India needs to put in more security measures to emerge as a maritime power
Cmde Anil Jai Singh (retd)
The measure of a nation’s maritime power is reflected in the strength of its navy which is also one of the most powerful instruments for the furtherance of its foreign policy objectives. This has been borne out by history where maritime power has been the precursor to great power status.
In recent history too, the ‘sun never set on the British Empire’ for two centuries because ‘Britannia ruled the waves’. ‘Pax Britannica’ gave way to ‘Pax Americana’ in the post-World War II global order. The United States of America emerged as the global superpower with the US Navy being the globally dominant navy with a significant global footprint. This dominance continues to this day.
The erstwhile Soviet Union too needed a Gorshkovian naval vision in its own bid to become a superpower. As we advance further into the 21st century, it is China’s remarkable resurgence, breath-taking in its scope and implementation which is seeking to challenge US supremacy; it has set a deadline three decades from now (2049) to become the numero uno global superpower. In pursuit of this objective, its ‘Mahanian’ approach to seek global dominance is reflected in its emergence as the world’s leading maritime power, its focus on building a powerful navy and its intent to control the global waterways through its ‘securonomic’ programmes like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In the last four years or so, India too has taken several foreign policy initiatives to assert its pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and to engage actively with a wider geographical expanse in what is now called the Indo-Pacific. This proactive approach has led the navy to maintain a hitherto unprecedented operational tempo and has established its credentials as the leading maritime power in the region
As India looks further afield from its shores to pursue its maritime interests, the Indian Navy (IN) will be called upon to play a larger role in addressing the inevitable security challenges that will arise. In the last year or so, the IN has re-oriented its concept of operations to include mission-based deployments wherein at least 15 IN ships are deployed at any time across the Indo-Pacific in furtherance of our national objectives.
The IN has responded admirably to this task with deft management of its operational and maintenance cycles despite limited resources and extended periods at sea which reflects its institutional strength, professionalism and commitment. However, as the navy’s role increases as the primary instrument of India’s increasing emphasis on the maritime domain, it will need an optimum mix of platforms, both qualitatively and quantitatively to fulfil its roles and missions and for the nation to be considered a credible maritime power.
Navies take time to build and capabilities take even longer to master. The IN has been making steady strides in capability development; the recent successful completion of a deterrence patrol by INS Arihant, the indigenously built ballistic missile armed nuclear submarine (SSBN) being a significant achievement which added a new dimension to India’s strategic capability. It marked the successful completion of the sea-based third leg of the nuclear triad; the submarine is the most effective of the triad in deterring a pre-emptive first strike as it provides an invulnerable second-strike capability and thereby establishes the credibility of ‘No First Use’ which is the cornerstone of India’s nuclear doctrine. This achievement was duly recognised by the Prime Minister himself when he felicitated the crew of the submarine on 5 November 2018, congratulated all those associated with this programme and conveyed a strong message indicating India’s strategic intent
It also vindicated India’s technological skills, political maturity, big power aspirations and naval professionalism. India is only the sixth nation in the world with this capability, the others being the five permanent members of the Security Council — USA, Russia, France, UK and China.
From a naval perspective, the ability to operate, deploy and maintain SSBNs which are among the most complex machines known to man reaffirms the IN’s credentials as a full spectrum multi-dimensional blue water navy. However, this is still a work in progress as deterrence becomes credible only when the country can ensure a constant presence of at least one SSBN on a deterrence patrol for which a minimum of three SSBNs are required. It is understood that a total of five SSBNs is planned, of which the last two will be larger and better armed.
Capabilities once gained should be consolidated. However, in recent years the inability of the political and bureaucratic establishment to recognise this has led to a decline in certain critical areas which need to be arrested. The discontinuation of the submarine building programme in the mid-Nineties immediately comes to mind. It has taken India over two decades since then to deliver an indigenously built conventional submarine.
Soon after taking over the reins of the defence ministry in 2014, Arun Jaitley had stated that maritime security is the government’s top priority. This was followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to INS Vikramaditya which was, in fact, his first outstation tour within the country where he spent almost a full day at sea witnessing navy’s Western Fleet being put through its paces.
On 16 August 2014, the Prime Minister commissioned INS Kolkata, the navy’s latest and most powerful destroyer. The maritime emphasis was further reaffirmed with the hosting of the International Fleet Review in Visakhapatnam in February 2016 and the Global Maritime Summit in Mumbai which followed soon after. Initiatives such as Sagarmala, the port led maritime infrastructure development programme within the country and others such as ‘Mausam’ which seeks to re-establish ancient cultural and trade links with the region and SAGAR (an acronym for ‘Security and Growth for all in the Region’) promised a maritime revival of India’s rich maritime heritage and regional capacity building for consolidating India’s contemporary maritime credentials.
India is essentially a maritime nation, its peninsular configuration notwithstanding. Hence, this recognition of the maritime domain’s importance is essential for India’s emergence on the world stage as a power of reckoning — an aspiration that has long been articulated and, with the right focus is well within our reach as a nation.
India is critically dependent on the sea for most of its trade and energy requirements. Hence, the maritime security dimension becomes critical for its very sustenance as a nation. India’s vulnerability from the sea has been cruelly exposed time and again ever since Vasco da Gama landed at Calicut in 1498 and as recently as the Mumbai terror attacks on 26 November 2008. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister, while on board 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 message remains as relevant today as it was then.
India has also mandated itself as ‘a net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), a claim that can only be credible if the navy has adequate means to not only ensure the security of its own maritime boundaries and its maritime interests anywhere in the world but also build capacity in the region. While the Indian Ocean remains India’s primary area of interest, the larger engagement with the region, both east and west of the Indian Ocean, the impact of globalisation, the blurring of traditional maritime boundaries and the quest for resources will need this to be constantly reviewed to include any geographic location where our national interests lie. The importance of the maritime sector and a balanced navy as its sentinel, therefore, needs no elaboration.
Naval Force Structure
Since Independence, the IN has been structured as a carrier centric blue water force with an aspiration — yet unfulfilled — of having three aircraft carriers. The induction of INS Vikramaditya, which was criticised for all the wrong reasons, has not only provided the navy with a credible strike capability to take the fight to the enemy but also enabled the IN to retain and continue consolidating this skill. It has also provided valuable insights for the indigenous aircraft carrier construction programme with the first indigenous aircraft carrier nearing completion. The Indian Navy has ambitious plans for a second indigenous aircraft carrier which is likely to displace about 65,000 tonnes and includes the installation of an Electro-Magnetic Landing system on board (EMALS). However, progress on this seems to have slowed which is not in the long-term interest of the country given the emergence of this region as the global geopolitical centre of gravity.
On the Surface: Aircraft carriers are central to Carrier Battle Groups which are in turn structured to protect the aircraft carrier from a multi-dimensional threat while simultaneously possessing adequate offensive capability to deliver decisive effect. The IN’s current force level of major surface combatants is a well-balanced mix of powerful destroyers, multi-purpose frigates and dedicated anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare platforms.
The Delhi and Kolkata class destroyers pack a formidable punch while the older Kashin class, duly modernised, continue to be a force to reckon with; the Talwar, Shivalik and Brahmaputra class frigates are sophisticated platforms with contemporary technologies. The Kamorta class ASW corvettes and the Khukri class missile corvettes have a specialist role as their name suggests. The ongoing construction programme of four Class 15B destroyers and the seven Project 17A frigates combined with recent reports of four additional Talwar class frigates being added (two being purchased from Russia and two to be built in India) will add considerable punch besides offsetting the decommissioning of older ships like the Rajput class over the next decade or so. Replenishment capability has been given a boost thus enabling the IN to operate for longer durations at larger distances.
However, this encouraging picture notwithstanding, there are some glaring capability gaps which are emerging, that have regrettably not got the urgency they deserve. Major powers seeking to project power and protect their maritime interests beyond their shores need an expeditionary capability that can be deployed to deter or repel an adversary. This is particularly relevant for India with its two important island chains, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on the east and the Lakshadweep group on the west. The location of these islands is going to exponentially increase their strategic importance as the nature of the maritime threat evolves.
India’s maritime interests which extend from Antarctica to the Sakhalin Islands will also need to be defended as the inevitable competition for resources intensifies in this region. India’s present expeditionary capability is quite limited. The Indian Navy has been planning to acquire four Landing Platform Docks (LPDs) for many years but despite the navy being clear on what it needs, the globally available options also clearly known and adequate availability of shipbuilding capacity in the country to deliver these in a collaborative model, little progress has been seen in recent years. This inexplicable delay in addressing a vital capability gap is typical of the misplaced priorities of the Indian ministry of defence (MoD) and its tardy decision making where combat capability seems to figure a distant second to other considerations.
The second glaring deficiency is the absence of a minesweeping and mine-hunting capability. The Indian Navy had a healthy force level of over a dozen Mine Countermeasure Vessels (MCMVs) which provided yeoman service for almost three decades giving ample time and opportunity for replacements to be inducted. However, for reasons best known to the decision makers we are now in a situation where the IN has one 30-year-old minesweeper and none on the horizon. Replacement of the existing fleet has been in discussion for over a decade and we are no closer to a decision now than we were then.
Mine warfare is an unglamorous low-cost option which belies its effectiveness in littoral waters both, as an offensive and as a defensive weapon. Given the vulnerability of our harbours and critical offshore installations, the ability to counter this threat is critical. Minesweeping is a specialised activity and we can ill-afford to lose this capability which we are sadly neglecting.
Below the Waves: While the country celebrates INS Arihant’s successful induction as a strategic asset, we must not lose sight of the importance of the submarine as a vital element in the operational and tactical aspects of conventional war-fighting. Submarines constitute the cutting edge of a nation’s maritime offensive capability. For smaller navies, it is not only the most effective instrument of sea denial but in a littoral environment could offer limited sea control as well.
As a result, almost all navies in the Indo-Pacific are either augmenting their submarine force or are establishing one while still others are aspiring to develop one. This has led to a surge in submarine operations in the region with consequent security challenges. In the last two decades China alone has added more than 50 submarines to its fleet and the PLA Navy has started making frequent forays into the Indian Ocean as part of its larger geostrategic intent which is a matter of concern for India.
The Indian Navy’s current force level of 14 conventional submarines (SSK) and one Akula-2 class nuclear powered attack submarine (SSN) on lease from Russia are barely adequate to meet the challenge given the vintage of the former and the limited operational autonomy of the latter.
The induction of the new Kalvari class submarines — the first of which was commissioned in December 2017 year and the remaining five are to follow at intervals of one year each — and the modernisation plan for six of the older submarines will alleviate the impending crisis temporarily but the lack of effort seen on part of the MoD to utilise this reprieve to retrieve the situation is indeed alarming. The Project 75(I) remains at the Request for Information (RFI) stage almost 10 years after the first RFI was issued. Although current plans include the induction of six SSNs and 12 SSKs, little visible progress is seen happening on these programmes. We are, therefore, staring at a very alarming future in our subsurface preparedness. Besides submarines, the augmentation of the navy’s Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability whether on the surface, below the surface or in the air is an imperative that cannot be delayed or ignored.
Once China has established its intended bases in the Indian Ocean, particularly the one on the Makran coast and permanently positions submarines there, it will eliminate the transit limitations for Chinese submarines from their mainland. The presence of Pakistan Navy submarines, also operating in the same waters will further complicate the situation. On our eastern seaboard too, Bangladesh is operating submarines of Chinese origin which gives China a degree of leverage and should be of concern to India.
In the Air: A balanced aviation element is an integral part of a blue water naval construct. The Indian Navy’s aviation arm, which came into being in 1961 with the commissioning of the first aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, has successfully operated a varied mix of fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft despite limitations from time to time. In the contemporary maritime scenario prevailing in the Indo-Pacific, Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) has assumed great significance.
India, as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean, has to be alert to developments in the region which requires a high degree of surveillance capability. The induction of the Boeing P8I Long range maritime Patrol (LRMP) aircraft, which has replaced the older Russian TU-142 aircraft has given a shot in the arm to our airborne surveillance. 12 of these aircraft provide the IN adequate capability for the present. The other encouraging acquisition has been the MiG 29K fighter aircraft which provides a potent strike capability from the aircraft carrier. The older carriers with their Harriers were primarily meant for air defence with a limited strike role. However, whether this will be adequate once the indigenous aircraft carrier is commissioned is debatable. The naval version of the LCA is also undergoing trials but could still be a few years away from induction.
Helicopters, or the lack of them, remain a cause for concern. RFIs for Light Utility helicopters and multi-role helicopters have been around for a while but the contracts seem to be getting delayed. It is understood that under the MoD’s strategic partnership model, some progress is being made. The option of importing a few to tide over the immediate crisis also under consideration.
Helicopters on board ships are the forward listening posts for the fleet as they offer an advantage in early detection and prosecution of submarines or surface threats and prevent the Fleet from being caught unawares. Presently the navy’s helicopter force levels are in dire need of modernisation, replacement and augmentation and delays in procurement are going to further aggravate this situation.
The Asymmetric Threat
Besides the traditional threats to maritime security, national sovereignty and global stability are becoming increasingly vulnerable to low intensity asymmetric challenges and the effects of climate change amongst many others. This has enlarged the scope of a navy’s operational envelope with the constabulary and benign role getting greater prominence than ever before.
The spectre of maritime terrorism, of which India has been at the receiving end more than once in the last 25 years, has necessitated a reorientation of the nation’s maritime security architecture. A multi-tiered, multi-agency coastal security network has been established after the Mumbai attack on 26 November 2008. All stakeholders in India’s maritime domain have been included and the navy has been given the overall responsibility of ensuring the nation’s coastal security.
This is a complex task, and implementation — though a challenge —, has been successful for the most part. Gaps still remain and are hopefully being addressed. Proposals such as raising a Coastal Security Force expose a woeful lack of understanding of the situation. Instead of creating yet another agency, the existing arrangement should be suitably manned, equipped and trained to operate at the desired levels of efficiency and effectiveness. Perhaps the need of the hour is to consolidate the approach to coastal security under an empowered authority within the existing national security construct.
Naval operations often transcend national boundaries. Global interdependence, the commonality of the medium and a shared maritime ethos lend themselves to a high degree of interoperability in working together at sea. The global effort to combat piracy in the Horn of Africa highlighted the ability of navies to work closely together to combat a common threat.
The Indian Navy was an active participant in successfully escorting merchant vessels through these piracy-infested waters, irrespective of their flag. Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) is another area where cooperative engagement comes to the fore. The increasing occurrence of natural as well as man-made disasters has led to navies being called out more often to assist the civilian population. India has, on most occasions, been the first responder, as it did with great professionalism when a tsunami struck the entire region on 26 December 2004.
Institutional mechanisms like the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), initiated by India to bring together all Indian Ocean navies at a single forum towards developing better understanding of the regional maritime security scenario has picked up pace and is proving very useful.
Self-reliance and indigenisation in defence production is essential to mitigate the vulnerability of import dependence and is the measure of a country’s comprehensive strength. The navy has been at the forefront in encouraging indigenisation, the fruits of which are evident today. The indigenous construction of an aircraft carrier and a strategic nuclear submarine are proof, if any was needed, of India’s technological prowess and the nation’s impressive manufacturing skills. However, the MoD needs to do more to create an enabling environment for encouraging indigenisation and the DRDO to recognise their limitations, failing which India will continue to have the unenviable distinction of being the largest importer of military equipment in the world.
While force levels are a quantitative measure of a navy’s strength, the ability to adapt to modern technologies is a qualitative force multiplier. The dynamic security scenario and the advent of cutting-edge technologies in the neighbourhood require the Indian Navy to be flexible and agile to adapt itself quickly and stay ahead of the curve.
Autonomous platforms and systems, Artificial Intelligence, the use of big data, network-centric operations etc which were in the realm of science fiction not many years ago are now realities which have to be understood and optimally exploited. The Indian Navy has been at the forefront in adapting to the cyber and space dimension and is the only service with a dedicated satellite — Rukmini — which is an important source of data and widens the navy’s scope of operations.
Maritime power is a pre-requisite to becoming a global power. If India indeed aspires to become one, due attention needs to be paid to developing her comprehensive maritime capability. This includes the navy as its principal constituent. The Indian Navy is structured as a multi-dimensional and well-balanced force blue water force with a healthy mix of platforms providing it full spectrum capability. However, there are areas which need urgent attention and the sooner these are addressed, the more effective will be the navy in helping shape a favourable maritime environment for the country to pursue its larger strategic goals.
(The writer is vice president, Indian Maritime Foundation)