Guest Column | Focus on Naval Power

A long-term vision is needed to build a capable navy that can compete with the best in the world

RAdm. Sudhir Pillai (retd)RAdm. Sudhir Pillai (retd)

In Part One of this article, I had outlined Op Khukri and the complexities that the operation threw up. The Indian Navy, often out of mind and out of sight, has its share of involvement in many other contingencies that we need to research and document if we are to add to the country’s institutional memory.


Plotting Comprehensive Military Strategy

Admiral Karambir Singh, in public statements, observes rightly, early in his tenure, the geopolitics that is at play and seeks rationalisation of naval plans to cater for what can be very turbulent times in the decades ahead. Given the economic scenario, this can be a planners’ nightmare. Thus, while he highlights short-term threats and confrontations, the potential for a boil over with medium to longer-term implications can’t be ignored, in his pronouncements. In a concession to economic realities, he seeks to scale down plans but aims to achieve a balance, through an optimal exploitation of ‘modern technologies’.

Such observations by the country’s naval chief require recognition of the nation’s maritime realities. Competitive dynamics tend to seek a return to a continental or a shore-based mind-set. Such inwards or near-abroad focus can be the bane of countries like India and its imperatives. It may be worth reminding ourselves that it was just such thinking that saw us hopelessly unprepared in 1962.

To look at ‘the right of spectrum’ tasks, we could do well to look at the observations of an air and naval platforms enthusiast. Rick Joe observes in The Diplomat that ‘as of mid-2019, Chinese carrier development was evolving beyond their initial experimentation with CV-16 the Liaoning and the ski-jump route. Expectations and focus are moving onto catapult carriers like 003 and its successors and their related air wings’.

While China goes about building a formidable transformed military with a focus on her navy, they can afford to do so, given their USD 12-14 trillion economy. India, meanwhile, finds the headwinds daunting as it seeks to grow from a three-trillion-dollar base to higher levels, so essential if it has to be able to cater for development necessities while at the same time finding funds for its military.

As stark realities and compulsions stare us in the face, rationalisation of all that we spend on, including the military, is inevitable. In doing so, a government in drawing up a strategy and issuing policy will have to crystal gaze much beyond the immediate; maintaining and employing a current force; but also seek to build a future-ready military.

Focus on Naval Power
A model of Indian Aircraft Carrier (IAC) II on display at Cochin Shipyard Ltd during DefExpo 2020

Military Capability Creation and Maintenance

Let me explain the implied contradictions and advance arguments for a balance, using the much debated and often flayed concept of maintaining, employing and building aircraft carriers. Such debates have to rise many a notch. Competing claims for a share of the budget, or even doomsday predictions about vulnerabilities of such investments, will need rational and careful analysis.

While the UN Security Council Resolution 954, extended the UN mandate for UNOSOM II in Somalia to March 1995, the United States and other NATO members of the mission would abandon the peacekeeping effort and withdraw from Somalia. As the operation approached its scheduled end, the situation on the ground continued to deteriorate. With no other international support forthcoming, INS Ganga along with INS Godavari and INS Shakti were deployed to Mogadishu in December 1994 to support the withdrawal of the Indian Army’s 66 Brigade, including 2 JAKLI. Meagre air support as available on that task force would need to be tasked in the de-induction of 2 JAKLI under fire.

The Indian Navy has similarly been tasked in other areas such as in Mauritius, Seychelles, etc. At distances as vast as 20-degree South and 4-degree South latitudes, the need for air support, as in Sierra Leone, can be a crucial void in the absence of aircraft carriers, if things were to hot up.

Aircraft carriers, like the Illustrious, Viraat, Vikramaditya and air-capable LPHs/ LPDs, can be valuable to such tasks. Naval aircraft fulfil a crucial role in a navy’s ORBAT, and their absence can mean placing limitations on their employment. The question about efficacy and utility of aircraft carriers has to be answered by naval professionals to whom naval airpower can for a variety of reasons be that crucial shipboard or shore-based system.

While vulnerabilities of any military system need cognisance, one must remember that Force Protection is an area that engages many military minds. Each remains fine-tuned to the need for ensuring that ships do not get sunk in a harbour or an airbase gets targeted before it can even get aircraft airborne! An excellent example of this is JMSDF anti-submarine forces that include the helicopter-carriers (DDH) who turn towards a probable submarine area than seek to avoid a confrontation. Similarly, formidable anti-air and anti-missile capabilities exist in modern ships.


Growing Beyond Interim Solutions

If one examines the ‘rationalisation plan’ revealed by the Indian Navy, an asset that gets reduced in the plans is the Kamov 31 Airborne Early Warning (AEW) helicopter. The KA 31 AEW solution that India adopted is at best an interim solution forced by certain other limitations that existed then and exist now. These included the absence of a catapult in our carriers for a more robust AEW solution. Such interim assets were probably acceptable when the Sea Harrier, with its limitations, was the solution for the air defence of the Tactical Battle Area (TBA). But, does it suit capability-requirements that have led to the adoption and acquisition of the multi-role MiG29K for roles at sea, from an aircraft carrier? What are the planning imperatives that need to be looked at when the next-generation fighter aircraft are to be acquired?

Such decisions need to be taken not through a pure tactical viewing glass, but through a strategic and policy prism that balances current, operational and future risk. In debates that India must indulge in the planners need to look at not just what we can afford but needs to look at the environment that evolves and the necessities of that evolving world. Do strategic scenarios that pan out permit India to manage with just shore-based airpower? Do we need the ability to deploy to the far reaches of our Areas of Interest? Can we make do with the assistance of other maritime nations like France, the UK or the US?

Indian planners, designers, naval engineers, architects, fiscal pundits, all need to work an institutional approach that fosters critical thinking and innovative concepts if the transition to the future is to be meaningful. Mantras like ‘Make in India’ and indigenous development may seem like the way to go. Theory and practise suggest that this isn’t a smart option, especially for cash-strapped nations, and if a robust capability is to be ensured.

My understanding and readings suggest that we need to go beyond just dishing out build contracts to that one go-to government body, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) or Public Sector Units (PSUs), even when viable prototypes may be eluding. The LCA Mk 1A is an example of this approach. Innovation, research and development require a more comprehensive multi-dimensional approach if we are to learn from the past and cater for the future.


A Reality Check

Tweeps publish graphics which draw a 1000-km radius from Thanjavur Air Force Base and show radii of action that notionally covers both the East and West Coast of India. If India is to achieve her strategic imperatives, we would need to look much beyond in a world that must remain connected.

Such an outlook is inevitable given our resource-related bottlenecks and our need to connect not just with markets worldwide but also to influence Indian interests across the seas. We cannot outsource such requirements to others, without us sacrificing strategic autonomy. We could do well to rise above tactical thinking and provide for viable militaries, where not just the affordability but military capacities and capabilities are factored in and balanced.

As the CNS, Admiral Karambir Singh observes ‘the ongoing crisis in the Straits of Hormuz, confrontations in the South China Sea and increasing use of naval platforms for political signalling are unmistakable fallouts of the great power competition in the maritime domain’. The emerging threat scenario has seen many nations adopting in a timely and clear-thinking manner, pragmatic approaches as a national security imperative, then leaving it too late.

Japan and South Korea are a growing list of countries that seek to add platforms capable of handling aircraft like the F35B STOVL aircraft to their sea-going inventory. The sale of the orphaned French Mistral Class Amphibious ships saw many navies evincing interest. Open source writings seem to suggest a long list of those who may have taken a look before a sale of the two vessels took place to Egypt.


A Rationalised Plan

India’s rationalisation plan has seen it watering down concepts like a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The Indian Navy may have to recast its plans and may need to settle into a role as a viable middle power navy. All this requires a much more in-depth analysis by many besides the Indian Navy and seek answers to questions like these:

  • Can Indian Navy go down parallel paths that include aircraft carriers and LPDs?
  • Would the French idea of a ‘multi-purpose intervention ship’, the design fore-bearer of the Mistral Class, be the way to go?
  • Could the design include several aircraft carrier-like features, including a ski-jump ramp for STOBAR aircraft, allowing the operation of the F-35 Lightning II-B aircraft and possibly a twin-engine LCA Navy (with real capabilities) as the DRDO promises by 2026?
  • How does one cater to a robust AEW and the CATOBAR concepts that will be needed?
  • Could the ship have four to six helicopter landing spots?
  • Could these include deck strengthening to accommodate medium to heavy helicopters, such as the V-22 Osprey or Chinook helicopters and even Apache attack helicopters?
  • Is an organic heliborne MCM capability of the MCH-101 or MH-53E kind of helicopters a critical void in the Indian inventory that may need to get addressed along the way?
  • Can the hybrid include a well-deck capable of accommodating landing craft, or few LCAC hovercraft?
MH-60 Romeo

Whither a Blue-Water Navy

Thus, while in the last two decades, much has been written with great pride about India and her emerging blue-water navy, are recent economic woes forcing us to pause, think and roll back nearer to coast? North Block mandarins may need to engage in an in-depth debate with military leadership (including those in South Block), think tanks and academia, on how and why to fund a first-class navy that meets India’s needs? These can be crucial questions to answer, if India is to continue to aspire to be among the top economies of the world, pushing back poverty and providing for its teeming billions?

I could extend this argument to each of the armed services, lest they fall short of expectations. Slacking of military preparedness given economic woes, or even prioritisation in other expenditure areas is the government’s prerogative and may also be a compulsion. But it could mean that the country would need to revisit military strategy, as an adjunct of national policy, mindful of what reduced military capabilities mean to India and her vital national interests.


Indian Military Power – A Scholar’s Critique

A reading of Stephen Cohen’s book India: Emerging Power has a chastening chapter that critiques ‘India as a Military Power’. He flags the transition of India’s military strength after 1971 as ‘Dominance to Insignificance’. As he states: ‘beset by internal problems, with severe resource constraints, unsure about the behaviour of friends and enemies alike, politically adrift, India feared that it had lost its military edge’. Cohen illustrates his arguments stringing a thread through the Indian economic crisis, to a reduction in military expenditures, leading up to an emboldened Pakistan and its military misadventure in Kargil, assured that nuclear-deterrence hamstrings India’s options.

There are many lessons in all this. India once again finds itself besieged by structural and cyclical realities. Developed nations and systems, weather and ride out such storms through level-headed pragmatism. Do we have the institutional mechanisms that must think this through? Can Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and the newly created structures rise to the challenge?

‘It is a doctrine of war not to assume the enemy will not come, but rather to rely on one’s readiness to meet him; not to presume that he will not attack, but rather to make one’s self invincible’  as quoted by Sun Tzu.


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