Although India’s ancient maritime tradition pre-dates Greek, Roman and Carthaginian exploits in the Mediterranean, not enough is known about it, because we had neither a Herodotus nor Thucydides to record history; and our past suffers from a lack of documentation.
A lone Indian voice in this historiographic void is that of Sardar KM Panikkar; statesman, diplomat and visionary. According to Panikkar, due to its earlier civilisation and its predictable system of monsoon winds, it was the Indian Ocean region, and not the Mediterranean or Aegean Seas, which saw the world’s first oceanic sailing activity.
THE PURPOSE OF SEA POWER
American strategist Admiral Mahan, writing in 1902, said: “War has ceased to be the natural, or even normal, condition of nations, and military considerations are subordinate to the other great interests they serve; economics and commerce.”
In our own context, the dramatic growth of India’s economy has been stimulated by the powerful phenomenon of globalisation; leading to not just large foreign direct investment in India, but also heavy Indian investment abroad. Thus, along with an Indian Diaspora of over 20 million, we also have growing economic interests world-wide. India’s economy as well as progress and prosperity depend on international trade, which is carried overwhelmingly by sea; as is energy, the lifeblood of our industry. These factors, coupled with the prospects of harvesting oceanic resources and India’s growing international profile, have helped awaken an overdue realisation of our dependence on the seas.
We need to be quite clear that contrary to popular perception, a country’s maritime strength does not reside, exclusively, in its navy; which is merely one of a number of components that complement each other in contributing to maritime security. In fact, by creating an expensive navy and neglecting the other constituents of maritime power we are indulging in self-delusion. There is an urgent need to focus on the other aspects, many of them belonging to the civil sector, that are needed to make India a complete maritime nation.
THE MISSING INDUSTRIAL UNDERPINNING
It is a quirk of fate that India has become a significant military and economic entity, with great-power aspirations, before it has become a significant industrial power or even a major trading nation. Thus, India finds itself in an anomalous situation wherein it possess nuclear weapons and boasts of the world’s 5th or 6th largest armed forces, but is forced to support their operational requirements through massive imports. The nonchalance with which we continue to import huge quantities of defence hardware not only undermines our security but renders all talk of ‘strategic autonomy’ quite meaningless.
In a related context, it is preposterous and irrational that while the MoD has no qualms about importing billions of dollars worth of weapons from abroad, it should strongly resist any suggestion about private Indian companies entering the defence sector. This single measure has deprived the navy of the support that a capable private sector industrial base that could have provided, in peace and in war. Consequently, the navy’s operational readiness remains hostage, on one hand to the inefficient and complacent public sector, and on the other, to unreliable foreign suppliers.
THE CIVIL MARITIME DOMAIN
Considering that 97 per cent of our trade is carried by sea, the civil maritime sector, defined by the Ministry of Surface Transport as encompassing port operations, the merchant fleet, the shipbuilding industry and trained human resources, is a vital component of maritime security.
Three major aspects of the civil maritime sector addressed by these perspective plans are ports, the shipping industry and shipbuilding. Since all of them impinge either directly or indirectly, on maritime security I will touch upon them briefly.
PORTS AND HARBOURS
To a mariner, India’s 13 major and 176 minor ports present a distressing prospect. Badly congested, poorly managed and lacking in facilities for dredging, mechanisation and storage, they are grossly inadequate to meet the cargo-throughput requirements of our growing economy.
A nation’s merchant fleet is yet another strategic asset, and now crude-oil and natural-gas carriers and container ships are almost as important as warships in the secur India’s merchant fleet, 15th largest in the world, has been almost static, for some years, at 1000 ships totalling 10 million tonnes. This fleet can carry less than 10 per cent of our foreign trade, and is not only woefully inadequate for India’s needs, but also lacks container, product and specialised carriers. Considering the fact that the Indian seaborne trade is set to double or triple by 2020, the Indian shipping tonnage needs to be speedily augmented in order to arrest further decline in the share of Indian ships.
While the basic driver of shipbuilding is global seaborne trade, it is a strategic industry which an emerging power like India has been gravely remiss in not nurturing. Of all the Indian flagged merchant vessels, just over 10 per cent have been built in Indian shipyards; because of higher costs, lengthy delivery periods and, sometimes, due to indifferent quality.
Indian shipyards contribute just 1 per cent of the global market share. The target of achieving 5 per cent share of global shipbuilding in next seven years set by the Maritime Agenda-2020 is quite unrealistic, because even a marginal increase capacity will call for a herculean effort.
WHAT AILS THE DEFENCE SHIPYARDS?
No nation has ever become a maritime power by importing naval hardware from abroad, and competent warship building shipyards are the sine qua non for achieving ascendancy at sea. In their long-term vision of creating a competent maritime force, India’s naval leadership has remained steadfast in their resolve to have it built in Indian shipyards; even in the face of acute scepticism. Regrettably, this commitment to indigenisation has not been reciprocated by the industry with equal passion.
The real cause for serious concern relates to the tendency which makes us declare that a newly delivered warship is, for example, ‘75 to 80 per cent indigenous’. While some may consider this an acceptable piece of public-relations hyperbole, such statements actually cause grave harm because they lull us into complacency. The truth of the matter is that the propulsion, weapons, sensors, electronics and many other systems that go into every warship, that we build indigenously, are either imported or assembled in India under licence. Therefore the chances are that the ship may actually be 75 to 80 per cent imported by value!
India’s main strategic challenge comes from its prosperous northern neighbour; China. Without entering into a detailed discussion about respective capabilities and intentions, it can be said that China and India, are going to make uneasy neighbours. For the two nuclear-armed nations to rise, almost simultaneously, without conflict will require either adroit diplomacy or a miracle; possibly both. The all weather Sino-Pakistan alliance, with its strong anti-Indian slant, further complicates our security problems.
Within the Sino-Indian strategic equation, the maritime dimension is a relatively new factor. The rapid growth of both economies has led to increasing reliance on energy and raw materials, which are transported by sea. This has focused sharp attention on the criticality, for both economies, of uninterrupted use of the sea-lanes for trade and energy transportation. Thus, while the PLA Navy makes forays into the Indian Ocean, the IN has newfound commitments in the South China Sea.
The navy’s biggest challenge is going to be the timely replacement of ageing platforms and obsolescent equipment. The envisaged order of battle of about 150-170 ships and submarines, and possibly 250-300 aircraft assumes certain delivery rates from shipyards and aircraft factories; which they seem incapable of meeting. At the same time, our other major source, of hardware, the Russians, have brazenly reneged on costs as well as delivery schedules, in violation of solemn agreements. One of the more serious challenges before the navy’s leadership will be to persuade the Russians as well as Indian DPSUs to deliver on time and within cost.
The failure to acquire even a reasonable level of self-reliance in major weapon systems in the past 66 years has made India the biggest importer of arms world-wide; and this must count as a failure of the DRDO and DPSUs. Crafting a viable and time-bound strategy which will persuade the DRDO to develop, reverse-engineer or import the technology for weapons and sensors for our indigenously built warships will constitute another major challenge for the IN.
China’s pursuit of a, so called, ‘string of pearls’ strategy tends to draw considerable attention in strategic circles due to its high-profile economic connotations. While India may not be able to match China’s financial munificence, the navy’s ‘foreign cooperation’ initiatives have ensured creation of a favourable maritime environment in the region. Apart from activities such as exercises, joint-patrolling, port calls and flag-showing deployments, the navy’s out-reach also includes provision of maritime security on request by neighbours.
Intense maritime activity in the Indian Ocean and the huge area that has to be kept under surveillance requires substantial reconnaissance and anti-submarine capabilities. The expected advent of the PLA Navy, especially its nuclear submarines, into the Indian Ocean will lend urgency to the maritime domain awareness (MDA) task. The IN has evolved a multi layered surveillance capability with deployment of task-optimised aircraft, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles for each layer. The ‘icing on the cake’ is the recently launched GSAT-7 communication satellite, meant exclusively for IN use, which will facilitate the networking of sensor and weapon data across its vast footprint.
The arrival of INS Vikramaditya, with its complement of MiG-29K fighters and Kamov-28/31 helicopters, will boost the navy’s capability to exercise sea-control and to project power over the shore. Current plans envisage a second (and perhaps third) indigenously-built carrier joining the fleet in the 10-15 years. Given the wealth of carrier operating experience available in the IN, these ships are capable of tilting the balance of power in our region.
Operationalisation of the SSBN ‘Arihant’ will ensure that India has an invulnerable 2nd strike capability; thus enhancing the effectiveness and credibility of its nuclear deterrent vis-à-vis adversaries; China and Pakistan. As the Service responsible for safe and efficient conduct of SSBN operations, the IN will also be the custodian of their nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, thus enhancing its status and importance in the national security totem-pole.
The induction of the nuclear-powered attack-submarine (SSN) INS Chakra has placed a powerful weapon of offence and sea-denial in the hands of the IN. Unlike warships which remain vulnerable to detection and attack from all three dimensions, a SSN on patrol vanishes from sight; to reappear as the deadly nemesis of ships and submarines. Apart from the anti-shipping role it can also undertake, with virtual impunity, tasks as varied as surveillance, special-operations, intelligence-gathering and land-attack.
A strong and balanced navy is vital for India’s march towards major power status. Such a force will soon be a reality; largely through the navy’s foresight and indigenous efforts. However, it is necessary for the decision-makers to understand that the navy, by itself, constitutes just one pillar of the country’s maritime capability, and without the rest of the structure, including strategic guidance, to complement and provide support, the edifice of naval power will indeed remain hollow and vulnerable.