The Final Reckoning ?
On Navy Day 2017, Admiral Arun Prakash writes on India’s Resurgent Maritime Power
Admiral Arun Prakash writes on India’s Resurgent Maritime Power, recalling maritime traditions, recent Naval developments but also flagging some lacunae, essentially the Navy’s material shortcomings, arising from acute import dependence.
As the nation contemplated the long drawn out Sino- Indian confrontation at Doklam, in neighbouring Bhutan, and China’s strategic moves in the Indian Ocean region (IOR), a new consensus appeared to be emerging amongst analysts. Most seemed to be of the view that while the Indian army and IAF may be able to hold out against a PLA land-offensive, and even give the aggressor an occasional ‘bloody nose’ (so ardently sought by TV anchors), the final reckoning with China would be in the Indian Ocean.
Why on Navy Day?
There is a general assumption that India possesses adequate ‘maritime power’ to deal with the PLA-Navy in home waters and opinion favours the opening of a ‘ maritime front’ to capitalise on this putative advantage. One is not aware if this discourse is based on empirical data, war-gaming or mere speculation, but Navy Day 2017 seems to be a good juncture to take stock of India’s ‘maritime power’, and apply our minds to future challenges.
Traditionally, Navy Day is celebrated annually, on 4 December, to mark free India’s first naval victory in the 1971 War, and to remind our fellow-citizens of their forgotten maritime heritage. The Bangladesh War marked an important milestone in the navy’s post-independence history. Still smarting from the ignominy of inaction in 1965, the navy’s leadership ensured that it had an important role to play in the coming conflict. The Service was truly blooded as it saw the bold employment of the full range of maritime
capabilities; including missile- warfare, carrier operations, submarine and antisubmarine warfare, amphibious operations, shore-bombardment, special operations, and mine counter-measures.
On 4 December 1971 daring raids by missile-boats on Karachi harbour sank Pakistani warships, set ablaze fuel tanks, bottled up the enemy fleet and virtually shut down the port. This was a role that Soviet tacticians had never envisaged for these small 400-ton craft. In eastern waters, as we gathered wreckage of the ill-fated Pak submarine Ghazi, the aircraft carrier Vikrant and her escorts, blockaded East Pakistani ports, attacked airfields and interdicted shipping, thus tightening the noose around General Niazi and his murderous hordes, who eventually surrendered on 16 December 1971.
India’s Maritime Tradition
While celebrating the successful storming of the Pakistani naval bastion, Navy Day is also an occasion, for the nation, to remind its citizens – especially the youth – of our glorious maritime heritage and of the forgotten seagoing exploits of ancient Indian mariners. Sardar KM Panikkar, Indian diplomat and historian debunks many Western myths in his 1945 monograph, when he proclaims, “Milleniums before Columbus sailed the Atlantic and Magellan crossed the Pacific, the Indian Ocean had become an active thoroughfare of commercial and cultural traffic.”
Panikkar refers to the powerful navies maintained by the Andhra, Pallava, Pandya and Chola dynasties in our Eastern waters to offer convincing evidence that intrepid Indian seafarers sustained maritime trade and cultural links with SE Asia for centuries. However, maritime intercourse was not confined only to our eastern waters, and extensive trading and cultural links existed with Africa and the Middle East, whose signs are still in evidence.
In the 11th century AD, a hundred-year maritime conflict between the Sumatra-based Sri Vijaya and South Indian Chola dynasties weakened both Empires and heralded the end of Hindu sea power. So, when Vasco da Gama arrived off Calicut in 1498, there was no Indian ruler who could muster a naval force to oppose their small, armed caravels. A few decades later, the British East India Company made its appearance on Indian shores to be followed by the Dutch, Portuguese and French. Thus, Indians, despite being heirs to an ancient maritime tradition, were colonised, enslaved and exploited by foreign maritime powers, because of their ‘sea blindness’.
In this dismal historical sequence, we must cherish the memory of a few naval heroes, who left a mark on the country’s maritime stage. Amongst these are the resolute and visionary Samuthari Rajas (or Zamorins) of Calicut, who waged a 90-year long naval campaign against the Portuguese, led by Captains of the Kunjali Marakkar clan. A century later, the Maratha admiral, Kanhoji Angre’s fleet of ghurabs and gallibats ceaselessly harried British, Dutch and Portuguese shipping, scoring many victories against their individual and collective forces.
While India’s Mughal rulers were bereft of any maritime awareness, the British who succeeded them, deliberately kept their Indian subjects away from the sea, focusing instead of a large army to keep order at home, and in overseas possessions.
A Partial Maritime Awakening ?
Therein lay the roots of India’s malaise of ‘sea blindness’ and the post-independence conviction that India was, inherently, a ‘ continental power’. As a consequence we find, well after independence, that the ‘ maritime sector’ has suffered sustained neglect. Here, it is important for India’s planners and decision-makers to comprehend that national ‘maritime power’ embraces a huge spectrum of the nation’s technological, industrial, economic and military capabilities, and that a clear distinction must be drawn between ‘maritime power’ and ‘naval power’.
The major components of maritime power include world- class ports and harbours, a modern shipbuilding industry, a substantive merchant marine, an effective coast guard, an ocean-going fishing fleet and the ability to harvest or extract economically important seabed resources. The last, but most important component of a nation’s maritime power is a capable ‘fighting navy’, which underwrites the safety and security of all its maritime interests.
The past two decades have, fortunately, witnessed a ‘maritime awakening’ amongst India’s land- oriented decision- makers. A series of developments, including the phenomenon of globalisation, the drama of rampant piracy, the traumatic 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, and the spectre of a growing Chinese Navy have all served to bring belated focus on the Indian Navy’s role in maritime security. A brief look at China is warranted at this juncture.
China’s ‘Maritime Power’
China’s pursuit of maritime power has been under-girded by the substantive growth of its seaborne-trade and energy supplies as well as overseas economic and security interests. In the security-related context, its long-standing claim on Taiwan and newfound territorial ambitions in the East and South China Seas have lent further impetus.
Ever since Xi Jinping designated the ‘maritime domain’ as an essential building block of his ‘China Dream’, the Communist Party has brought sharp focus on it, and overseen the systematic build-up of each element of ‘national maritime power’. The following information is relevant and illuminating: China is the world leader in shipbuilding today. Its 5000-ship strong merchant marine ranks No.1 in the world. China owns the largest number of coast guard vessels in the world. China’s ocean-going fishing fleet is the largest in the world. Chinese shipyards are rapidly adding to its fleet of modern destroyers, frigates, diesel submarines and logistic support vessels. Its force of home- built nuclear submarines has been operationally deployed. PLA Navy’s first aircraft carrier is at sea, with more on the way. In a few years the PLA Navy (PLAN) will be second only to the US Navy in capability. It is also noteworthy that China, for all its maritime prowess, has refrained from declaring itself a ‘ maritime power’ yet, because of certain perceived deficiencies. It therefore behooves India, which has already donned the mantle of ‘ net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean, to urgently conceive a national level strategy whose implementation will fill long- standing voids and create badly needed capacities in the maritime sector that will benefit our economy and reinforce maritime security.
Recent Naval Developments
The bright spot on India’s maritime horizon is the attainment of a degree of self- reliance in warship building. The seeds of self- reliance were planted by a visionary naval leadership in the 1960s, by persuading the political leadership that the nation must embark on indigenous warship production. In the face of great skepticism, both at home and abroad, Mazagon Docks delivered the first Leander class frigate, INS Nilgiri, in 1972. In the half century
since, Indian shipyards have launched over a hundred warships; ranging from patrol boats to frigates and destroyers and from hydrographic vessels to nuclear submarines.
The pinnacle of this admirable endeavour was achieved in 2013, when Cochin Shipyard launched India’s largest indigenously designed and built warship – an aircraft carrier – to be named INS Vikrant, in 2013. Building an aircraft carrier is, however, complex business and it could take anything up to 6-7 years before the ship goes to sea. In the meanwhile, plans for a second, bigger, carrier are on the designboards in New Delhi.
The past few years have seen the IN realising many long-cherished objectives, in all three dimensions of maritime capability. The nuclear- powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) INS Arihant, a product of India’s Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) project, has become the ‘third leg’ of India’s nuclear deterrent force, immensely reinforcing its credibility. The, 44,500 ton, former Soviet aircraft-carrier, re-named INS Vikramaditya, has been assimilated into IN fleet operations and participated in the trinational exercise Malabar- 2017, deploying its 4th generation MiG- 29K fighters and Kamov-28 and Kamov-31 helicopters against US and Japanese naval units.
Another milestone was crossed in 2014 when the first of a series of stealth destroyers, INS Kolkata was commissioned in Mumbai; to be followed by sisters, Kochi and Chennai. What places this class of 7,500 ton warships on par with contemporary warships, worldwide, is the advanced multifunction radar, and a long-range surfaceto-air missile; both being the fruits of a joint Indo-Israeli venture. The formidable, Indo-Russian, BrahMos supersonic surface-surface missile, that equips these ships, has no counter-measure, so far.
The January 2017 launch of the second of six Scorpene class submarines being built under licence, by Mazagon Docks saw a critical lacuna in our navy’s capability well on the way to redressal. A further four boats of the same design are to follow; by which time it is hoped that a second line of submarines (equipped with ‘air-independent propulsion’), designated ‘Project 75-I’ will be ready to go into production.
With PLA Navy submarines, - both diesel and nuclear – now undertaking patrols in the Indian Ocean, the IN was in urgent need of upgrading its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. The induction of the Boeing P-8I maritime-patrol and ASW (MR-ASW) aircraft will provide a major boost in this area.
Amongst its varied peacetime roles, the IN accords primacy to maritime diplomacy, exercised through its ‘Foreign Cooperation’ programme. By undertaking bilateral exercises with the world’s major navies, and by extending a hand of friendship to Indian Ocean neighbours through security, material, training and humanitarian assistance, it has not only established its own credibility, but also reinforced our diplomatic outreach.
In the above context, the 2016 International Fleet Review which saw the participation of 60 navies, was a major landmark for India’s maritime diplomacy and helped promote mutual friendship and understanding between the participating navies. Another notable and more recent initiative was the first biennial Goa Maritime Conclave, held in November 2017, in which Chiefs of ten IOR navies participated.
But, some Lacunae
Having recalled our maritime past and undertaken a survey of the present, it is necessary to take note of three major lacunae that may pose hindrances to India’s future growth as a maritime power; especially, in the face of China’s resolute advance in this field.
The current absence of an intellectual underpinning to India’s maritime power constitutes a worrisome void. The political establishment has, so far, neither spelt out ‘national aims and objectives’, nor focused on ‘national maritime interests’. The IN has bridged this gap by evolving a Maritime Doctrine and Strategy as well as a forceplanning document. Even as India creates a world-class ‘fighting’ navy, we lack most of
the other constituents (pointed out earlier) of ‘national maritime power’. It is, therefore, essential that India, like other maritime nations, draws up a national level ‘Strategy for Maritime Security’, which will bring focus on the missing ingredients. Without them, India cannot aspire to become a maritime nation; much less catch up with China.
The second area of concern, and one that affects combat-effectiveness, relates to the navy’s material shortcomings, arising from acute import- dependence. India’s vast indigenous defence-technological and industrial base has, so far, failed to make the navy self-sufficient in terms of guns, missiles, electronics, propulsion machinery and many other vital systems that go into warships and aircraft. While the nation eagerly awaits implementation of the ‘Make in India’ project, our reliance on imported hardware constitutes a serious vulnerability.
The last and most critical shortcoming in our national security matrix is the dysfunctional process of importing ordnance and hardware. The complex and sluggish bureaucratic processes within the MoD, can take anything from 5-10 years to induct a critically needed weapon- system. A grave manifestation of this lacuna is the fact that, today, every major IN warship, is handicapped (and vulnerable) as far as anti-submarine and anti-ship capability is concerned, because it lacks an integral helicopter. Obsolete shipborne naval helicopters have been awaiting replacement for over a decade. Urgent reformation of the acquisition and procurement processes will immeasurably boost our navy’s capabilities.
So, as far back as 1945, Sardar KM Panikkar had spelt out a vision of India’s naval power re-claiming the Indian Ocean as its area of influence. Today, Panikkar would have been pleased to see that his dream has been substantially realised by the steadfast endeavours of a naval leadership, inspired by his prophetic writings. Given the trans-national reach and versatility of maritime power, not only is the IN going to find greater salience in India’s national security matrix, but will also play a vital role in sustaining India’s economic prosperity.
All eyes seem to be on the Indian Navy – a modern and capable threedimensional force – rated by other navies as professionally up to NATO standards and eagerly sought by them as a partner for maintaining ‘good order at sea’ in the IOR. India’s ‘maritime awakening’ and the level of maritime consciousness amongst India’s politico-bureaucratic elite, however, remains inchoate. If the IN is, indeed going to play the role of a ‘game changer’ in the national security matrix, Navy Day 2017 should be an occasion for introspection.
As an important postscript, mention needs to be made of six young India women – all naval officers – who are almost half-way through their voyage of circumnavigation of the globe in a small sailing boat the Tarini. Skippered by Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi, Tarini follows in the wake of Mhadei which carried Captain Dilip Donde and Cdr Abhilash Tomy on their solo voyages around the world in 2010 and 2013 respectively.
The Indian Navy is doing its best to revive India’s hoary maritime tradition. The nation needs to follow.
Construction of IAC-1 (to be named ‘Vikrant’ in service) is proceeding apace at Cochin Shipyard, with the vessel planned to be ready by the end of this decade
The MiG-29K has transformed carrier aviation in India, but the IN already appears to be looking beyond the type for its third carrier, the under-development IAC-2 (photo: Angad Singh)
An all-women crew is currently attempting to circumnavigate the globe on the sailboat INSV Tarini (photo: Indian Navy)
The IN’s antiquated helicopter force is becoming a major concern (photo: Angad Singh)