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India's Maritime Strategy - Enhancing Deployability and Interoperability

“Whoever rules the waves will rule the world," says Alfred T. Mahan.


Drawing inspiration from that, Indian strategists often point out, ‘Whoever rules the Indian Ocean dominates Asia’. The Indian Ocean is the key point for the seven seas, and India’s longer coastline provides it with the potential to become a formidable maritime power on the Asian continent.


Illustration by The Geostrata


The Indian Navy has been a crucial aspect of strategic planning but has historically been ignored. Considering the growing turbulence in the Indo-Pacific theatre, contenders in the region like China, the US, Japan, and so on need to assert themselves as an inevitable maritime power. While India’s role in this region is increasingly seen as the ‘net security provider’, the growing Chinese assertiveness pertains to the need to maintain the open sea lanes and overall freedom of navigation by enhancing the interoperability of Indian navy forces.


Naval power has historically been constrained in India’s military strategy, owing to the presumption of threats from the continental borders. However, naval power has become the way to show the power equation in geopolitics.

The increasing number of overseas naval bases of the People’s Liberation Army of China in South Asia and the Horn of Africa has further added to the concern of territorial assertion. Although, over the years, the Indian Navy has grown in size, its deployment capability has remained largely limited. India, being a country with 7200 km of international maritime border, needs to counter the recently emerged strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific region.


EVOLUTION OF INDIA'S NAVAL FORCES


Maritime forces in India have been there for centuries. Since the times of the Chola dynasty, which extensively used naval power to extend their influence in the overseas regions of Southeast Asia, the Maratha Navy has also been utilised by rival Indian powers and European trading companies.


In the ancient period, Kautilya, in his book Arthashastra, highlighted the importance of the navy in the Indian military.

Megasthenes further elaborated that during Chandragupta Maurya, naval forces used to be the main military wing in Pataliputra. While the British made the three distinct defence forces, the naval forces were known as the Royal Indian Navy (RIN). The RIN took part in combat and patrol services during both world wars.


After independence, the Indian Navy became a crucial part of successive wars with Pakistan. Notably, naval forces played a key role in Operation Vijay in 1961 to make Goa a part of Indian territory. However, during the 1965 war, the Indian navy was unable to retaliate against Pakistan’s bombardment at the radar station Dwarka, as over half of the Indian naval vessels were undergoing maintenance or refitting in the harbors.


Contextually, in the initial years, the historical course of division and successive land-based wars have not been given the option of focusing adequately on Indian naval forces to synergize.

The evolving stage of India’s maritime strategy started to happen after globalisation, when increasing trade and commerce made the Indian Ocean Region critical for freedom of navigation.


INDIA'S MARITIME DOCTRINE: SHIFTING FOCUS FROM THE LAND BORDER TO THE MARITIME BORDER


India’s evolution as a maritime power can be broken into three main stages. The first period ranges from 2004 to 2007. The first maritime doctrine was published in ‘Freedom of Use of Seas: Indian Maritime Military Strategy in 2004. In this doctrine, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is identified as a strategic point for global maritime trade, not the security dynamics in the region. However, Indian strategists were aware of China’s growing military capabilities and the increasingly volatile geopolitical tensions in the region.


In 2009, for the second time, India’s maritime doctrine published “Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian maritime security strategy," replacing the term ‘doctrine’ with the word "strategy'.

This time, for the first time, security aspects of the maritime border were explicitly mentioned. Since 2012, India’s shifted from using seas to security seas. After 2012, India’s naval power started to play a strategic role, especially in IOR, amidst the changing geopolitical landscape.


India’s core interest in modernising naval forces shifted from only securing the maritime border to not allowing undesired elements and illegal activities to enter the region.

Interestingly, since 2009, India has expanded its area of interest beyond the adjacent areas of Indian territories. India started to assert its constructive role to ensure freedom of navigation for smooth global maritime trade. In 2015, this was broadened further by outlining the necessity of security ties with like-minded countries. Starting from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Sunda, India asserted its positive interest and a key stake in protecting regional interests.


Notably, the 2015 doctrine emphasised India’s role as a ‘net security provider’, and first responder’, offering security not only for its own but also for the other regional stakeholders.

India’s Malabar exercise, under the leadership of Indian naval forces, has shown the remarkable achievement of the Indian navy.


MODERNIZATION STRATEGY OF THE INDIAN NAVY


Over the years, the maritime strategic outlook has evolved for India. The Indian Navy, for the initial years, was largely used to transfer humanitarian aid in the region. Only a small amount from the budget, and India’s larger focus on the land borders used to be a major reason for the low deployment capability of the Indian navy. Since 2005, the modernization journey of the Indian naval force has started.


In that year, INS Vikramaditya was equipped with modern maritime surveillance assets with radars and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).


The revamp of the target naval power of India is not only to establish India's position as a key player in the region but also for small outpost territories like Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep, and so on, which have strategic importance and need to be secured with the deployment of the naval forces.

India’s footprint has increased, starting from the Mediterranean Sea, the South China Sea, and the other, which is beyond its immediate maritime border, to counter the growing Chinese assertiveness in the region. India’s naval modernization strategy includes some core goals to enhance the capability of the forces. The goals are as follows:


  • The induction of shore-based aircraft, carrier-based aircraft, and UAVs, along with upgraded weapons and sensors, will augment the surveillance, strike, and defence capabilities.

  • Enhancing the anti-submarine warfare capabilities of Indian naval forces

  • For the projection of prowess, building up adequate stand-off and sea life capabilities, especially for extraordinary situations.

  • Included assets like satellite-based communication networks for better coordination with the outpost station in the Indian Ocean.

  • Creating state-of-the-art equipment and special platforms for the special forces to engage effectively with the mission of maritime interventions.

  • Developing the support infrastructure and connectivity in the periphery areas.


The Indian Navy modernization plan, though started late, finally began as a key factor in facilitating India’s role in promoting peace and stability in IOR and beyond regions.


According to Parmar (2020), Indian naval forces are an excellent example of India’s balancing act between resources and responsive activities.

The maintenance of a strong and credible navy is crucial, but matching it with the required resources is also a determining factor for the delayed modernization plan of the Indian Navy.


DEPLOYMENT CAPABILITY OF THE INDIAN NAVAL FORCE


The Indian Navy has two operational fleet commands: the Eastern Naval Command and the Western Naval Command. Additionally, the Andaman and Nicobar Command is a unified force of the three forces of Indian defence, including the Indian Coast Guard Theatre Command. Under Project Seabird, the Indian Navy commissioned INS Kadamba at Karwar, near Goa.


The project was launched to deploy exclusive navy-controlled bases without sharing port facilities. To fulfil the vision of the navy's modernization strategy, MARCOS (Maritime Commando Force) was formed.

Earlier, India used to import nuclear-based submarines, but under the ambitions of ‘Make in India’ and “Atmanirbhar Bharat”, the Indian navy plans to expand the fleet of 150 ships with nuclear-enabled facilities. The INS Arihant was the first of three to four indigenously designed and developed nuclear-armed submarines. Eventually, the Indian naval strategy was to manufacture the Russian Nerpa-class submarines, which would fill up the need for the submarine fleet and increase the sea-denial and counter-strike capabilities of Indian naval forces.


However, some serious challenges persist in the Indian naval forces, hampering the efficiency of the navy.


Limited anti-mine capacity: Among the total 13 major ports, the Indian Navy needs 26 mine countermeasure vessels (MCMVs) in its fleet. The MCMVs of the Karwar class were retired by 2017–19. Negotiations with the South Korean company Kanganam Corporation were also abandoned after the lowest bidder. By 2018, India only had two operational MCMVs, as against the need for 26. Since 2021, the government has been constantly trying to lease or procure the needed MCMVs to bridge the gap in requirements.


India, surrounded by hostile neighbours like Pakistan or China, is vulnerable to potential mines and explosives, further intensifying the fact that India does not have the required capability to scour its harbours.

Ship-building capacity: India’s current ship-building capacity for the defence shipyards meets the requirements of the major warships and advanced submarines for the Indian navy. Currently, only Mazagaon Dock Shipyard Limited (MDL) and Garden Reach Shipbuilders Engineers are engaged in building complex weapon-intensive vessels such as stealth frigates, corvettes, and so on. Goa Shipyard Ltd. and Hindustan Shipyard Ltd. can build various categories of vessels like patrol vessels, tankers, survey vessels, and many others. MDl is also responsible for developing submarines for the Indian Navy. The existing shipbuilding capacity of India is nearly 40 ship standard units (SSUs), as against the required 100 SSUs.


The reason for the large gap can be attributed to the lack of infrastructure in Indian shipyards. Even the excessive time and cost overruns to construct a frigate or destroyer-class vessel in Indian yards compared to the foreign yards.

Size of the naval force: India has over 70000 personnel in the navy, while China’s PLA has approximately 2,40,000 personnel in the active maritime force. In terms of submarine fleet, India has only 16, including 1 ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), a diesel-electric attack submarine, and China consists of more than 70 submarines, including seven SSBNs, 12 nuclear-attack submarines, and over 50 diesel-attack submarines.


The size of the fleet was also more than three times that of the Indian Navy’s vessels. Although both India and China observe a ‘no-first-use’ nuclear policy, the smaller size of the fleet gives India a disadvantageous position in the maritime-based nuclear domain.

ENHANCEMENT OF THE DEPLOYED CAPABILITIES OF THE INDIAN NAVY


India’s maritime strategy and naval deployment have evolved over the years. India’s evolving role in the IOR as an important player calls for an urgent need to enhance deployment capability in India’s naval force. India’s expenditure on naval forces is too little compared to its peers and competitors.


Approximately 20% of the total defence budget is allotted to the Indian Navy. While the US leads the spending row, Australia and Japan spend nearly 25% of the total expenditure. China also spends over three times more than India on its total military expenditure.


Murugesan, Chief of Naval Staff, highlighted that India aims to become a 200-ship navy by 2027, noting that the current strength stands at 137 ships. India needs private investment to enhance the defence capabilities of its naval forces. India’s naval capability is largely underutilised due to a lack of adequate funds.

Especially in the strategically located Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India’s naval forces need more modern equipment and effective coordination among the three services of the defence forces. Developing a true combined services command can build upon India’s acquisition of the P-8 platform, the Sea Guardian, and the other advanced naval arsenal.


The recent official reiteration of India's promise to ensure “a safe, free, and open Indo-Pacific’ will not be fulfilled without advancing the capability to conduct surveillance and maximising its maritime domain deployment.


WAY FORWARD


India’s consistent efforts to increase the ability of India’s naval forces are a contributing factor in showcasing India’s increased range of military power. On the one hand, India, considering the growing Chinese aggressiveness, is actively enhancing its deployability and interoperability; on the other, India is continuously seeking partnerships with littoral nations for collaborative overseas deployment of the naval force.


The agreements with Indonesia’s strategically located Sabang port and Oman’s Duqm port placed New Delhi in an important geopolitical position in the crucial straits. India, being a committed nation to peace and stability, has the potential to deploy more naval forces to improve global trade and commerce and counter adversaries with the balance of power.


 

BY SANCHALY BHATTACHARYA

TEAM GEOSTRATA

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