Indo-Pacific naval strategy: Where does India stand? - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 4 May 2023

Indo-Pacific naval strategy: Where does India stand?

India’s historical focus on its continental borders has overshadowed its maritime ambitions but that is changing quickly (Above: aircraft carrier INS Vikrant)


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 5th May 23


As a military influencer, India has come late to the Indo-Pacific region. Yet, arrived it has, as is evident from a spate of bilateral and multilateral engagements and exercises that our army, navy and air force carries out around the year. Each year, our military carries out 62 bilateral and 23 multilateral exercises, raising our warriors’ skill levels and profile. Such is our navy’s role in securing the sea lines of communications (SLOCs) that carry trade through this region, that the US military felt it necessary to rename this military theatre. Referred to since the end of World War 2 as the United States Pacific Command (USPACOM), this has been renamed the United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM).


It is sometimes hard to remember that this mutual regard and cooperation is very recent. Only in December 2004 did the Indian Navy’s lightening quick response to the Indian Ocean tsunami make USPACOM and the Pentagon realise that here was an ally worth having, especially given mutual concerns about the rise of an aggressive China. What are the aims of New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific policy? Besides safeguarding the world’s SLOCs, for which India has embraced the role of “net security provider”, there is the piracy threat, sea-based terrorism of the kind that struck Mumbai in 2008; smuggling, fishing and humanitarian aid and disaster relief and search and rescue responsibilities. India also has a huge diaspora, including some 8 million citizens living, working and remitting money from the Gulf. Whenever something has gone wrong in that volatile part of the world, India has evacuated its citizens, starting from Saddam Hussein’s 1990-91 invasion of Kuwait.


Nor should it be overlooked that India supports its overseas citizens on its own dollar. Unlike US allies such as Pakistan, who never fail to present Washington with inflated bills for every counter-terrorism patrol they claim to have done and for every night vision device damaged, India foots its own bill for overseeing the Indian Ocean. In addition, New Delhi currently provides $18 billion dollars in lines of credit for development projects in littoral states.


The decision to use the Indian Navy as a diplomatic tool across the Indian Ocean came not from diplomats, but from the navy itself. It was first written into naval doctrine and the foreign ministry eventually recognised the special conditions of the maritime diplomacy.


The delay in developing India’s maritime diplomacy and the Indo-Pacific policy raises questions about why it took so long. The answer is: New Delhi was preoccupied northwards. For four decades after independence in 1947, New Delhi’s strategic attention remained on China and Pakistan. The four wars that India fought against these two adversaries – 1947-48, 1962, 1965 and 1971 – reinforced what strategists have termed a “continental mind-set”, which was shaped by the historical experience of centuries of invasions from Central Asia, and then by the 19thcentury Great Game, in which Britain and Russia competed for influence in Central Asia, Asia Minor and to the borders of British India.


This “continental” outlook – the belief that the threat comes from the north – is deeply entrenched in New Delhi. That is so despite the fact that most Central Asian invaders were assimilated into India, lured by the easy life here and the logistical difficulties in repatriating India’s agricultural produce and textiles.


However, the arrival of sea-borne colonial powers – the Dutch, Portuguese, French and British – who used large merchant vessels to physically repatriate Indian wealth to Europe; and bring in cheap manufactured goods on the return leg, that completely destroyed small-scale Indian economies based on artisan production taught India a valuable lesson about the criticality of maritime power. It is no coincidence then that India’s independence struggle began as a campaign against economic exploitation.


But this invaluable lesson was lost on a young, newly independent country in 1947. Some of India’s new leaders had naval power ambitions, but London believed the Indian Navy should limit itself to the defence of the British Commonwealth. This view prevailed, since New Delhi’s precarious finances made it dependent upon the Admiralty for warships. 


Even so, a fateful decision was taken in 1956, which has shaped India’s Navy ever since. New Delhi decided to buy a Royal Navy “surplus-to-requirement” light aircraft carrier, HMS Hercules. Commissioned in 1961, the INS Vikrant set the Indian Navy on a path from which it has never swerved since – that of an aircraft carrier power – wedded to the notion of sea control, and power projection through at least two aircraft carrier battle groups – one operating off its western coast and the other off its eastern coast.


The sea control mindset was best articulated by Henry L Stimson, US Secretary of War through World War II, who memorably described: “…the peculiar psychology of the [US] Navy Department, which frequently seemed to retire from the realm of logic into a dim religious world in which Neptune was God, Mahan his prophet and the United States Navy the only true church.”


This church now has one more believer, even if four decades have elapsed before the Indian and US navies seem likely to worship together. That was because, in 1962, the year after INS Vikrant was commissioned, China defeated India heavily. That reinforced India’s continental mind set, galvanized army and air force modernisation, and marginalised the navy. Its share of the defence budget, which had tripled from four per cent in 1950-51, to 12 per cent in 1959-60, sank back to four per cent after the war. 


Paradoxically, that has been the making of the Indian Navy. Unable to afford even the second-hand, cut-price, vessels the Royal Navy was offering to sell India, our first generation of admirals realised they must create a builder’s, not a buyer’s, navy. Whilethe IAF and army indulged their love for foreign equipment, the navy has learned to build cheaply in India. 


Today, the navy has achieved significant headway in heavy engineering skills. In addition, the navy learnt the art of integrating diverse weapon systems, cherry-picked from across the world, onto successive classes of multi-role warships. For example, in the Shivalik-class frigates, which began entering service in 2009, the navy integrated Russian Shtil anti-air missiles, Russian Klub anti-ship cruise missiles, the Israeli Barak-1 missile defence system, and the Italian Oto Melara 76 millimetre super rapid gun mount that India manufactures under licence. 


During the 1960s and 1970s, with New Delhi realizing that an economically declining Britain was an inadequate partner, the Soviet Union supplanted the UK as its principle supplier of warships, technology and design expertise. The Indian Navy began a love affair with Russia, which still continues, albeit in a different form… especially in strategic realms like nuclear submarine design. 


Meanwhile, American design influence will begin shaping the Indian Navy’s aircraft carriers. The first of two indigenous carriers, INS Vikrant, bears the Russian design stamp of a ski jump. But a second indigenous carrier, INS Vishal, which is still on the drawing board, will draw heavily on the US carrier philosophy – a larger size, catapult launch, with probably F/A-18E/F Super Hornets embarked.


So the Indian Navy’s sea control strategy is likely to be based on three aircraft carriers, with two of them operational at any given time. Each will be at the centre of a carrier battle group drawn from a total fleet of about 175 ships, including about 50 capital warships and about 600 naval aircraft, with about 100 of them based at sea.


Meanwhile Russian design and operational assistance will continue in the submarine realm, where Washington refuses to share technology.

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