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To counter China's PLAN, step up naval force levels

Pradeep Chauhan, Feb 4 2018, 23:21 IST

Geo-economic goals constitute the major component of a country's geopolitics. China's contemporary maritime game -- moves in the Indo-Pacific in general and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in particular - whether termed 'String of Pearls' or its rebranded version, the 'Belt and Road Initiative' - are manifestations of the geostrategy that China is employing to attain her geo-economic goals. However, as the geo-economic competition space between India and China coincides in the Indian Ocean, there is a very real possibility of competition transforming into conflict, particularly as the adverse impact of climate change upon resources becomes increasingly evident.

Consequently, a central question - for Indian 'doves' and 'hawks' alike - is "What are the combination of circumstances or happenstances that would lead the Government of India to realise and decide that a given Sino-Indian military build-up, stand-off or confrontation is no longer a mere skirmish between their respective armies, whether or not supported by their respective air forces, but one in which India in its entirety is engaged in armed conflict against China?"

If you are a 'dove', you must know the answer so that you can evade or contribute to the evasion of such a combination of circumstances. If you are a 'hawk', you must know the answer to it so that you can engineer or contribute to the engineering of such a combination of circumstances. But if you suffer such a failure of imagination that you cannot answer the question at all, such combinations of circumstances will find you utterly unprepared to deal with them.

It's not merely two armies that go to war, nor air forces, nor two navies, but two nations that go to war. One will also appreciate, even if one does not use military jargon such as 'manoeuvre' as opposed to 'attrition', that the basic foundational principle of 'manoeuvre' as a style of war, which is that rather than pitting strength against strength, one should manoeuvre strategically and position oneself to strike where one's enemy is weakest. Thus, if an adversary addresses us militarily in one location of the theatre of conflict, we must be able to respond at a different point of the theatre, where we hold a comparative advantage.

China's naval presence in the IOR has increased dramatically from 2008 (when it began anti-piracy deployments in the Gulf of Aden) to the present. Today, some 8-10 major Chinese warships may routinely be found in these waters. Regular and protracted patrols by Chinese nuclear- and conventionally-powered submarines, too, have become commonplace.

Reassuringly, the Indian Navy's strategy remains a proactive one, rather than being reactive and responding solely to China's PLA Navy's (PLAN) maritime game-plays. At the strategic level, the Indian Navy, along with Indian diplomacy, forms the principal instrument for the execution of the maritime component of India's contemporary foreign policy. Its principal mechanism is 'constructive engagement' with like-minded nations that operate maritime forces within the IOR. Thus, the country's conceptual framework is defined by the concept of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region), the political framework is IORA (the Indian Ocean Rim Association), while the executive framework - which will actually "do the doing"- is provided by the 41 navies of the IONS (Indian Ocean Naval Symposium) construct.

The Navy's operational deployment is driven by India's central need to pursue and protect its own maritime interests. India's current merchandise trade, for instance, accounts for some 40% of the country's GDP, of which some $110 billion-worth flows through the Gulf of Aden and $190 billion-worth flows through the South China Sea. Small wonder that the Navy has put in place a new mission-based deployment pattern, involving the continuous and close monitoring of traffic flowing through the seven straits constituting the chokepoints of the Indian Ocean (Hormuz, Bab-el-Mandeb, Mozambique Channel, Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Ombai-Wetar).

While this deployment pattern is not driven solely by China, it caters to its maritime moves, too. For instance, since Chinese submarines traverse these chokepoints (other than Malacca) underwater, Indian Navy seeks to urgently invest in an 'Integrated Sound Surveillance System' involving sea-bed sensors linked to shore-based analysis stations, and in long-range anti-submarine patrol aircraft.

However, our most stubborn adversary in our national endeavour is not China, but the combination of bureaucratic ineptitude and political apathy. These continue to hobble both naval development plans and its sea-based initiatives. There are several well-known critical shortfalls that bear little elaboration here, but which could well tilt the balance of engagement against our navy. The induction of additional submarines - six SSN (nuclear-powered) and six SSK (diesel-electric powered) - remains mired in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic morass.

Likewise, a single Indian Carrier Battle Group is simply inadequate to cater for China's capability for dispersed naval forces, thanks to its actual and potential bases in countries such as Maldives, Sri Lanka, Djibouti and, of course, Pakistan. Yet, there is little real progress on the second indigenous aircraft carrier to follow the new Vikrant. There is a clear need to beef up the Indian Navy's force levels if its pattern of deployment is to possess requisite capacity by way of ships, submarines, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and their associated weapon-sensor suites. Rhetoric and statements of noble intent will get us only so far. After that, we need substance (material wherewithal) to match and complement our several strengths in terms of human capability.

(The writer is a retired Vice Admiral of the Indian Navy)

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