Changing role of the Indian Navy

by Nov 27, 2020Defence & Foreign Policy0 comments

The Indian Ocean may not be India’s ocean but it is certainly India’s backyard. Even though the majority of Indians – and most of the elites – are land focussed, there is no getting away from the fact that India is a maritime power. While the Army and Air Force have enjoyed prominence in the nation’s defence for decades, the 2020s could see the Indian Navy, which is aiming for a 200-ship fleet, become the most prominent of the three services. With China’s PLA Navy conducting permanent patrols in the Indian Ocean and joint Chinese-Pakistani exercises in the Arabian Sea, the role of the Indian Navy in monitoring these two adversaries becomes paramount.

According to an Indian Navy report titled ‘Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy’, in the past decade, three significant developments have impacted India’s maritime security and the role of the Navy.

The first is the sweeping change that the global and regional geostrategic environment has seen during the period. The shift in worldview from a Euro-Atlantic to an Indo-Pacific focus and the repositioning of global economic and military power towards Asia has resulted in significant political, economic and social changes in the Indian Ocean Region and impacted India’s maritime environment in tangible ways.

The second is a considerable change that India’s security and threat calculus has seen during the period. In addition to persisting threats and challenges of the ‘traditional’ nature, India’s maritime security environment has become even more complex and unpredictable today with the expansion in scale and presence of a variety of ‘non-traditional’ threats. The vast expanse of the sea and hundreds of miles of unmonitored coastlines offer terrorists the perfect cover for intruding into the country. The 2008 Mumbai attacks were planned and organised in the badlands of Pakistan, but for infiltration these terrorists chose the sea route because it provided the least policed route to Mumbai. Arms, explosives, drugs and fake currency are all sneaked in by Pakistani spy agencies and Indian smugglers via the coast.

The third is a national outlook towards the seas and the maritime domain, and a clearer recognition of maritime security being a vital element of national progress and international engagement. Today, India interacts more actively with littoral states of the Indian Ocean Region and employs maritime security engagement as a cornerstone of her regional foreign policy initiatives. There is also wider acknowledgement of the role the Navy can play in strengthening and enhancing maritime security in the region.

In addition, there’s the civilian aspect of the maritime world. As much as 90 per cent of our overseas trade by volume (and 70 per cent by value) is carried by the sea route and takes place through 13 major and 176 minor ports. Over 8,000 tankers are expected to be touching Indian ports this year. In order to meet India’s daily need of over 3.1 million barrels of oil, at least two VLCCs (very large crude-carriers) must unload at the Vadinar terminal in Gujarat every single day of the year. Also, with coastal tourism also set to take off in a big way, the issue of piracy may rear its head in the future.

In the backdrop of the transformed security scenario in the Indian Ocean, any laxity in surveillance on the nation’s part will lead to either or both of two outcomes. One, India’s maritime defences will look like Swiss cheese and two, it could cripple the economic lifeline of the nation.

Keeping a lookout

The primary aim of maritime surveillance is creating maritime awareness or knowing what is happening at sea. Intense maritime activity in the Indian Ocean and the huge area that has to be kept under surveillance requires substantial reconnaissance and anti-submarine capabilities. The advent of the PLA Navy, especially its nuclear submarines, into the Indian Ocean has lent urgency to the Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) task. The Indian Navy has evolved a multi layered surveillance capability with deployment of ships, task-optimised aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites for each layer.

Maritime Domain Awareness

Strategic situational awareness at sea will include gathering of data across all dimensions – air, surface, underwater, space and cyber. MDA is an all-encompassing concept that involves being cognisant of the position and intentions of all actors, whether own, hostile or neutral, and in all dimensions – on, over and under the seas.

The Indian Navy needs to enhance coordination between all maritime stakeholders, including the Indian Coast Guard, Indian Air Force, Central and State maritime agencies, and national intelligence agencies. In a developing country like India, the Navy and the Coast Guard will never have adequate resources to meet all their requirements of platforms and equipment. Therefore, it would be logical to augment the resources of one service by making available the resources of the other in times of crisis. In view of the similarities of facilities required by the two services and the nationwide resource crunch, the cooperation between the two is inevitable.

Efforts need to be directed towards building the support infrastructure, including hardware, interfaces, trained manpower and software systems, and evaluating various actions of the potential adversary, especially monitoring of likely movement along possible strategic paths and determining key indicators of such movement. This will assist in developing a maritime and strategic picture of the adversary, and facilitate improved situational awareness.

MDA for Conflict

All elements that contribute to MDA will merit attention and development. Amongst these, the main thrust areas will include:

Surface and Aerospace Surveillance: Effective surveillance of the surface and aerospace dimensions in India’s maritime zones and areas of interest will require investments in advanced technologies, as a priority area. These include satellite-based surveillance, aircraft, UAVs, and ship-borne and shore-based surveillance systems.

Sub-Surface Surveillance: The increased presence of submarines in India’s areas of interest, with weapons capable of striking military and strategic targets at standoff ranges, necessitates development of sub-surface surveillance systems. These include both mobile and static systems, for use onboard ships, submarines, aircraft and in vantage positions at sea.

Identification: Joint and single service identification systems, with an ability to discern between friend, foe and neutral.

Information and Communication Technology: India being a leader in IT systems, advancements in information and communication technology must be harnessed, for maintaining secure, reliable and rapid information exchange.

Cyber Space: Capability for safeguarding, and also obtaining, information in cyber space is critical, and needs to be continuously developed.

Network Centric Operations

Network Centric Operations encompass the networking of all units, with real-time/ near real-time secure exchange of operational information between sensors, decision-makers and ‘shooters’, so as to enable rapid, accurate actions across wide areas and in all dimensions. While MDA is enabled by networking, it is NCO that gives it full effect. The Indian Navy needs to develop itself as a network centric force, wherein the following aspects will be accorded focused attention:

Satellite Capabilities: The launch and operationalisation of India’s GSAT-7 satellite has provided a pivotal boost to the Indian Navy’s maritime Command, Control, Communications (C3) and NCO capabilities across the Indian Ocean Region. However, a single satellite isn’t enough. Satellite capabilities for maritime and joint operations will need augmentation, to cater to the needs of NCO, offset vulnerabilities and increase redundancy. In April 2019, India and France announced the two countries would jointly produce satellites for maritime surveillance in the Indian Ocean Region. A month earlier India’s ISRO and France’s space agency CNES signed an agreement to develop a maritime surveillance system for detecting, identifying and tracking ships in the Indian Ocean. The pact also provides for a maritime surveillance centre to be set up in India, sharing of capacity to process existing satellite data and joint development of associated algorithms.

Communications: Secure and reliable communication, connecting all hierarchies of the operational organisation, using high bandwidth networks over multiple media with layered redundancy, will be accorded continued investment with exploitation of advancing technology.

Presence and Surveillance Mission: The Indian Navy has started deploying ships and aircraft for exercising presence and conducting surveillance in areas of maritime interest. Navy warships have been sailing through the South China Sea in order to nullify Beijing’s claim that the sea is China’s lake. These patrols are also designed to show support to Vietnam which has territorial and littoral claims in the South China Sea. The bonus is that the Indian Navy personnel are able to observe PLA Navy warships that have been assigned to tail the Indian flotillas.

In November 2019, the Defence Acquisition Council cleared a potential procurement of Boeing-built P-8I Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft. The Indian Navy currently operates eight Poseidons. These aircraft are able to keep track of Chinese warships the moment they exit the choke points of the Malacca Straits and enter the Bay of Bengal. Similar aircraft operated by the Japanese and US navies also relay information to the Indian Navy, allowing the three countries to monitor the PLA Navy vessels on a 24/7 basis.

Maritime Defence Zones

According to a report by the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, India should establish Maritime Defence Zones (MDZ) to enhance cooperation between the Navy and the Coast Guard in order to reduce surveillance and combat deficiencies. Its area of operations would include navigable waterways, port areas, harbour approaches and ocean area up to the limit of Exclusive Economic Zone. The forces required for MDZ operational control when activated would include Coast Guard ships, aircraft and port security units, naval mine warfare units, inshore undersea warfare units and a limited number of frigates, destroyers and maritime patrol aircraft.

“There is a need to establish five Maritime Defence Zones – two each on the western and eastern coasts and one for the Andaman and Nicobar islands,” says Captain Alok Bansal. “The threat with which the MDZ must deal includes the entire spectrum of covert and overt hostile actions that could compromise a port or sink a ship at sea. This ranges from mine and submarine warfare to terrorist attacks to intelligence gathering and special operations.”


Surveillance of the maritime domain is absolutely vital for ensuring an appropriate response to any developing situation relating to maritime safety or security. Effective surveillance by all available means is therefore a must so that the defence forces are forewarned and forearmed.

According to 1971 War hero and former Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Arun Prakash, “A nation with India’s maritime assets, challenges and opportunities urgently needs a multi-disciplinary maritime advisory body to conceptualise a vision, draw up plans and monitor activities in the maritime domain. The first task of such a body should be to craft an overarching Maritime Security Policy and thereafter to undertake its integration with India’s Maritime Strategy. Only such a synergy can ensure that we draw maximum advantage from the maritime sector – to benefit our economy and also to reinforce maritime security.”

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