Navy Day special: Long voyage for the “silent service” - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 3 December 2018

Navy Day special: Long voyage for the “silent service”

The navy’s capabilities are key to why the US is keen on partnering India in the Indo-Pacific. Yet it suffers from a planning and attention deficit

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 4th Dec 18

Tuesday is the annual Navy Day, when the so-called “Silent Service” celebrates the stellar success of Operation Trident on December 4, 1971 – the bombing of Karachi harbour by three Russian-built missile boats of the navy’s Killer Squadron. The attack sank one Pakistani destroyer, badly damaged another, sank a minesweeper and a cargo vessel filled with ammunition. It set ablaze fuel storage tanks in Karachi port, causing a national fuel shortage that hamstrung Pakistan through the war. 

The Karachi attack was borne of desperation. The navy had remained on the sidelines in all three previous wars – the 1947-48 war with Pakistan, the 1962 Sino-Indian war as also the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war. Leading up to the 1971 war, Indian admirals realised the navy would have to invent and physically demonstrate a role for itself, preferably one that directly supported the land war, where attention was focused. Bombarding Karachi harbour was the obvious attention-grabber. But Karachi was 900 kilometres from Bombay – well beyond the range of the heavily armed, but low-endurance missile boats that would set Karachi ablaze. So the navy decided to start the journey from Okha, in Gujarat, and to tow the missile boats most of the 340-kilometre distance to Karachi, from where they would sail home under their own steam after the attack. This was probably the only instance of a victorious flotilla being towed into battle.

The navy has come a long way from then. On Monday, navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba, bristled when a reporter cited the Pentagon’s recent assessment that China’s People’s Liberation Army (Navy) – or PLAN – would be a world-class force by 2050. Where would the Indian Navy be in 2025, asked the journalist. Lanba retorted: “If I crystal gaze and look ahead to 2050, we would be a 200-ship navy with an air wing of about 500 aircraft. We will also be a world-class navy.” Discussing current capabilities, Lanba declared the Indian Navy is superior to Pakistan’s in all domains – surface, underwater and air. He was as blunt in his assessment of the China-India balance. “[Given the] forces China can bring to bear in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the balance of power rests in our favour.  In the South China Sea, because the same advantages (proximity to home bases, land-based air support) rest with the Chinese, the balance of power will favour China,” said Lanba.

While India’s army and air force are clearly outgunned by China’s, especially given the likelihood of Pakistan’s support in a war, the navy is the only domain where India enjoys local superiority. That has brought the navy recognition as a potent national security instrument; not just for warfighting but also a peacetime tool to assert India’s pre-eminence as the region’s “net security provider”. India’s maritime security strategy aims at “providing a maritime environment that is free from all forms of traditional and non-traditional threats to our national development.”

Already, the navy operates astride the IOR like a mini-superpower. Since 2008, about 70 Indian warships have conducted counter-piracy operations off Aden and in the Arabian Sea, escorting 3,440 (including 413 Indian-flagged) ships with over 25,062 mariners embarked. During this period, the navy has thwarted 44 piracy attempts and apprehended 120 pirates, earning plaudits across the region.

The navy also safeguards the international sea lanes of communications (SLOCS) in the Indian Ocean, through which some 100,000 ships carry the bulk of the world’s oil supplies and a large percentage of merchandise trade every year. These vessels are tracked in real time from the navy’s Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) in Gurugram, which is hooked to a range of sensors and inputs. To keep track of commercial shipping, India has signed White Shipping Information Exchange agreements with 19 countries, of which 12 have been operationalized. India will also establish an Information Fusion Centre (IFC- IOR) in partnership with littoral nations.

Given the navy’s growing reputation for professionalism, its training academies find favour amongst IOR countries for training their navies. Over the past few years, the navy has increased its intake of foreign trainees from 699 to 1056.

Last year, aiming to intensify its presence in the IOR, the navy reviewed its operational deployment philosophy and shifted to “mission-based deployment”. This involves maintaining one or more warships in every area of maritime interest to India – from the Malacca Strait to the Gulf of Hormuz. In addition, there is a growing demand from regional and extra-regional navies to exercise with the Indian Navy, to build interoperability and share operational best practices. This year alone, the navy has participated in 20 exercises with partner countries, including: Indo-French Exercise Varunaoff Reunion islands, Indo-Japan-US Exercise Malabaroff Guam, the multinational RIMPACat Hawaii and Kakaduat Darwin, Indo-Brazil-South Africa Exercise IBSAMARoff Simon’s Town, South Africa, Indo-Sri Lanka Exercise SLINEXoff Trincomalee and the India-Singapore Exercise SIMBEXoff Port Blair and Visakhapatnam. This year, the navy began exercises with the UAE and Indonesia; and will start bilateral exercises with Bangladesh and Malaysia next year. 

Continuing its regional outreach, the navy also conducts joint patrols with the Maldives, the Seychelles and Mauritius of their EEZ (exclusive economic zone); and Coordinated Patrols (CORPATs) with Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia.

The navy does all this, besides preparing for its primary warfighting role, with a mere 15 per cent of the services budget – significantly lower than the 18 per cent analysts believe it should receive. Essentially, the navy gets penalised for being more cost-effective, having made significant headway in a half-century-long effort to build its warships in India. Figures released on Monday indicate that, since 2014, 72 per cent of all navy contracts concluded were with Indian vendors, amounting to two-thirds of the navy’s capital budget spent indigenously. This will continue, with 82 per cent of all shipbuilding programmes approved since 2014 having been accorded to Indian vendors. It must be noted, however, that these figures are flattering, since the Indian vendors source systems, sub-systems and components from abroad.

Notwithstanding indigenisation, the navy faces a shortfall of warships. The Maritime Capability Perspective Plan visualises a force level of 197 warships, but the navy makes do with just 132 currently. A submarine building plan visualises a force of 24 vessels, but the navy operates just 14 conventional boats today. Meanwhile, the PLAN operates some 50 submarines and Pakistan will soon get eight new submarines from China to give its fleet an edge. Meanwhile, India’s defence ministry has delayed the creation of guidelines for indigenously manufacturing submarines, resulting in years of delay in Project 75I – the building of six new submarines in India. The much-whispered-about plan to build six nuclear attack submarines also faces similar delays.

The Indian Navy has come a long way since that evening when it silently closed in on Karachi. Today, the navy’s capabilities are key to why the United States is so keen on partnering India in the Indo-Pacific. In the event of a war with China, the navy would provide India with strategic options that were never there in 1962. Yet, more than any other branch of the military, the navy suffers from a planning and attention deficit at the highest levels of governance. It is time to give the silent service its due.

1 comment:

  1. I do think it is not planning deifiency, it is messsed execution by MoD.

    for example
    Indian navy made 30 year sub building plan, hopeless execution , not sure where we are now , what we want.
    The helicopter acquisition another mess.
    Our ship building times are too Long, the need to be halved.
    Same thing happens in other services look at Fighter fleet, IAF suggested we buy and manufacture 126 Mirages.
    Then it morphed into MMRCA, finally a new story for all wrong reasons.
    There are some lessons learnt , we need to apply, start local development very early , involve pvt sector and give them a big share in production.
    Light helicopters and artillery after so many trials and delays we decided local make.
    Assault rifle another hilarious epic in the making .....hopefully the Govt ties up with Kalyani/Tata to parallel make a local one to back up AK 103 .
    Most decisions were pushed through by this Govt else would not have happened : modern helmets , Modern BPMs, Rafale fighter ...all this would have gone on for ever if not for a decisive political leadership.


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