The navy needs better planning and more funding - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 22 November 2021

The navy needs better planning and more funding

By Ajai Shukla

Unsigned editorial comment

Business Standard, 23rd Nov 21

Much has been made of the commissioning of two capital warships into the navy in quick succession this month – the guided missile destroyer, INS Visakhapatnam; and a conventional Scorpene-class submarine, INS Vela. While these sophisticated and capable vessels are welcomed by a navy that is badly short of capital warships, the admirals have lamented the slippage in the navy’s Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP) from a planning level of 200 warships in 2027 to a more modest count of just 170 vessels. By way of perspective, India has commissioned just one-to-two capital warships in each of the last five years – not enough even to replace warships that are retiring -- while China’s People’s Liberation Army (Navy), or PLA(N), has expanded its numbers by a staggering 14-22 capital warships in each of these years. In a single day last April, the PLA(N) commissioned three larger warships – a nuclear-powered submarine that carries nuclear tipped missiles, a Type 055 destroyer and an amphibious warfare assault ship.


What makes the Indian Navy’s slow growth regrettable is its stated ambition to be the gatekeeper and “net security provider” of the Indian Ocean – the world’s largest and most crucial trade highway. Furthermore, strategic planners in New Delhi believe a capable Indian Navy would offset the combat advantage enjoyed by China’s army on the Himalayan land border in the event of war. True, the PLA(N)’s advantage in numbers would be far less decisive in a context where the Indian Navy is operating close to its shores, while the PLA(N) is fighting far from its bases. Even so, wargaming shows that this advantage dissipates when Indian warship numbers fall below a certain level. While Indian warships now incorporate sophisticated technologies and operate with tactical acumen after years of joint exercises with the world’s most sophisticated navies, there remains the danger that sheer numbers might carry the day for the PLA(N).


India needs more warships not just to offset the PLA(N)’s numerical advantage, but also to bring in economies of scale in construction, which, in turn, would allow New Delhi to build a larger number of warships within the same capital allocation. But while India builds just three-to-four warships in a particular series (there are just four destroyers in the Visakhapatnam-class), China will have built about 25 Luyang III-class Type 052D destroyers before it moves on to another, more sophisticated, design. While India’s latest frigate order – Project 17A for seven frigates – is itself a new record, the PLA(N) is building 30 Type 054A frigates of the Jiangkai II-class. Naturally, such large orders would fund better design capability, weaponry and production lines, and result in cheaper, more technologically sophisticated frigates.


However, instead of creating advantages through robust economic planning, India’s military planners – including the Chief of Defence Staff who was appointed precisely to leverage potential economic advantages – continue bickering endlessly about whether more funding for the navy serves an adequate strategic purpose, or whether focus should remain on safeguarding the land borders. What is lost in this internal debate is the fact that designing and building warships require long lead times and big budgets. It is, therefore, essential to ensure that the navy returns to getting the 17-18 per cent budget share it enjoyed five years ago; and the planning attention that is warranted for this most strategic of services.

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