India has celebrated Navy Day on December 4 since the 1971 war with Pakistan, when three Indian missile boats sank three Pakistani ships off Karachi that day with six missiles. This marked the start of India’s first naval offensive against Pakistan and was only the second time anti-ship missiles had been used in combat. But, four decades later, it is not the Pakistani navy but the prospect of another maritime terror attack and the expansion of China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean that worries the Indian navy leadership.
Over the past decade or so, the threat from the Pakistani navy has reduced due largely to its ageing fleet. Yet, the Pakistan navy’s ten P-3C Orion and Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft could still target high-value Indian surface warships, as well as submarines. Its five ex-French submarines are currently being replaced by eight Chinese Yuan-class conventional submarines. And, the possibility of nuclear-armed missiles being deployed aboard Pakistan’s surface ships would require considerable Indian naval effort and resources to track them as a priority.
The fact that the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks were mounted by terrorists who came by sea ensures that the Modi government retains a strong domestic focus on coastal and island security. Yet, despite the overhaul of maritime security since then, India continues to remain vulnerable to another maritime terror attack. As many as 300,000 fishing boats operate off the Indian coast. In late December 2014, a Pakistani fishing boat believed to be acting in a suspicious manner was intercepted by the coast guard and subsequently sank or was sunk – depending on whose view one accepts. In late April 2015, the Indian navy and coast guard seized two suspicious Pakistani boats off the Porbander coast.
Maritime domain awareness, or the development of a comprehensive surveillance and near real-time operational picture, is fundamental to counter such vulnerability. Coastal security also needs to be enhanced through improved and coordinated marine police, navy-coast guard and centre-state interactions. Commercially-available technology and commercial sources of data for surveillance and identification purposes need to be further utilised. There also needs to be better sharing of information and intelligence, as well as coordination on operational matters, among Indian civilian and military organisations and agencies. In August 2009, the Indian navy’s official Maritime Doctrine incorporated new constabulary missions including counter-terrorism and anti-piracy operations.
Beyond this, the Indian naval priority is to counter China’s assertive policy towards India and the expansion of Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean, which it perceives as possible ‘encirclement’. A visit by a Chinese submarine to Sri Lanka last year, followed by the first-ever reported visit of a Chinese submarine to Karachi, heightened Indian security concerns. The tempo of Chinese submarines operating close to the Ten Degree channel, separating the Andaman from the Nicobar group of islands, has increased, with an average of four contacts reported to take place every three months. China continues to invest in the construction of the deep-water Gwadar port in southern Pakistan, a central project in its new ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy, as well as in Hambantota port in southern Sri Lanka, planned to be one of the largest in South Asia when completed. A key contract for the expansion of Male international airport in the Maldives was granted to a Chinese company after the controversial cancellation of its Indian contract.
In response to these challenges, the Modi government appears committed to a six-pronged strategy.
1. Proclaiming primacy of the Indian Ocean
In a welcome departure from the past, the Modi government perceives the Indian Ocean as an essential part of India’s ‘immediate and extended neighbourhood’ and, therefore, as a foreign-policy priority. In Mauritius in March 2015, Modi unveiled a four-part framework for the Indian Ocean, the first by an Indian prime minister in decades, focusing on: defending India’s maritime territory and interests; deepening economic and security cooperation with maritime neighbours and island states; promoting collective action for peace and security; and seeking a more integrated and cooperative future for sustainable development. Pragmatically, this ensures the focus remains on India’s core strategic arena of the Indian Ocean rather than an expanded ‘Indo-Pacific’ theatre of operation.
2. Ensuring maritime domain awareness
Significantly, the Modi government has agreed to set up eight coastal surveillance radar systems in Seychelles as part of an ambitious project to build a maritime domain awareness network in the Indian Ocean. This reportedly also includes the establishment of eight surveillance radars in Mauritius, six in Sri Lanka and 10 in the Maldives, all to be linked to 51 sites on the Indian coast and island territories. These are connected to the recently established Information Management and Analysis Centre – located near Delhi, that is jointly run by the Indian navy and coast guard.
3. Being a ‘net security provider’ to Indian Ocean island states
Modi has played a more activist role in expanding maritime security cooperation, building on a policy that began under the Manmohan Singh government. In March 2015, India gave a 1,350-tonne Barracuda-class offshore patrol vessel to Mauritius and a second Dornier maritime patrol aircraft and a coast guard ship to the Seychelles. It also agreed on infrastructure and investment development in Assumption Island, Mauritius and Agalega Island in the Seychelles. Since July 2013, India has had a trilateral maritime-security agreement with Sri Lanka and the Maldives, focusing on counter-terrorism, hydrography and the sharing of intelligence on illegal maritime activities. Such a cooperative arrangement could be expanded through the participation of both Mauritius and Seychelles.
4. Boosting maritime security cooperation
Significantly, the Modi government is building strategic networks to counter Chinese naval influence in the Indian Ocean. During US President Barack Obama’s visit to India in January 2015, the two governments outlined a joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. A follow-on 10-year defence framework agreement was signed, with a new focus on aircraft carrier technology cooperation. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is strengthening bilateral naval cooperation, and joint naval exercises between India and Australia resumed in September 2015. Naval exercises with Japan are to take place on a regular basis following a trilateral exercise that included the US in the Bay of Bengal in October 2015. Vietnam and Japan are India’s two key strategic partners in the Pacific. Regular Indian warship visits and patrols also take place in the South China Sea. India’s ‘Act East’ policy provides the diplomatic content to these relationships. Defence cooperation agreements also exist with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.
The Modi government also wants India to shoulder a greater degree of responsibility for shaping the region’s security architecture. The India-US joint strategic vision statement included a paragraph affirming ‘the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.’ This was perceived as implying that the two parties had reached a consensus on the need to counter Beijing’s assertive handling of conflicting regional territorial claims. In October 2015, the navy revised its maritime security strategy, ‘Ensuring Secure Seas’. Focusing on deterrence, conflict, coastal and offshore security, maritime force and capability development, it examines ways to shape a ‘favourable and positive maritime environment’.
5. Limiting maritime engagement with China
At the same time, the Modi government seeks to engage China on maritime security, but on its own terms. Exchange of ship visits continue, and China will be one of over 50 navies participating in the Indian Navy’s international fleet review off Vishakapatnam on 4-8 February 2016. Yet, India views the Chinese OBOR and Maritime Silk Road initiatives with suspicion and will not join up. In March 2012, the two foreign ministers had agreed to set up a dialogue on maritime cooperation, but, nearly four years on, it has yet to meet.
6. Expanding India’s fleet
India’s fleet of 14 submarines, 27 principal surface combatants and nearly 100 patrol and coastal combatants, alongside two squadrons of maritime patrol aircraft, is to be expanded with the reported aim of becoming a 200-ship navy in the next decade. As a result, India has one of the most ambitious warship building programmes in the world, with only the US and Russia significantly more active.
However, the navy remains some way from possessing the capabilities that would be required for the degree of maritime dominance in the Indian Ocean to which India is now aspiring. The Indian navy’s fleet is ageing, with an estimated 60% of vessels reported to have reached various stages of obsolescence, and its submarine force fast-dwindling. Warships under construction are suffering considerable cost and schedule over-runs. It also lacks adequate capacities needed for sustained deployments, such as logistics ships, minesweepers and helicopters both for regular naval uses and for anti-submarine warfare. Moreover, India needs an improvement in its relations with the Maldives in order to ensure effective maritime domain awareness. It also needs to implement security cooperation with island states with whom China has also developed close economic and trade relations.
Moreover, the pace and direction of India’s attempts to counter Chinese naval ambitions will be determined by three factors in the future. First, the establishment of a naval force at the Andaman & Nicobar islands tri-services command, rather than the patrolling of ships from their base at Visakhapatnam. Second, the resumption of a ‘quadrilateral’ maritime exercise that took place in 2007 with the US, Australia, Japan (and Singapore), which ceased following a démarche by China to all the participants. Third, the often much-speculated sale of the Brahmos anti-ship missile to Vietnam.
Rahul Roy-Chaudhury is the Senior Fellow for South Asia and Arushi Kumar is a Research Assistant at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, UK.