The Defense of Indian Waters: Looking Ahead

May 15, 2006
Cynical Nerd

The 137-ship Indian Navy is critical to India's defense. The geographic configuration and economic importance of the Indian Ocean - the only ocean named after a nation state, make this imperative. India has been a status quo power to date. It needs to grab the initiative now to preempt the inevitable security challenge. It ought to emphasize maritime security activism over continental self-defense. India's defense is best met by widening its security perimeter in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).


The Indian peninsula juts 1,250 miles into the sea. This brings 50% of the IOR within a one-thousand mile arc of India. India under the Raj viewed the entire stretch of water from the Swahili coast to the Straits of Malacca as impinging on Indian defense. The independence of India has not changed this ground reality.

The Indian Ocean has immense economic significance to India. The sea lanes in the IOR are the lifeline to the international economy. A quarter of the world's trade and energy requirements move through the Indian Ocean. The hydrocarbon reserves in the Middle East makes it significant to the energy-dependent economies in Australia, East Asia, Europe, India and North America. $200 billion worth of oil passes through the Straits of Hormuz each year. Of this $70 billion traverses the Straits of Malacca (see map). Furthermore, India has an exclusive economic zone of more than 772,000 square miles with undersea resources that could be mined to good effect. The military configuration in this ocean of such importance is of immediate concern to New Delhi.

The United States has a significant naval presence in the Indian Ocean on account of the economic importance of the region. This includes its base in Diego Garcia and its Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf and also in Guam in the Asia-Pacific. China is currently modernizing its largely brown water navy and investing in ports in the Indian Ocean to ensure secure access to energy and contain India. It is building an aircraft carrier battle group, submarine bases and modernizing its maritime power projection capability. It would be naive to think of a "peaceful rise" just as General Zhao Zhanqui, Director of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences made it clear as early as 1993 that "China will check Indian attempts to dominate the Indian Ocean. India seeks to develop its Navy to rival large global powers. This is something we cannot accept. We are not prepared to let the Indian Ocean become India's Ocean."

The countries that border the Indian Ocean are home to much of the world's volatile Muslim population. This restiveness feeds into a religious fundamentalism and makes it a turbulent region demanding extensive surveillance against piracy, trafficking, terrorism and nuclear-proliferation.

Naval Strategy:

In light of this, India's naval objectives are to (i) safeguard its economic and defense interests in light of increased military activity and declining stability in the Indian Ocean; (ii) preempt Chinese efforts to encircle India; and (iii) project influence in the African Littoral, Antarctic and the South China Sea as well.

In operational terms, India is investing in (a) naval hardware; and (b) strategic alliances with regional and non-regional actors.

The medium-term plan is to have three aircraft carriers with modern multi-role fighter aircraft, early warning helicopters, anti-ship warfare, nuclear and diesel-electric submarines, air surveillance capacity and second-strike missile capability built around a core of an aircraft carrier in each instance.

Naval Assets:

The INS Vikramaditya to be inducted in 2008 joining INS Viraat the sole carrier ship at present. The second aircraft carrier code-named the Air Defense Ship will be indigenously built and will be launched in 2012 to replace the then aging INS Viraat. A third indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC) will be commissioned in the next decade. India will have a fleet in the Bay of Bengal based in Vishakapatnam and Port Blair, a fleet for the ocean to its south based in Kochi, and the third fleet in the Arabian Sea based in Kadamba, Karnataka.

India is currently working on a complex project to link up its warships and submarines via a dedicated satellite. Russia and India intend to jointly develop a space-based Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS). This would be an alternative to the US based Global Positioning System.

India finalized a $2.1billion deal to acquire six French Scorpene submarines. It intends to procure three destroyer class warships from Russia. It plans to purchase 30 long range helicopters and is currently negotiating the lease of two P3-C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft from the United States. The navy has already commissioned the indigenous construction of 27 warships while the procurement of another 36 ships is on the cards.

India intends to establish a triad of land, air and sea launch platforms for its missile-based nuclear weapons systems. Investment in submarine capacity alone will ensure India's second strike capability aimed at the eastern Chinese seaboard. This would deter any Chinese efforts to browbeat India into compliance. It is currently exploring the option of an indigenous nuclear powered missile submarine - the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) in addition to the indigenously produced diesel-electric submarine the INS Shalki. The European Union and ASEAN had expressed concerns on the ATV. India had stopped work on the ATV in 1996 but it ought to continue working given the increased militarization of the Indian Ocean and Chinese force projection plans.

Strategic Alliances:

India is currently building strategic alliances with key island and littoral states of the IOR to preempt extra-regional intervention. India supported the coast guard of the Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles and helps patrol the vast exclusive economic zones of those countries. This is intended to stabilize fragile island states that might otherwise fall into the Chinese sphere of influence. The Chinese have already sought base facilities in the Marao atoll in the Maldives.

India conducts annual joint naval maneuvers with Burma, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand to its east. The links were intended to preempt Chinese efforts to use facilities in the Coco Islands in Burma (see map) and the Kra Isthmus in Thailand to contain India. China is investing in airfield, road, rail, gas pipeline and ports in coastal Burma to integrate it into the Chinese hinterland. China had reportedly offered $20 billion to Thailand to construct the Kra canal that would dissect the 60 mile Kra Isthmus and reduce shipping time. This would divert shipping from the Straits of Malacca. It plans a Greater Mekong Subregion program to project influence. India has countervailing road, rail and port investments planned in Burma.

The Indo-Japanese naval cooperation assumes salience in this regard. The Japanese navy has had an increased profile in recent years backstopping American operations in the Arabian Sea. The Indo-Japanese alliance needs to be strengthened to counter the Sino Pakistani alliance. In addition, India needs to cultivate strong strategic and commercial ties with China-wary states such as Taiwan and Vietnam as well.

India was quick to use its navy to ensure immediate relief to Indonesia, the Maldives and Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami despite its own relief needs in Tamil Nadu and the Andaman Islands. India entered into a maritime surveillance pact with Sri Lanka.

India undertook joint naval exercises with Oman. It contributed to UN peace keeping efforts in the Horn of Africa with a view to stabilize Ethiopia and Eritrea in light of the strategic importance of the Red Sea. India plans a monitoring station in northern Madagascar. It has joint exercises with Mozambique and is currently negotiating a defense agreement. India trains Tanzanian military personnel while it conducts combined drills with South Africa.

Looking Ahead:

India now needs to look ahead to the Antarctic given that continent's minerals, fossil fuels and marine resources, and that continent's geostrategic value. Argentina, Australia, Britain, Chile, France, New Zealand and Norway have territorial claims in the Antarctic. India will need to aggressively assert its presence in the region as a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty. It had organized 24 expeditions to the continent and currently has two permanent bases there. But more needs to be done to ensure that no Anglo Saxon or European power exercises territorial claims on a continent that can influence the military configuration in the south Indian Ocean.

India will also need to project power in the South China Sea. Its joint maneuvers with Singapore there are useful in light of its planned Indian submarine-based missile defense system that could target the economic heartland of China, currently out of India's land-based missile reach. More exercises in the South China Sea would counter Chinese efforts to invest in Burma, the Maldives, Pakistan and Iran with a view to contain India.

Further Reading:

K. M. Panikkar, "India and the Indian Ocean", Allen & Unwin, London, 1945.

"Shaping India's Maritime Strategy - Opportunities and Challenges", speech given by the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Arun Prakash at the National Defence College, Nov. 2005 (link)

"The Year That Was", Indian Navy Annual Report, 2005. (link)

Donald L. Berlin, "India in the Indian Ocean", U.S. Naval War College Review, Vol. 59, No. 2, Spring 2006 (link)

Related articles:

here, here, here and here.

Co-authored by Jaffna and Cynical Nerd.

The author writes at National Interest
eXTReMe Tracker
Keep reading for comments on this article and add some feedback of your own!

The Defense of Indian Waters: Looking Ahead


Author: Cynical Nerd


Comments! Feedback! Speak and be heard!

Comment on this article or leave feedback for the author

Add your comment

(Or ping:

Personal attacks are not allowed. Please read our comment policy.

Remember Name/URL?

Please preview your comment!