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The Future of Indian Sea power: Navalists versus Continentalists

Commentary, 15 August 2013
Central and South Asia
This week, India unveiled major introductions to its navy. They are aimed at applying pressure to China, its chief strategic adversary, but will this be done at the expense of its border defences in the Himalayas?

This week, India unveiled major introductions to its navy. They are aimed at applying pressure to China, its chief strategic adversary, but will this be done at the expense of its border defences in the Himalayas?

INS Arihant

The Indian Navy has had a seminal week, though capped with tragedy. On Saturday (10 August 2013), the reactor in its first indigenously-built SSBN, the Arihant, went critical, taking India one step closer to the achievement of the nuclear triad it declared as its objective in 1999. Two days later, India's first indigenously-built aircraft carrier, the Vikrant, was formally unveiled. Then, on Wednesday, a conventional submarine exploded after a fire on board, sinking in its Mumbai dockyard and possibly killing 18 sailors. Together, these highlight both the opportunities and challenges for one of Asia's most rapidly growing navies.

Along with the maturation of India's missile force - the intermediate-range Agni V was first tested last year - and the growing sophistication of India's material and human nuclear infrastructure, such as the Strategic Forces Command, the Arihant should contribute to growing Indian confidence in the survivability of the country's nuclear forces. The Vikrant, which will host a squadron each of the Mig-29K and the nearly-completed indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), is intended to be the first of further indigenously-built carriers, in addition to the perpetually-delayed Admiral Gorshkov, a Soviet submarine being refitted for India. Vikrant will not enter service until 2018 or so, and Arihant not before next year - and even then, many of the weapons, support ships, and operational procedures will not have been worked out. India has operated both aircraft carriers and  nuclear submarines for decades - the INS Vikrant was also the name of an ex-British carrier in service with India from 1961, and the country leased a Charlie I class nuclear-powered submarine (the Chakra) from Russia between 1998-1991 - but the technologies and threat environment have changed substantially, and indigenously-built platforms will have particular teething problems. This week's fatal explosion on board the Russian-built Sindhurakshak, the second within three years, and the latest in a series of naval mishaps, underscores the enduring problems of safety and reliability afflicting both imported and indigenous equipment, and the weakness of India's conventional submarine fleet in particular.

Notwithstanding massive Russian assistance to the Arihant, these vessels do however represent rare successes for an indigenous military manufacturing effort that has, over the past thirty years, proved lacking in efficiency and quality. They also serve as the star vessels in a fleet whose ambitions have grown substantially over the past decade, to include a blue-water role across and well beyond the Indian Ocean. The timing of the two launches this week was important in this regard, coming weeks after a serious flare-up in the border dispute between India and China. It has long been assumed that one of the primary tasks of the Indian Navy and its expanding fleet is to apply pressure to China's Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs), the maritime routes by which China ships resources and goods, in the event of conflict. Sino-Indian tensions have catalysed an Indian debate over those assumptions, and that debate has implications for the future composition, size, and posture of the Indian fleet.

Exploiting China's Weakness in the Indian Ocean

Ajai Shukla, an experienced defence journalist with the Business Standard, conveys the conventional wisdom when writes that ''analysts agree that the Indian Navy ... can shut down the Indian Ocean shipping lanes whenever it chooses,'' and quotes a retired fleet commander as confidently declaring that ''a couple of submarines and a fighter squadron at Car Nicobar could easily enforce a declared blockade.'' India's first official naval doctrine, released in 2004, itself boasted that ''control of the [maritime] choke points could be used as a bargaining chip in the international power game ... by virtue of our geography, we are in a position to greatly influence the movement/security of shipping along the SLOCs in the [Indian Ocean Region]'' - though it added the caveat neglected by others: ''provided we have the maritime power to do so'.'

Raja Menon, a retired Rear Admiral and prominent advocate of sea power in Indian strategic debates, built on these assumptions in a recent op-ed in the Hindu. What prompted his intervention was the Indian government's decision, after many years of deliberation, to invest substantially in raising a new, expensive, and ambitious Indian Army strike corps (roughly 90,000 new troops - or more than the entire size of the British Army in a few years) intended for the Chinese border:

[China's] strength is the huge logistic network that they have built up in Tibet. By creating a one axis strike corps, we have played into their strengths. The Chinese weakness lies in the Indian Ocean, a fact that even Beijing will readily concede. The clash between their political system and economic prosperity requires resources and, increasingly, the Chinese resource pool is Africa, which generates massive sea lines of communication (SLOC) through the Indian Ocean. Today, they are merely SLOCs; tomorrow they will be the Chinese Jugular ... Sixty thousand crore [around $10bn] spent on strengthening the Indian Navy's SLOC interdiction capability would have given us a stranglehold on the Chinese routes through the Indian Ocean. The Himalayan border, the entire border, could have been held hostage by our strength in the Indian Ocean with an investment of Rs.60,000 crore.

Menon's take is not new, although rarely is this couched in such starkly inter-service terms. But what is interesting is the scale of pushback against this argument. Zorawar Daulet Singh countered in the Hindu:

While conceptually intuitive, the linkage requires equivalence: Beijing must value the integrity of its SLOCs enough to change its calculus on the mountains. Naval blockades are also complicated operations. The time horizon for success to the point that China would find its resource security threatened would be significantly longer than a swift and limited, continental operation whether pursued for punitive reasons or to change the Line of Actual Control. China's growing, strategic petroleum reserve, though intended to offset market disruptions, will also be an asset in such a scenario. Further, China's pursuit of new Eurasian lines of communication, both with growing energy linkages with Russia and connectivity through Central Asia, indicate a potential, declining dependence on Indian Ocean SLOCs at least for some strategic resources. Plainly put, a core interest cannot be secured by peripheral, horizontal escalation.

Bharat Karnad, a hawkish analyst who has long advocated more assertive Indian policies toward China, made similar points in the New Indian Express:

[A]s empirical evidence shows, a maritime strategy can overcome only island nations (such as Japan in World War II) but by itself can at most seriously discomfit, not stifle, major land powers enjoying interior lines of communications [...] In a 'limited war' launched by PLA, sinking a few Chinese warships found east of the Malacca Strait, or sinking or capturing Chinese merchantmen on the high seas is surely not enough recompense for loss of valuable territory in Arunachal Pradesh and elsewhere along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Karnard also expressed doubt that India's navy ''of 50-odd capital ships by 2030' would be sufficient to impose a complete blockade on China, and raised the important issue that blockades take much longer to achieve their aim than ground operations, allowing China to fulfil any limited war aims on the border long before 'Chinese naval ships and merchant marine can be found and sunk, and the Chinese economy impacted'.

Nitin Gokhale, another defence journalist, agreed with this view:

SLOCs are not an exclusive preserve of either India or China and the international community is therefore bound to intervene to keep the passage free to enable trade and commerce to function normally. A selective blockade of China-centric sea traffic is realistically difficult to implement even if on paper the prospect looks alluring.

Apart from the eloquent re-assertions of familiar arguments, this round of the debate is valuable and interesting for a few separate reasons. Sean Mirski, writing in the Journal of Strategic Studies, argued that 'the existing literature on the subject is remarkably sparse, circumscribed, and inconclusive', and concluded, after his own review, that 'a blockade is not a priori impossible or irrelevant in any situation, it is also not a ready tool in the American arsenal and would be feasible mainly within certain boundaries'.

Re-appraising India's Strategic Priorities

Despite growing interaction between the US and Indian navies, and India increasingly interested in broader Asia-focused debates over China, India still views this question firmly in unilateral terms. The scenarios discussed are usually bilateral disputes, and envision India acting on its own. Nonetheless, the Indian debate on blockade, sea control, and the application of pressure on SLOCs remains embryonic. It has much to learn from the American literature.

Second, Indian assessments of the country's maritime strength will be important factors in shaping Indian crisis behavior, particularly as the border dispute flares up once more. Whether or not India believes it possesses this degree of naval leverage might affect whether it feels able to escalate a future crisis on the border. Currently, there is reason to suppose that some Indian analysts and retired officials systematically overstate India's ability to constrain SLOCs. The Indian Navy's own thinking is not in the public domain, so it is impossible to assess how developed their concepts are.

But what is particularly important about this round of the debate is that the specific and difficult question of distinguishing Chinese shipping from other international shipping, and therefore constraining SLOCs without inviting international opprobrium, is getting some attention - a practical question that usually is ignored in discussions of the Indian Navy's coercive missions.

Third, the debate has implications for inter-service resource allocation, with the Navy recently losing out to its rival services. In the 2013-2014 defence budget, the Navy's share of total defence spending fell by the most, and the Navy comprises the smallest share of the budget (18 percent - versus 28 per cent for the Indian Air Force and 49 percent for the Indian Army).  Moreover, a recent report by India's Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) found that the Indian Navy only has '61, 44 and 20 percent respectively of the frigates, destroyers and corvettes that it has projected as its minimum requirement.' The debate over whether China is more vulnerable on land or sea has a bearing on how India's resources are spent in the future and whether those shortfalls in boat (and especially submarine) numbers are rectified over the longer-term. The high-profile launch of major vessels like the Vikrant should not obscure the fact that there remain many areas of weakness in the Indian Navy.

Fourth, and finally, this particular debate over how to respond to China is valuable because, insofar as it has been sparked by the decision to raise a mountain corps for the Indian Army, it has been couched as a trade-off, and therefore brings the question of military priorities to the forefront. Tradeoffs and priorities lie at the heart of strategy, and it is beneficial for India -- a country long criticised, perhaps unfairly, for a lack of strategic thinking - that it should be forced to think about the question of military modernisation as a series of choices across all dimensions of power, including land, sea, and air, rather than a series of intra-service decisions to be made in isolation from one another. India was able to throw money at the problem in its period of plenty, but  it now faces growth rates much lower than those of the 2000s with little prospect of swift return to the boom days. The debate between navalists, contintentalists, and others is an important bellwether of how India's military maturation might progress, and how future debates over the allocation of scarce resources might play out.


Shashank Joshi
Senior Research Fellow

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI. He specialises in international security in South Asia and the Middle East, with a... read more

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