RIGHT ANGLE – RULING THE WAVES
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has done well to highlight the importance of India’s maritime character and geostrategic locations, the two attributes that have played an important role in our growth as a nation and evolution as a civilization.
Addressing the Naval Commanders’ Conference, which commenced on October 18 and concluded on October 21, Singh rightly stressed on the need to have a strong Navy due to the country’s increasing dependence on the seas for national development and for proactive engagement with the world. He commended the Indian Navy for having lived up to the expectation of the nation by establishing a visible, credible and responsive presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
History tells us that a country’s power—and its decline—is directly related to the size and capability of its naval and maritime forces. The ability to ship goods in bulk from places where they are produced to places where they are scarce has long represented an expression of national power.
It was the British Navy that effectively knitted together the British Empire upon which “the sun never set.” And it was the doubling of the U.S. Navy battle force under President Theodore Roosevelt that catapulted the United States to global power and prominence.
In fact, we too had a glorious history till the 18th century when India was one of the greatest economies and prosperous countries of the world. According to historian Fernand Braudel, India had the most dominating presence as a maritime power in the region spanning from the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the straits of Malacca and the South China Sea – broadly what we call now Indo-Pacific.
Our own historian K M Pannikar had gone one step further from geo-economics of the region to its geopolitics by suggesting in his classic monograph, “India and the Indian ocean: An Essay on the Influence of Sea Power on Indian History”, that India should have “control” of the Indian Ocean and all its choke points leading in and out of it, including the Malacca Straits and the Gulf of Aden.
Even our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, essentially a pacifist, had acknowledged that “India has to play an important role in the ocean surrounding her. I do not mean to say that we should presume to control these oceans. That is a too big a task. But we should be strong enough to resist the control of any other power”.
Nehru was talking of the importance of the “Sea-denial” strategy, something the Indian Navy remains committed to. But unlike Nehru’s India, today’s India has also rediscovered the virtues of the strategy of “Sea- control” as well. A rising India cannot be oblivious of the importance of American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan’s thesis – “Control of the sea, by maritime commerce and naval supremacy, means predominant influence in the world; because, however great the wealth product of the land, nothing facilitates the necessary exchanges as does the sea.” For Mahan, “sea power” as a source of national strength rests on three pillars: commerce, naval firepower and access to far-flung bases.
Sea power has both “hard” and “soft” dimensions. “Hard” dimension implies the military power to secure the territories and people from outside attacks. “Soft” dimension involves trade through open and safe sea lanes, exploitation of the ocean’s resources, and rescue & relief during natural disasters.
It may be noted that the Indian Navy had outlined in 2015 what the country’s maritime- military strategy should be in a publication titled, ‘Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy’. This strategy addresses maritime threats in India’s areas of interest and provides strategic guidance for growth, development and deployment of the Navy in the coming years.
Its vision is to make the Indian Navy a formidable, multi-dimensional and networked force that maintains high readiness at all times to protect India’s maritime interests, safeguard her seaward frontiers and defeat all maritime threats in our areas of interest, which, in turn, are divided into “Primary Areas of interest”( India’s coastal areas and maritime zones, including coastline, islands, internal sea waters, territorial waters, contiguous zone, EEZ and continental shelf; The Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, Andaman Sea, and their littoral regions; The Persian Gulf and its littoral, which is the source of majority of our oil supplies and gas imports, and is home to more than seven million expatriate Indians; The Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, and their littoral regions; South-West Indian Ocean, including IOR island nations therein and East Coast of Africa littoral regions; The choke points leading to, from and across the Indian Ocean, including the Six-degree Channel; Eight/ Nine-degree Channels; Straits of Hormuz, Bab-el-Mandeb, Malacca, Singapore, Sunda and Lombok; the Mozambique Channel, and Cape of Good Hope and their littoral regions; Other areas encompassing our Sea Lanes of Communications or SLOCs, and vital energy and resource interests) and “Secondary Areas of interest”( South-East Indian Ocean, including sea routes to the Pacific Ocean and littoral regions in vicinity; South and East China Seas, Western Pacific Ocean, and their littoral regions; Southern Indian Ocean Region, including Antarctica; Mediterranean Sea, West Coast of Africa, and their littoral regions; Other areas of national interest based on considerations of Indian Diaspora, overseas investments and political relations).
The Indian Navy’s Area of Responsibility (AOR) has grown over the years to one where the western fleet is expected to participate in operations as far south as South Africa while the eastern fleet is tasked with maritime security that covers the Strait of Malacca. This explains why the Indian Navy transitioned to Mission Based Deployments in 2017. These deployments facilitated deploying mission-ready ships and aircraft to maintain continuous/ near continuous presence in critical shipping lanes and choke points across the IOR.
Naval ships also remain deployed to meet any eventuality across the spectrum of operations ranging from Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief missions to acts of maritime terrorism and piracy.
Besides, the Indian Navy today is also playing a diplomatic role in cultivating friendly countries in the Indo-Pacific region. The Navy is good at imparting training the naval workforce of others as an effective tool in bolstering naval diplomacy.
Against this background, where does the Indian Navy stand today? The sad reality is that given the geostrategic environment surrounding us in general and the rise of China, our principal enemy in particular, our naval strength has not grown up in a balanced manner. Experts, including senior naval officers, are on record that while the Indian Navy is well-equipped to deal any eventuality in the Indian Ocean region, it is really vulnerable across the Malacca straits in areas such as South China Sea against the Chinese naval power.
Because of our resource crunch, it has only been a slow pace at which India’s missile, nuclear submarine, and aircraft carrier programmes have progressed.
Thus, despite going nuclear in 1998, it took till very recently for India to build a long-range missile that could target the Chinese heartland. Similarly, the nuclear submarine programme has been marred by delays and the first nuclear submarine is at best a technology demonstrator because, by media accounts, it is noisy (which makes it easier for other navies to detect) and has a limited missile carrying capability, making it an inadequate system to guarantee a second-strike capability. The second nuclear submarine is better geared to the deterrence mission but it is not clear when INS Arighat will complete sea trials and become actually operational.
It is indeed a poignant fact that the Navy’s share of the Defence Budget has been declining as a proportion of the country’s annual budget over the years. Understandably, therefore, the Modi government these days highlight the imperativeness of indigenisation of arms and weapons rather than buying them at a high price from the international markets. We have now Make- in -India and “Atmanirbhar Bharat” schemes. Seen that way, the Indian Navy, compared to its sister services of the Army and Air Force, has done much better.
As Defence Minister Singh has pointed out, the Indian Navy has spent more than two-thirds of the Modernisation Budget in the last five years towards indigenous procurement and out of 41 ships and submarines ordered by the Navy, 39 are from Indian shipyards, which is a testament to the Navy’s commitment to ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’. He is now hopeful , rather confident, that P75(I) submarine project will be one of the largest ‘Make in India’ projects and has complimented the Navy on the successful maiden Sea Trials of the indigenously designed and built Aircraft Carrier ‘Vikrant’ by overcoming challenges, including COVID related imponderables.
It is true that all these are not enough when Indian Navy is compared to its Chinese counterpart. But then, naval wars are not fought or won only on the basis of sheer numbers, which the Chinese have more than us. Factors of competent men behind weapons, synergy with sister services, levels of technology, and most important, cooperation with friendly powers in the region (the US, Russia, Japan, Australia and Vietnam; France and the United Kingdom are also now collaborating with India in the Indo-Pacific) are very powerful deterrents. Besides, if aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines are the two classes of ship that will define the most powerful Navies in the 21st century, then Indian Navy seems to be on the right course.