Cooperation In The Indian Ocean Region
RE-VISITING NAVAL FORCE STRUCTURES*
In a related article, Admiral Arun Prakash’s speech delivered at the Goa Maritime Conclave at the Naval War College, is reproduced for Vayu readers.
The countries represented at the Goa Maritime Conclave range from city-states and island-nations to archipelagos and sub-continents. We may follow diverse methods of governance and even differ in political beliefs, but the waters of the great ocean that wash our shores form a powerful glue that binds us together. For centuries, the Indian Ocean, called Bahr al Hind by the Arabs, has carried religions, cultures, languages, traditions, and people, across thousands of miles; creating relationships that transcend nationality.
Historically, India, because of its central geographic location, has been privileged to play a catalytic role in this process of synthesis and churning. Even as our nations prosper on the rising tide of economics, our destinies remain inter-twined and it is important for us to stay engaged on security issues of mutual interest. It is, therefore, apt that the first Session of this Conclave should focus on ‘ naval force structures’ in the context of an evolving maritime scenario.
While examining a navy’s force paradigm, one has to consider the strategic environment as well as national interests, and the strategy that has been crafted to safeguard them. However, before embarking on a discussion of these factors, let me indulge in a brief historical ‘flashback.’
The discovery of sea routes across the Indian Ocean in the late 15th century, by the Portuguese, made it, for the next five hundred years, virtually a European monopoly, where trading nations, paying scant heed to Asian civilisations, cultures and races, engaged in a relentless quest for spice and specie.
As we look back, let us note that while colonialism may have become extinct, realpolitik continues to flourish, and there are hegemonic states, whose thirst for territory and resources as well as ambition for dominance can lead to intimidation of smaller nations; from whom they seek deference. We became victims of colonialism because we lacked the vision and will to unite against interlopers who came by sea. Nations of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) need to make common cause in the interests of security and ensure that we do not allow neo-colonialism to repeat history.
Another regrettable fall- out of our colonial past is relegation of the IOR to a strategic backwater. In the post-colonial era, blame for the IOR not acquiring its own identity must be accepted by all of us, who live on its shores. Not only has the level of intra-regional political interaction and trade remained low, but we have invariably gone beyond the IOR to seek partners.
Let us also note that the MEA has remained a passive bystander in the ongoing debate about the suitability of terms like ‘Indo-Pacific’ and ‘Indo-Asia-Pacific’ to replace ‘Asia-Pacific’. Since this discourse is rooted in conflicting external geo-political interests, we need to tread with caution and ensure that the coherence of the IOR is not impacted adversely.
Having taken note of the past; let me highlight some salient aspects of our current geo-strategic environment.
The Geo-Strategic Environment
The juxtaposition of three nuclear-armed neighbours; i.e. India, China and Pakistan, has created some unique deterrence-related issues in the maritime domain. At the strategic level, we must reconcile ourselves to the presence, in our waters, of nuclearpowered ballistic-missile submarines which represent the seaborne leg of respective deterrents. With the unilateral introduction of tactical nuclear weapons, into the equation, by Pakistan, we may also have to countenance their appearance at sea.
In the conventional domain, too, there is instability in the IOR; due to historical animosities, territorial disputes, or plain
mistrust amongst neighbours. China, although not an Indian Ocean nation, has to be accorded recognition because of its close alliance with Pakistan, as well as strategic aspirations, that have translated into naval presence and bases in this region.
Faced with economic constraints and developmental needs, many IOR nations also fear the prospect of political or military domination. Some have, therefore, resorted to, arms acquisition programmes, in the hope that a military build-up might provide insurance against hegemony. This has led to an unstated naval arms race in the IOR, and we are going to see more diesel-submarines, missile-armed warships, fighters and patrol aircraft in our seas and skies; with the attendant risks of mutual interference.
These were ‘traditional security threats’, arising from typical issues of international relations that are dealt with, by states or governments. At the level of navies, especially in a regional gathering such as this, it would be more appropriate to address, ‘non-traditional security threats’; described as, ‘challenges to the security and well-being of peoples and states, arising, primarily, from non-military sources’. Such sources may include international terrorism, piracy, environmental security, illegal migration, health pandemics, resource shortages and cyber attacks.
Since the end of the Cold War and especially since 9/11, concerns about nontraditional security threats have been growing steadily, and they are, in fact, assuming as much significance, in the national security calculus, as war and armed conflict.
At this point, let me draw attention to recent our experience in four areas, from which we can draw lessons regarding force structures to meet NTS challenges.
Safety of Shipping
Some 100,000 merchantmen transit the Indian Ocean, carrying cargo worth a few trillion dollars annually. All shipping, especially oil and gas-laden, as it passes through focal areas, is vulnerable to interdiction or interference by non-state actors. Safety of international shipping, in the IOR, has, therefore, been one of the prime issues of common concern, in the maritime domain.
We saw piracy in the IOR starting with sporadic incidents in 2004, and then rapidly spiralling to assume major dimensions; disrupting international shipping traffic and sending insurance rates zooming. It took the maritime forces of two dozen individual navies as well as coalitions, a decade, to bring this menace under control. Being a cyclical phenomenon whose ebb and flow is dependent on a number of complex factors, it is not surprising that piracy has re-appeared after a three-year lull.
The sustained international anti-piracy response saw a rare show of unity amongst nations, but remained sub- optimally effective, for two reasons. Firstly, the initiative, being largely extra-regional, had political, legal and technical constraints; and secondly, given the huge ocean areas to be covered, the effort was deficient in platforms as well as coordination.
Regional navies will need to work together and play a more prominent role; choosing from a number of economic, military and political options to craft a broad-based strategy to pre-empt or prevent a resurgence of large-scale piracy.
Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR)
The December 2004 Great Asian tsunami saw the Indian Navy deploying 38 ships, 21 helicopters, 8 aircraft and about 6000 personnel, within hours of receiving appeals for help from neighbouring countries. While our sailors did their best, the arrival of the US Navy, one week later, with its massive resources, clearly showed up our inadequacies. Where we had sent destroyers and frigates with inflatable boats, they brought amphibious ships with landing craft and heavy-lift helicopters. The 2004 tsunami was to have one fortunate outcome. Soon after the event, NHQ took up, with MoD, the acquisition of a 35- year old landing platform dock (LPD) USS Trenton, offered to us at a very cheap price. The bureaucracy, having – expectedly - thrown out the proposal, I took up the matter with the, then RM, Pranab Mukherjee. As soon as I mentioned that the ship could carry 900 armed troops or 1500 refugees, the
Minister responded, ‘Why one? Buy two of them.’ The 9000 ton Trenton arrived within months and remains in service as INS Jalashwa, where we had carried crates of bottled water, they landed RO plants; and where we had sent medical teams, they sent hospital ships.
The tsunami killed over a quartermillion people and was a harsh reminder that the Indian Ocean is not merely a geographic term but an eco- system connected by humans as well as natural forces. It also demonstrated the value of multi- national collaboration in rescue, relief and rehabilitation of victims. Climate change, too, is looming and has begun to affect islands and low-lying nations. Rising sea levels will lead to mass migration, social upheavals and regional crises. Under such circumstances, neighbours have a duty to render assistance in every possible way; and navies must lead.
The growing importance of HADR challenges requires that all regional navies, big or small, participate in the common endeavour to make the IOR as self-sufficient as possible in responding to these challenges.
Aviation and Submarine SAR
The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-370 in March 2014, in uncertain circumstances, brought focus on a critical area which demands maritime cooperation. The Search and Rescue (SAR) operation mounted, over vast ocean areas, was a task that Malaysia, by itself, could never have coped with, but setting aside political differences, many nations came together in this humanitarian cause.
In a related context, with a growing number of submarine operating navies in the region, the ready availability of a submarine- rescue facility has become imperative. Currently, only the Singapore Navy operates a deep submergence rescue vessel (DSRV), in our region. The IN has been lucky that it has managed to operate submarines, for nearly 50 years, with ad-hoc rescue measures. India’s first two DSRVs are due to arrive by next year.
Clearly, increasing aviation activity over the sea and submarine operations underwater make a compelling case for regional navies to pool aviation SAR and submarine-rescue facilities in a common cause.
Maritime Domain Awareness
For maritime cooperation, in any sphere, to be effective, it must be supported by a system that will provide maritime domain awareness and the necessary information about the maritime traffic picture. Since no single nation or agency has the ability to obtain comprehensive MDA on its own, this is another arena where IOR neighbours could pursue cooperation by creating a framework for information sharing with each other.
Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre as well as the 2013 tripartite cooperative MDA agreement between India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives could form the template for other similar accords across IOR.
Against this backdrop of threats, challenges and opportunities, let me turn to India’s force planning options. As I had mentioned earlier, the force-paradigm is rooted in maritime strategy and I will start by referring to it.
India’s Maritime Strategy
The Indian Navy contributes to the nation’s deterrence strategy in the conventional and nuclear domains by offering assured maritime capability, combat-ready forces and situational awareness; and by conveying clear signals of intent through ‘presence’ in areas of interest. Having addressed deterrence, India’s Maritime Strategy seeks to actively reach out to IOR neighbourhood for cooperative endeavours. By ensuring ‘good order at sea’ and reducing common threats, India hopes to also, don the mantle of a provider of ‘net security’ for regional friends and neighbours.
India’s Maritime Strategy describes its overarching objective as; ‘safeguarding national maritime interests at all times’’. At the same time, it also seeks to provide reassurance to IOR neighbours by focusing on: The safety and security of IOR trade and energy routes. Maintaining freedom of navigation and strengthening UNCLOS for universal benefit. Enhancing cooperation between navies to counter common threats at sea. The strategy spells out a number of sub- strategies; each based on a discrete ‘maritime security objective’. Of these, two are of interest in the present context. The strategy for ‘ Shaping a Favourable Maritime Environment’, envisages a set of actions to preserve peace, promote stability and maintain security; thus contributing significantly to provision of ‘net security’ in the IOR. It encompasses activities like EEZ patrols, anti- piracy operations, HADR, non- combatant evacuation operations, maritime interdiction operations, UN peace support operations and search & rescue missions.
The strategy for ‘Force Development’ looks at about a dozen thrust areas and capabilities required to meet the navy’s future roles. It envisages a force-architecture for Power Projection and for exercising Sea Control, through a balanced surface and submarine fleet, supported by integral and shore based naval aviation.
Three aircraft- carriers are envisaged as forming the core of battle-groups, to be accompanied by requisite number of surface combatants and logistic support ships. The multi- mission combatants will be capable of waging anti-ship, anti-
submarine and anti-air warfare. They will be complemented by amphibious and mine counter-measure forces. By end of the next decade, these capabilities should translate into a sizeable force of about 170 modern ships, submarines and auxiliary vessels and about 400 aircraft, supported by MDA and network-centric warfare capabilities.
Force Planning Options
India’s force- planners are compelled to tread a thin line; balancing future threats with present ones; strategic deterrence with conventional deterrence; and capabilities to counter traditional threats with those required for non-traditional threats. Fiscal constraints imposed by needs of national development will sooner than later, force our planners to make some hard choices.
Of these, the most critical one relates, perhaps, to our aircraft- carrier building programme. The affordability and continuing operational utility of air craft carriers is often questioned, especially in light of China’s anti-carrier strategy. At the same time, the PLA Navy’s own ambitious carrier building programme poses a potential challenge. The conundrum which we need to resolve is this: can the commanding presence, deterrent potential and concentrated firepower of an aircraft-carrier be substituted by a paradigm of ‘ distributed lethality’, that is spreading firepower amongst destroyers, frigates and attack-submarines?
Navies also need to diversify. While concentrating on their ‘Military’ role, they must include, in their repertoire, a range of capabilities required for the ‘Diplomatic’, ‘Constabulary’ and ‘Benign’ roles. Whereas aircraft- carriers, landing platforms and amphibious ships lend themselves readily to multi-tasking, other combatants may need modifications at the design stage to enable compatibility for non-military roles. Funding a hospital ship, by the IN, would be money well-spent in terms of its huge utility as well as goodwill potential.
Another choice that navies will need to make is that between independent operations and inter- operability and cooperation with other navies. Here, we may note that the broader compulsions of globalisation and universal concern for security of the global commons are eroding the old concepts of naval dominance within the nation-state paradigm. We may need to review the relevance of Admiral Mahan’s teachings and perhaps, lean towards Julian Corbett’s more subtle approach to seapower.
Historically, Indian Ocean nations have faced threats from insurgencies, mercenary invasions, attempted coups as well as natural calamities. Since many regional navies are. Now, growing in strength and capabilities, it is time for us to consider the creation of an ‘Indian Ocean Maritime Partnership’; perhaps under the aegis of IONS. Such a multi-national partnership, first envisaged by former US Navy Chief Adm. Mullen, could be mobilised at short notice to spread the burden of meeting tasks related to ‘good order at sea’ and address many other maritime areas of common concern.
As conclusion, we can state that even as the dynamic of growing economies promises a bright future for countries of our region, there are a host of traditional and nontraditional security threats at sea which could disrupt progress and inflict human suffering as well as economic damage. It is our belief that maritime security cannot be seen as a ‘zero-sum game.’ Assurance of security and prosperity, only for some nations, would foster anxiety amongst others, and lead to tension and instability.
Inclusivity is vital, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi encapsulated this thought when he announced on a 2015 visit to Mauritius; “We seek a future for the Indian Ocean that ensures Security and Growth for All in the Region.” These words have given birth to the acronym ‘SAGAR’, which has become the leitmotif for India’s regional maritime diplomacy.
Bearing the PM’s message in mind, as well as another piece of old wisdom which says; ‘No nation can do everything by itself, but many nations can do much together’, our force-planners must build navies that are inter-operable and will complement each other to enable collective responses.
*Adapted from a speech delivered by the writer at the first Goa Maritime Conclave on 31 October-1 November 2017 at the Naval War College, Goa.
Piracy in the western IOR remains a global concern
The Indian Ocean Region is a sizeable maritime area and opportunity for regional naval co-operation
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman (centre) with Admiral Sunil Lanba on her left at the Naval War College, Goa, during
‘Distributed lethality’ could be an answer to the steep costs of aircraft carrier strike capability