and responsive at the same time, which must not only address its own vulnerabilities, but also those of the countries in its strategic maritime neighbourhood.

However, India’s maritime security challenge is not restricted only to the threat to its own maritime frontiers and maritime interests. As India’s strategic footprint expands on the global stage, it will have to play a larger role in addressing global security challenges and shaping the response to them. It will therefore first have to mitigate its internal vulnerabilities, not least of which is its dependence on imported military hardware and some critical capacity and capability deficits. For almost a decade, India had the unenviable distinction of being the largest importer of military hardware in the world till Saudi Arabia relegated us to second place. Defence indigenisation has been an avowed aim of the MoD for many decades but the successes so far have been few and far between.


Make in India

In 2014, the Prime Minister announced his vision of Make in India to energise Indian manufacturing and identified defence manufacturing as one of the key sectors. Foreign investment and participation were also invited to enable the induction of advanced technologies in a collaborative model. However, the report card on that so far has been less than satisfactory.

In 2021, the Prime Minister gave a clarion call for Aatmanirbharta, or self-reliance, with defence again being identified as a key sector. However, this time the Prime Minister did not let any grass grow under its feet and the ministry of defence (MoD) soon promulgated a ‘positive indigenisation’ list which effectively placed an embargo on the import of equipment that could be manufactured indigenously with specific timelines mentioned against each. Three more lists have followed the first one and it is too early to gauge the success of this effort. While there is room for optimism, some of the desired technologies identified in these may still need to be imported until the industry can absorb these. In early 2022, the Prime Minister effectively embargoed the import of all defence equipment by ordering a review of all ‘Buy Global’ cases which were either being discussed or negotiated at the time. While this may seem to indicate very positive intent, it is going to have an adverse impact on the navy’s combat capability over the next few years.

Indigenisation and aatmanirbharta is indeed the way ahead. India’s dependence on imports for contemporary technologies and hardware is a serious strategic vulnerability which an emerging power like India can ill-afford. However, this does not happen overnight. It requires a planned approach with specific milestones, adequate budgetary support and an enabling policy framework. The zealousness being displayed by the MoD in implementing this diktat across the board reflects the lack of a realistic assessment of both, our R&D and our industrial capability. Just having an indigenous weapon or sensor on a warship or submarine operating in a dense combat environment is not enough; the key to victory at sea is to detect, intercept and neutralise the enemy before it can do the same. However, many of the shipborne weapons and sensors under indigenous development do not have that advantage vis-à-vis our principal adversaries. This is a serious anomaly in our drive towards aatmanirbharta and needs to be addressed.


Indigenisation in Navy

The Indian Navy has always been at the forefront in supporting indigenisation. It has encouraged the growth of the indigenous warship building industry and has recognised the importance of being a builder navy. From its humble beginnings with the commissioning of INS Ajay, a seaward defence boat in 1960, it has indeed come a long way in these six decades. Forty three of the 45 ships and submarines currently on order are being built in Indian shipyards and another 49 platforms that have received the MoD’s nod will all be indigenous.

The Indian Navy is only the sixth navy in the world to operate an indigenously built aircraft carrier and an indigenously built SSBN. The country has a robust eco-system of sub vendors, mainly comprising MSMEs who understand the complexities of naval platforms and the exacting quality requirements of the navy. This strong foundation will stand the navy in good stead in developing a self-reliant lifecycle support supply chain in consonance with the vision of aatmanirbharta.

The importance of the maritime sector and a balanced navy as its sentinel therefore needs no elaboration. However, naval platforms are capital-intensive. In a country where the socio-economic challenges are considerable, adequate resource allocation will always be a challenge. Therefore, a long-term vision of naval force structuring is essential to ensure an optimal utilisation of resources to minimise the capacity and capability deficits. The navy recognises these deficiencies and has a coherent plan in place to address these in a phased manner within the limited fiscal space available to it.

Maritime strength is a pre-requisite to becoming a great power. The US Navy, with its super carrier fleet, is able to project power anywhere in the world. China is expanding its navy at an astonishing pace with blue water capable platforms including aircraft carriers. By the end of this decade, it will have a formidable presence in the Indian Ocean and in collusion with its proxy state Pakistan, which it is arming with eight submarines and four large frigates, could pose a serious challenge to India’s prevailing favourable maritime situation in the region. As India’s stature rises on the global stage, so will its obligations and challenges in the maritime domain. Hence, a lot more attention will have to be paid to enhancing India’s maritime power if India is to fulfil its manifest destiny as a great power.



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