Dragon vs elephant (Part-1): Indian Navy’s massive modernization drive


The Indian Ocean is fast turning into one of the busiest oceans in the world. Most of the world’s oil supply passes through this region which makes secure sea lines very vital. Who will play a major role in the Indian Ocean is often a topic of debate. India has a large responsibility in the region, being a powerful and democratic nation with peaceful ambitions. The US has a military presence in the form of its base, Diego Garcia. However, China has been repeatedly making forays into this region of late, to showcase its naval reach and project power. This has turned the Indian Ocean into a playground for powerful navies.

Australian researcher Lindsay  Hughes, who is now a contributing guest author for Defencyclopedia, analyses the role and growth of Indian and Chinese navies. This is 4-part series will document the historical, geographical, economic and military reasons reaponsible for the military buildup and this article is the first one in the series.


To protect their growing economies, China and India have securitised their sea-borne trade routes by enhancing their naval prowess, which act enhances their seapower. This enhancement, however, causes each other concern by making each suspicious of the other’s intention. Thus, they further strengthen their navies, leading to a cycle of enhanced naval power and growing suspicion.

For strategic reasons – sometimes referred to as the logic of their growth – China and India deploy – or plan to deploy – their navies near each other’s maritime borders. China is creating strategic relationships with littoral states in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and India does likewise, with the same states and others in the East and South China Seas. This leads each to further debate the other’s intentions to understand how those may impact upon their own interests. What remains unclear to the independent observer, however, is whether the intention of both countries in developing their navies is defensive or if each has an underlying agenda for its naval enhancement.

India has adopted a policy of upgrading its naval capacity since the 1980s.Given China’s growing presence in the IOR and its long-standing power competition with India, this section will consider whether India’s on-going naval modernisation aims to achieve an active force posture driven by its strategic intent to have secure open-ocean access or if China’s growing naval ambitions compel New Delhi to respond. It will do this by examining India’s naval growth, its force posture and its maritime policy in relation to extending its influence in South-East and East Asia.

This study, therefore, will examine the reasons for the enhancement of Chinese and Indian naval capability, to determine if these are benign or otherwise.


India’s Naval Modernisation

Between 1980 and 2009, however, the Indian Navy progressed from being a “brown-water” to almost a “blue-water” force; i.e. from one relatively bound to a land base to one almost capable of projecting power at considerable distances from its bases. In 1980 the Indian Navy’s core comprised of ten Soviet-origin Petya-class frigates, two Whitby-class frigates, five Leander-class frigates, and three Nanuchka-class corvettes. In total, there were twenty three major warships, including one aging aircraft carrier. Unsurprisingly, when during the so-called “Tanker War” period of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 – 1997 the largest number of tankers to be hit in the Persian Gulf were Indian, the Indian Navy did not deploy, leave alone take action to protect them. While government policy may have been responsible to some extent for this lack of action, the fact that long-range ships were so scarce as to make any retaliatory action impossible provides a better reason.

Leander ‘Nilgiri’ class frigate
The old INS Vikrant was decomissioned in 1997
Petya-class frigate

By 2010, however, these older ships had been decommissioned. In their place are one more modern aircraft carrier, fourteen operational submarines and 34 major war ships. There are also eight world-class hydrography vessels, which have completed several major oceanographic surveys in the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans for the Indian Navy. However, the planned 140-ship navy is still a far way off, since various Indian governments have allocated more of the defence budget to the air force and army. Nonetheless, the modernisation of the Indian Navy has advanced considerably.

By 2013, ninety five per cent of India’s foreign trade by volume and seventy five per cent by value was conducted by sea; also, more than seventy per cent of its oil was imported by sea. With India’s economic growth, its navy has grown in importance. This growth may be measured by three parameters: the number of ships, their size and the number of missile batteries per ship. The following Table gives an indication of the Indian navy’s growth.

Indian Navy in 1991 – 2012

The Indian Navy has remained more or less static in the number of its ships. It is the number of ship-borne missile cells available today that indicate its modernisation. This begs the question, why is India modernising its navy? Does it, like China, seek regional hegemony? Does it conform to Mahan’s theory of sea power and Mearsheimer’s offensive-realism? These questions are best answered by examining its process of modernisation, the types of vessels being built and acquired, and its maritime strategy.

Missiles first made their appearance in the Indian Navy in 1971 during the Indo-Pakistani War, when they were used in Operations Trident and Python to effectively neutralise the Pakistani Navy in Karachi for the term of the war. This success led the Indian Navy to convert the main armament of their ships to missiles. More recently, the Shivalik and Talwar-class ships have been fitted with modern Klub (Russian Novator KH-54 TE) active radar-homing missiles as well as the Russo-Indian supersonic Brahmos missiles. The Klubs have been replaced by the Brahmos missiles on the very latest Talwar-class ships being built in Russia. However, missiles are a standard part of a ship’s armament today and can be offensive or defensive in nature, making it is difficult to gauge India’s strategic maritime intent from their numbers alone; other facets of the Indian Navy’s modernisation must be examined to reach a reasonable conclusion.

Building an aircraft carrier is one of the biggest and most complex tasks of any navy. India planned to build a twenty thousand ton carrier, but its tonnage was soon expanded to forty thousand. Additionally, the Indian Navy has purchased the refitted Russian aircraft carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov, as its second carrier. A third carrier, designed to accommodate thirty fighter aircraft, is being built at the Kochi Shipyard in Kerala, India.

Aircraft carriers are the most conspicuous symbol of a nation’s ability to project maritime power. They carry fighter aircraft, primarily to take the battle to an enemy and move it away from the homeland. As such, they are offensive by their very nature. The Indian Navy plans to operate three carriers by 2017. This demonstrates India’s desire to be acknowledged as a maritime power and, more broadly, a rising world power. To an extent, it also demonstrates India’s aspirations towards projecting its power over distances, which could demonstrate aspirations towards regional hegemony. However, while the general contours of a move towards regional hegemony are discernible, further examination is needed to determine if this is the case.

India’s ship-building industry is no match for China’s. Nevertheless, it is a collaboration between shipyards, ship designers, technical specialists, equipment suppliers and an arm of the Indian Navy called the Weapons Electronics System Engineering Establishment (WESEE). This body was established to ensure the compatibility between Russian-supplied missiles and Western electronics systems. The Indian Navy also has engineers at Mazagaon Docks in Mumbai, where the Godavari-class ships were designed and built from 1983, and the previously-noted facility at Kochi.

There is an obvious mismatch between China’s and India’s ship-building capacities. Since ship-building is an important facet of seapower, the question must be asked: does this mean India has no aspirations to regional hegemony? Up to this point, this study shows that the Indian Navy has not increased in size but has been modernised, it has plans to obtain three aircraft carriers, and it has a comparatively minor ship-building industry. These observations produce conflicting signals, making it difficult to determine if India has regional naval aspirations. This study must examine its maritime doctrine to make a determination.

The Indian Navy’s Changing Force Posture

Despite traditionally being perceived as adhering to pacifist principles, India has undergone a dramatic shift in its stance on self-defence. Correspondingly, its military doctrine has also undergone significant change. India has fought four wars since independence in 1947 and as its economic and political power grew, its military situated these experiences into its doctrine. For instance, in 2004 the Indian Army began to roll out its “Cold Start” doctrine. This grew from political and military frustration with India’s inability to deter or respond to incursions such as those which led to the 1999 Kargil incident and terror attacks like that which occurred in December 2001 on the Indian Parliament. Indian leaders wanted the military to rapidly mass its troops on the Pakistani border, threatening overwhelming conventional attack on that country if it did not cease its support for attacks on India by groups based there. The military, however, was incapable of such rapid deployment. Cold Start emphasised forward deployment, decisive offensive strikes launched from a standing start with a minimal mobilisation period, and pre-emptive strikes on enemy forces. It had three main objectives:

  1. To avoid triggering an enemy’s nuclear response
  2. To move so fast that Indian political leaders could not halt or terminate it
  3. To secure India’s objectives before the international community could intervene.

Concomitant with this change in the Army, the Indian Navy’s Maritime Doctrine released in 2004 also shows a major change in its outlook. Echoing the statement of Indian strategist, K. M. Panikkar, the document implies that the Indian Ocean is, in a singular way, Indian. Thus, Admiral Mehta, the Navy Chief of Staff remarked, “The Indian Ocean is named after us. … If required in this IOR, we will undertake humanitarian missions, stop piracy and gun running, and all those kinds of things in asymmetric warfare.” Left unstated was the role of aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines in achieving these goals.

For more info about INS Chakra : The Great Indian Nuclear Submarine Saga

INS Chakra, India’s sole nuclear-powered attack submarine will play a major role in the IOR

The Maritime Doctrine is designed to maintain Indian autonomy and security against any regional threat. China is defined as a competitor, but as Sakhuja writes, the Navy is required to “provide maritime security in all directions – the classical doctrine of ‘tous azimuths’”, a clear reference to the US, which, unlike China, is accepted as a comparatively benign presence in the region. However, the Indian Navy does not see itself as primarily a defensive force. Specific undertakings of the Indian Navy include exercising sea control in designated areas of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal and at the entry/exit points of the IOR; in case of war to carry the conflict to the enemy’s territory, to strangulate his trade/oil arteries, to destroy his war waging potential and naval assets and to ensure a decisive victory; to provide power projection force; and to work in conjunction with the two other services to preserve, protect and promote India’s national interests.

The 2004 Maritime Doctrine notes China’s naval-building and pays close attention to its submarine acquisition. It also considers the PLANs power projection abilities using aircraft carriers. The 2007 Maritime Military Strategy emphasises three new issues: power projection including the development of expeditionary forces, securing Indian interests in a wide arc including the Indian Ocean, the Middle East / Persian Gulf and East Asia, and strike capabilities in littoral warfare to support land forces in war. It also lays emphasis on developing a sea-based nuclear deterrent.

“Pakistan could not fight for longer than a week in the face of an Indian naval blockade – unless the U.S. Navy challenged it.”

The Indian Navy is primarily focussed on a possible confrontation with Pakistan. This was made evident during the Kargil Crisis in 1999 when it was used to blockade the Pakistani Navy, preventing vital supplies from reaching Karachi. Margolis believes it could be used in any future confrontation to overwhelm Pakistan’s aging navy. He further notes, “Pakistan could not fight for longer than a week in the face of an Indian naval blockade – unless the U.S. Navy challenged it.” This assertion appears to have its roots embedded in history; many Indians believe that a US carrier group in the Arabian Sea to support Pakistan during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War forced New Delhi to halt its plan to crush West Pakistan. This has led for calls ever since for a naval build-up to counter any future US intervention.

Pakistan aside, Indian strategists are today very aware of China’s increasing activity in the IOR. China’s development of a blue-water navy has caused a great deal of concern in New Delhi. Margolis again observes,

In coming decades, geopolitical tensions between the two uneasy neighbours and rivals easily could intensify as they vie for hegemony over South and Central Asia, Indonesia and even the South China Sea, political influence, oil, resources and markets.

In India’s perception the IOR holds the same interests for itself as Central America and the Caribbean do for the USA. As such, China’s activity in the region causes India concern. This concern partly stems from the Communist takeover of China in 1949, when the Indian politician, Vallabhbhai Patel, enunciated his concerns with China in the IOR. This concern grew after India’s defeat by China in the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Since relations were normalised in 1988, this view has been modified to an extent but fundamentally remains the same. As Indian strategists see it, any Chinese activity in the IOR diminishes India’s security. These concerns have been compounded over the last twenty years with five categories of Chinese activity in the IOR. These are

  1. Covert and overt assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear and missile development, assistance to its military development and enhancement of its military-industrial capability.
  2. Initiation of defence relations and intelligence-sharing with Nepal.
  3. Military and deep economic co-operation with Myanmar including development of its transport and maritime infrastructure.
  4. Growing PLAN activity in the IOR including ship visits and the creation of electronic monitoring facilities.
  5. The cultivation of ties with Bangladesh and the normalisation of ties with Bhutan.
Chinese Naval ships docked in Sri Lanka during a visit

It is likely with this in mind that the Indian strategist, C. Raja Mohan, conceives of an Indian maritime strategy premised on three concentric geographic circles. The innermost circle contains India and its immediate neighbourhood, a view consistent with that of the Indian Navy’s doctrinal statement, Freedom to Use the Seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy. The neighbourhood also contains Bangladesh, the Maldives, Myanmar (Burma), Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Mohan alleges that India’s goals in this region are to ensure its primacy and to retain the capacity to veto actions seen as infringing on India’s interests. Needless to add, this is not stated in the Navy’s public document. Primacy implies India’s capacity to impose its will and influence the states of the region, including militarily. While the naval document is less aggressively stated than Mohan’s article, the section titled “Strategy for Employment in Conflict” envisions the conduct of sea-control and sea-denial operations in wartime in India’s vicinity, including at the entry/exit points of the IOR. This appears to be aimed at China, it being a prerequisite to denying China’s ships access to and from the Straits of Malacca. Such an action would shut off China’s and other “hostile extra-regional powers with inimical intentions” access to India’s immediate maritime neighbourhood.

Mohan’s middle circle encompasses the rest of continental Asia, including China. Again the naval document does not treat this area in as starkly plain terms as Mohan does. It instead emphasises its role in naval diplomacy and maritime cooperation so as to prevent “incursions by powers inimical to India’s national interests by actively engaging countries in the IO littoral and rendering speedy and quality assistance in fields of interest to them.” This clearly alludes to China’s increasing activity in East Africa, Persian Gulf, and the rest of the IO littoral. It was likely this thinking which saw the Indian Navy dispatch four warships on a two-month journey along the coast of East Africa to engage in “naval diplomacy” and offer a counter to China’s influence and activity there.

“Current power projections indicate that India will be among the foremost centres of power”

Mohan’s third circle, consisting of the rest of the world, envisions India as a world-power in maintaining international peace and security. Former Prime Minister Singh endorses this view in his introduction to the doctrinal statement, stating “current power projections indicate that India will be among the foremost centres of power”. He also notes that military capacity will be a critical component of India’s increased power.

Here is the second part of the series 


About the Author

Lindsay Hughes is a Senior Research Analyst at Future Directions International, a think-tank established by the former Governor General of Australia, Major General the Hon. Michael Jeffery. He specialises in the security and politics of the Indo-Pacific region, with an emphasis on the Sub-continent and China.

Edited by N.R.P

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46 Replies to “Dragon vs elephant (Part-1): Indian Navy’s massive modernization drive”

  1. Man that was too good..
    I always wondered, doesn’t the IAF has any doctrines regarding rapid mobilization….


  2. Very Informative and nicely written article. I wanted to know about recent Chinese claim of blocking Indian Navy with just 10 submarines, what’s your take on that Sir?


  3. I also think India should also try to prevent the attacks before even they happen so, and keep the these doctrines as a second option….. Intelligence will play key factor in crippling the enemies nuclear power..
    What do you think N.R.P


  4. Informative article…
    It is true that there is no comparison between Indian and Chinese ship building capabilities ….but I think difference is in scale but if u take ship to ship comparison Indian capabilities are(may be) equal to that of Chinese…..and I think it just beginning….if u know …..on 17the February 2015 Indian government approved construction of 6 SSN….. And same number of SSBNs are planned if everything goes according to plan India may be able to counter China in IOR

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It is somewhat amusing that you have concluded that “The quality of Indian ships is better than the Chinese ones overall”

        1) China shipbuilding skills are at least a few generation ahead of India. They have build very credible merchant & civilian ships

        2)India`s modernisation drive has been somewhat lacking (at best) or a dismal failure (at worst) when compared to China .

        From toilets to bullet trains , from roads to airports , there is utterly no comparison whatsoever.

        3) China design of its modern naval ships has been “outsourced ” to the USA

        (I am assuming of course that one accepts the Pentagon assertion that China hackers have stolen the designs of the US military !)

        Taken collectively , there is no way in hell (or on earth : ) that Indian naval ships are better.

        The China navy is clearly superior , in both quantity & quality .


      2. Using logic like that, you can disprove anything. But I suggest you spend time analysing the ships of both the navies. The Indian ships have more facilities, better living spaces, better quality of radars and a balanced weapons layout. Chinese ships have badly designed and cramped living areas and their ships armament and radars are designed to stay above the level of obsolescence and below the level of high quality. That’s what helps them to produce a dozen ships a year at half the cost that India does. They may have a shipbuilding industry that’s very fast and efficient, but that doesn’t guarantee a world class quality.


      3. earlier u.k., e.u., briten used singapore as duplication centre for its revenue,now after briten handing over to china, now, china continue to use singapore for same duplication purpose, how many of common people and judicure term duplication, and cheeting as superior, why common people not aware of such , prising duplication, pirates, cheeting, crimes, as success, achiver.. think.. china is also crimer, and now king of duplicater, because of singapore , gone to china, now briten lacks revenue loss so it breaks e.u. collobration also . think.. many more such..


      4. Take the new China 052D DDG as an model of technology par excellence .

        The 052D is in as much superior to the japanese and US Aegis Destroyers, that it has a superior four-faced AESA radar array (Type 346A NATO “Dragon Eye”), which is more multimode and multi-function compared to the SPY-1 series of the US and Japanese Aegis ships.

        While the Arleigh Burke and the Atago/Kongo still rely on their three mechanically steered, cassegrain AN/SPG-62 fire control radar to guide their semi-active radar homing ESSM self defense missiles and SM-2s, which is essentially 1970s technology, the 052C and 052D have the advanced capability of their AESA arrays to detect, track, guide and illuminate targets for their HHQ-9A and HHQ-26 naval SAM – with lightening high-speed and precision due to electronically steered beams vs. that of the mechanical steered radar dishes of the SPG-62.

        The 052D is a lighter and leaner, but equally powerful destroyer.

        On the electronic side of things, she is even superior to everything but the very latest of US designs, that is the DDG-1000 class and the conceptional Arleigh Burke Flight III (AMDR), latter of which curiously feature the same sort of large, flat, rectangular AESA radar panels as possessed by the 052D, replacing its hexagonal SPY-1 PESA that are slowly becoming obsolete. Most features advertized for the Burke III AMDR are already realized in the 052D, mind you.

        If the Indian Navy feels that it’s Kolkata class DDG is indeed far superior to the 052d, then by a parity of logic, it is also far more advanced than the Burke III AMDR.


      5. @ Calebjawak You are talking as if the PLAN Type-52D is better than the American and Japanese boats carrying AEGIS systems. But there is no way to independently verify the same. We have little or no access to the data about Chinese weapon systems and those are only speculations in public domain.

        But as far as Indian boats are concerned, they use radars and other systems that are of world class quality. Take for example, Kolkata class destroyer has the Israeli IAI Elta EL/M-2248 MF-STAR radar which by all comparison can be compared to the best in the world. Coupled with Barak-8 missile, Kolkata is a potent platform and the next generation Visakhapatinam class ships will have more punch. A broader comparison between PLAN ships and the ships of the Indian navy would show that Indian ships stand above on many parameters and in other cases stand shoulder to shoulder. There is nothing in public domain that shows that Chinese ships are in anyway superior.


  5. prime minister singh? when was the article actually written? I guess the Indian navy came a long way from then and btw it’s a great article NRP


  6. Good article…awaiting for remaining…….could u plz write an article on differences between various types of warships used by navy i.e. destroyers, corvettes, frigates etc…they are always confusing!


    1. Thank you. The differences between the warships are confusing because many countries call corvettes as frigates, frigates as destroyers and vice versa. The definition of these ships is hardly taken into consideration while classifying them. 🙂


  7. ” However, the planned 140-ship navy is still a far way off, since various Indian governments have allocated more of the defence budget to the air force and army. ” — utter nonsense ,, Indian Navy is 180 + ship with 200 + planes .. while china has 450 + ships and about 650 + planes … US on other hand 250 + ships with 2500 + planes . rest of the article is good .


    1. 140 ship refers to major surface combatants. The 180 ship navy at present has a large number of small vessels which haven’t been considered by the author. This is a work of writing by a professional researcher from Australia.


      1. u mean only destroyers and frigates of the Kolkata / Delhi / Vishakhapatnam / Shiwalik etc class that are now being produced ? no corvettes , no landing ships , no replenishment ships etc , ??


    2. china never has 450 ships.. no trustable source indicates that.. unless u are xi jinping’s personal secretary i’d say stop writing gibberish bullshit.. ur data is way off.. the only place where chinese navy takes a lead over indian navy is in the submarine sector.. thats cuz it has a larger fleet of nuclear powered ones..


      1. The article is the work of a professional researcher. The 450 ship navy includes over 300 small missile boats , gun boats and patrol boats. Unless you know what you’re talking and bout , we suggest you stop commenting gibberish bullshit. China has a larger number of vessels in every category compared to India except aircraft carriers.


  8. Great Article, and of course a fantastic topic. But isnt the stats shown a bit old to comment on. The article still talks of PM Manmohan Singh and his efforts, havent the scenario changed in that context.
    Just Curious !!


      1. but all these become toys, why .. pakistan occupied Punjab, ,kashmir, china occupied kashmir, Tibet, Arunacha lpradesh, Burma occupied assam, manipur, etc.,bangla desh occupied Bengal, sri lank occupied mannar .. is this pride for India,Indians.. why these were happening, still who plays game on such,why. and India still intlectual slave for.k.,


  9. We find smallest new weapon by Dragon ie Nouka type small Machine Gun vessels in huge numbers moving in a faster speed about 40km/hr in the Sea capable / intended to attack some of the small islands among Andaman and Nicober islands. India urgently need its counter weapon what i presume American M777 Hawizer gun can be deployed across the Andaman and Nicobar coast urgently till we make and install suitable counter weapon by the DRDO.


  10. Can u please update this article with the latest naval strength of both china and india interms of both above water and underwater strength. And also do write an article on maritime military conflict and its possible outcome. I know india might loose but what could be the adverse affect


  11. we Indians must stand with one mind & one hand. If we succeed, then we can eliminate any adversaries (not only in this planet but also the alien kind of things). We need strong formidable leader & dedicated citizens of INDIA to achieve this goal (1 mind 1hand ).
    **JAI HIND**


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