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.
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:
- To avoid triggering an enemy’s nuclear response
- To move so fast that Indian political leaders could not halt or terminate it
- 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
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
- Covert and overt assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear and missile development, assistance to its military development and enhancement of its military-industrial capability.
- Initiation of defence relations and intelligence-sharing with Nepal.
- Military and deep economic co-operation with Myanmar including development of its transport and maritime infrastructure.
- Growing PLAN activity in the IOR including ship visits and the creation of electronic monitoring facilities.
- The cultivation of ties with Bangladesh and the normalisation of ties with Bhutan.
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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