India's naval might

While China is a significant worry, the bigger problem is introducing organisational changes and doctrinal evolution in the Indian Navy.

The Indian Navy underlined its growing prowess at the International Fleet Review (IFR) 2016 last week. Though it was largely a ceremonial inspection of naval warships by the head of the Indian State, it provided an opportunity to the Indian Navy to showcase its might and rapidly expanding capabilities.

It was in 2001 that an event of such a scale was held in India and since then it has only grown bigger with a fleet comprising of 75 frontline ships and submarines besides 24 ships from across the world. This year saw participation of naval contingents from around 50 nations including Australia, Bangla-desh, Brazil, China, France, Indonesia, Iran, Maldives, the UK and the US.

Flagging the threat of sea-borne terror and piracy as two key challenges to maritime security and underlining the need to respect freedom of navigation against the backdrop of South China Sea dispute, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared during the IFR that India will be hosting the first-ever Global Maritime Summit in April.

He made it clear that the Indian Ocean region remains his government’s priority given its 1,200 island territories, and its huge Exclusive Economic Zone of 2.4 million sq km and the region serving “as a strategic bridge with the nations in our immediate and extended maritime neighbourhood.” Underlining the need for a “modern and multi-dimensional Navy,” Modi stressed that India would continue to actively pursue and promote its geo-political, strategic and economic interests on the seas, in particular the Indian Ocean.

The Indian Navy has emerged as an indispensable tool of diplomacy in recent years, making it imperative for  policy-makers and naval thinkers to think anew the role of nation’s naval forces in Indian strategy. Despite a general understanding among political elites that it was the littoral dominance by the European powers that led to their colonial ascendancy in the Indian heartland, the focus on land frontiers led to the dominance of the Indian Army in the national security discourse.

Until the end of the Cold War, the maritime dimension of India’s security did not figure adequately in the national consciousness. The policy makers did not perceive the advantage of building up nation’s maritime sinews as the country remained concerned with the north and north-western frontiers after partition rather than with her sea frontiers.

Yet, despite Indian Navy’s marginalisation and the preoccupation of the policymakers with safeguarding the integrity of nation’s land frontiers, the Indian Navy was largely successful in maintaining a credible naval force in the region.

Today, the Indian Navy’s original local sea control and shore defence orientation, which largely focused on preserving the integrity of Indian coastal waters from regional threats, has given way to a more ambitious naval posture.

Her naval policy is geared towards ensuring the freedom of navigation for shipping and safety of sea lines of communication as well as to safeguard its interests in contiguous waters, Exclusive Economic Zone and island territories. The Indian Navy would eventually like to emerge as a world-class blue-water force, equipped to meet regional challenges and threats and to safeguard the country’s maritime interests.

Naval expansion
The Indian naval expansion is being undertaken with an eye on China, and INS Arihant and INS Vikrant notwithstanding, India has nautical miles to go before it can catch up with its powerful neighbour, which has made some significant advances in the waters surrounding the country. The launch of an aircraft carrier is seen as critical for the Indian Navy as it remains anxious to maintain its presence in the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, especially in the light of China’s massive naval build-up.

The Indian naval planners have long argued that if it is to be in continuous operational readiness in the Indian Ocean, protect sea lanes of communication in the Persian Gulf and monitor Chinese activities in the Bay of Bengal, it needs a minimum of three aircraft carriers and a fleet of five nuclear submarines. There are some suggestions that the Indian Navy could be close to realising the dream of operating three carriers by the end of the decade but that may be rather optimistic.

Other serious challenges remain as exemplified by the enduring problems of safety and reliability which the Indian Navy has been grappling with for decades. The force has a poor accident record with several mishaps in recent years. Even as Indian Navy’s surface fleet expansion has been progressing well, its submarine fleet is not only ageing but also depleting fast with the induction of new submarines not on track.

Despite some recent successes, India’s indigenous defence production has been marred by serious technical and organisational problems leading to significant delays in the development of key defence technologies and platforms.

The Navy, much like the other two services, has found it difficult to translate its conceptual commitment to self-reliance and indigenisation into actionable policy, resulting in a perpetuation of reliance on external sources for naval modernisation. Yet, India’s reliance on its navy to project power is only likely to increase in the coming years as naval build-up continues apace in the Indo-Pacific.

There's a long tradition in India of viewing the maritime dimension of security as central to nation’s strategic priorities. With India's economic rise, New Delhi is trying to bring that focus back, making its navy integral to national grand strategy.

While China remains a significant worry, the bigger problem is one of introducing organisational changes and doctrinal evolution in the Indian Navy. How India manages these issues will be significant not only for Indian Navy's future but also for the rise of India as a credible global military power.

(The writer is Professor of International Relations, King’s College London)

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