India’s growing unmanned aerial vehicle fleet is being put through its paces in defending against a future Mumbai-style complex terrorist attack. During a 48-hour-long exercise, Gemini-2, UAVs from the Navy’s 342 Air Squadron cued patrol boats and coastal police to thwart mock terrorists attempting to infiltrate Southern India’s shoreline from the sea. The first iteration of Gemini was held in November 2012, and other multi-agency coastal security exercises (‘Sagar Kavach’) have been conducted frequently since the Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks on Mumbai in 2008.
India’s ground-based tactical Searcher MK II and longer-ranged Heron UAVs are a component of a more comprehensive maritime observation network consisting of manned aircraft, cooperating fishermen, and coastal surveillance radars and cameras installed in 90 lighthouses along India’s 7,500 km coastline. India’s army and air force are also acquiring some small tactical UAVs to support anti-terror surveillance in urban areas.
This article was re-posted by permission from, and appeared in its original form at NavalDrones.com.
By Felix Seidler, Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany / German blogger.
Nothing has been as over-hyped since August 2011 as China’s aircraft carrier program. After the former Soviet carrier Varyag, fully refurbished by the Chinese and renamed Liaoning, took its first “test drive”, thousands of blog posts, press pieces, and scholarly articles argued about possible regional and global implications. Is this single ship a regional or even global threat? What about the balance in the East and South China Seas?
Stay calm, people. After a few tests, China’s Navy – the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) – has shown it is in fact still years away from having an operational aircraft carrier, let alone integrated carrier strike group.
Moreover, if a navy wants to have a single operationally available aircraft carrier at any one time, it needs at least two, and better still three carriers in rotation: the one in operational status, one in the shipyard, and one in training and work-ups. According to these numbers, it is unlikely that the PLAN will be able to sustain a “blue water” carrier presence before 2020 based on projected shipbuilding schedules.
Even the first flights of a J-15 Shark from Liaoning’s deck were more PR event than step towards a credible carrier force. It’s one thing to launch a single fighter under controlled and planned conditions. Conducting dozens of flight movements per hour in wartime requires a significant increase in capabilities and training. To reach this, China must still walk a long road.
Eye on India
However, while most observers were busy with Liaoning, Asia’s only operational aircraft carrier, India’s INS Viraat, has largely been left out of the discussion (sorry, Thailand, but your never-operating carrier is not a serious asset). The first reason why India’s carrier must be taken more seriously than China: operational experience. India has been operating its current carrier since 1987 (the now-decommissioned INS Vikrant began service in 1961), and already has in place the necessary supply chains and logistics that the PLAN lacks. China’s maritime “Long March” could take longer than Mao’s to gain all the experience India already has. And while both China and India could turn to Russia for potential assistance, only the latter would likely receive carrier support – whether logistics or training – from the U.S., France, or the U.K.
Unlike their Chinese counterparts, Indian commanders already conduct serious exercises with their helicopter and fighter pilots integrated with their carrier crews. China, due to the lack of capacity (i.e. a carrier at sea) has not yet started the most crucial parts of its carrier training. Russian experts warn it may take the Chinese another decade to learn how to “efficiently” run carrier operations. Meanwhile, India’s next carrier INS Vikramaditya (former Soviet Admiral Gorshkov), due the benefits of Russian support, is already training in Arctic waters and is expected despite delays to enter service in late 2013 or 2014. The indigenously built INS Vikrant is slated to be commissioned in 2015. In consequence, whenever the PLAN’s first carrier is operational, India will have at least two well-trained counterparts (Viraat is set to decommission in 2020). Furthermore, India will generally be able to maintain one operational carrier off-shore while China, at least initially, will not.
New Delhi and The Three Carrier Big Boys
Beside Russian support – generous, but not free – India participates in joint exercises with the navies of the other two “Carrier Big Boys,” the U.S. and France. The PLAN is far from such trials and, beyond search and rescue (SAR), these navies by policy will not conduct full-scale combat training with a Chinese carrier, their possible future foe.
For instance, in April 2012, the U.S. and India conducted the 15th joint naval Exercise Malabar; which also included warships from Australia, Japan, and Singapore. Training with the U.S. means that India has the opportunity to look at and, thereby, learn from the skills of the world’s best carrier-operating navy. However, Indians pilots have not yet been reported taking off from U.S. carriers. Also unprecedented but not improbable, India’s carrier officers, pilots, and crews could hone their skills training side-by-side with the world’s best counterparts. This is something Chinese sailors are probably never going to experience. China’s fighter pilots had to travel to Brazil for portions of their carrier flight training.
Moreover, the U.S. is joined by France in using their carriers as political means of improving strategic ties with India. In 2011 the French Navy sent its carrier Charles de Gaulle, accompanied by surface vessels and a nuclear sub, to India for a joint exercise. Of course, this was also an advertisement for the French carrier-capable Rafale fighter, which India has since purchased. Operating combat-proven (Libya), NATO-interoperable fighters from carriers is surely a positive. Meanwhile, the competition is mostly working with slight improvements on copied Soviet and Russian designs. While China is developing a flat-top capable stealth fighter (the J-31), it will take years before it reaches full operational capabilities and production. In response to the threat of a Chinese carrier with J-31s, India could opt for the F-35C or a carrier-capable version of the Russian T-50 PAK FA. The U.S. and Russia would probably sell everything to New Delhi to keep a resurgent India in their camp.
Given all these advantages there can be no doubt that India’s already operating carriers deserve much higher esteem than China’s refurbished test-object in Dalian shipyard. However, it’s time to put the carriers into the geo-strategic context.
India’s Lasting Geo-strategic Advantage
For all its current carrier edge over China, India will not become a U.S.-like carrier superpower; but nor does it need to. Look at the Indian Ocean on the map and you’ll see the world’s most important sea-lanes running in front of the Indian military’s ports and air bases. Some of the most critical geostrategic hotspots and maritime chokepoints, including the Strait of Hormuz, the Malacca Strait, and the Gulf of Aden are nearby. For example, from its Andaman and Nikobar bases, India could easily block the northern entry of the Malacca Strait in the event of conflict.
By comparison, the PLAN has natural access only to the Malacca Strait, and to reach it must traverse the South China Sea, which can easily be filled with the subs and vessels of neighboring nations’ and the U.S. Navy. Thus, due to geography, the PLAN would have a far more difficult time exerting control on, or re-opening, access to the chokepoint than the Indian Navy. The Indian Navy would have a good deal easier job of accessing the South China Sea than the PLAN the Indian Ocean. Additionally, India has no “island chains” from which opposing forces can launch strikes, and therefore does not need to concentrate on Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) and instead can focus on freedom of action.
The Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game
Finally, in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game – how I like to describe what is going to happen in the map at top over the next 50 years – the better cards are in India’s hand.
As mentioned, India has the geographic edge. New Delhi’s maritime lifelines cannot easily be blocked. And, if someone tried, India’s carriers, surface vessels, subs, and air bases are within striking distance of the chokepoints. Furthermore, India has the better demography, with a younger (average) population base than China’s, which is “getting older before it gets rich.” This is important, because the Achilles Heel of the PLAN’s carrier program is the development of the Chinese population. Changes in society and government could reverse Beijing’s decisions in the carrier case. In 2060, India is expected to be the third or second largest economy in the world. Hence, it will have the money and the technology to sustain its number of carriers at an even higher rate than present.
With this in mind, whoever worries in the U.S. or Europe about these Chinese carriers, which could patrol the Indian Ocean’s SLOCs, should remember that India will be there too. So will other countries, like Australia. It’s time to recognize that of the two Indo-Pacific neighbors only one can as yet legitimately claim to be a global maritime power.
Besides, it won’t all come down to naval power in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game. Of course, as the U.S. military recognizes, it must incorporate Air-Sea, but Space and Cyber must play integral roles too. Remember, all ships and fighters are worth nothing without satellite communications and a working cyber infrastructure. Therefore, wordy though it is, an Air-Sea-Space-Cyber-Battle is the way ahead (or perhaps Air-Sea+?); perhaps not only for the U.S., but for those developing their influence in the Indo-Pacific too.
Last week the Indian government announced that it had arrested Abu Jindal, an alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba leader accused of masterminding the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai which killed at least 160 people. His capture was only the most recent of a series of arrests and trials in India, Pakistan, and the US of people involved in planning or participating in the attack. Those events spurred a major re-evaluation of India’s maritime security posture, but the efforts that India has undertaken to improve those capabilities demonstrate some of the inherent difficulties of applying the concept of Maritime Domain Awareness to missions like counter-terrorism.
Despite these efforts, it does not seem like India’s improved maritime security framework has been successful. In 2011 the Indian Comptroller and Auditor General issued a highly critical report stating that the Coast Guard “remains ill-equipped to discharge its enhanced role and meet the challenges of today… Post 26/11, the response of ICG and government has been ‘ad hoc’ as can be witnessed by increased patrolling, increased funding, fast tracking procurements.” The most embarrasing instance was when a ship originally abandoned off the coast of Oman escaped detection by India’s new “multi-layered coastal security” system and washed ashore in Mumbai during July 2011. Even though Indian authorities claimed that patrols have increased, as of 2011 theplanned Command & Control network, radars, and AIS receivers enabling them had yet to be fielded as planned. Only 250 or so of the 1000 SPB billets had been filled, and none of the planned 80 interceptor craft had been purchased.
Whether or not India’s efforts at improving Maritime Domain Awareness and interagency cooperation between the Navy and Coast Guard are successful, it still remains unclear how either entity would have been able to act against the attackers. It was later revealed that the US had provided warnings to the Indian government warning of a seaborne attack and that hotels were potential targets in Mumbai. It is unclear whether those warnings were disseminated to Navy or Coast Guard units at the tactical level, or whether that would have even made a difference.
According to the lone culprit captured alive after the attack, the attackers left Karachi on the ship “AL HUSSEINI,” and then hijacked a fishing trawler named “KUBER” in Indian waters. They killed all the crew but the captain, who was then killed after guiding them to Mumbai. The attacker claimed that the fishing trawler that they had hijacked had been detected by an Indian Navy or Coast Guard vessel, but that Navy or Coast Guard patrol did not stop the trawler. Being detected was the event that spurred the attackers to leave the trawler and start their final movement ashore in small inflatable boats.
Assuming that story is true and the trawler was seen by the Navy or Coast Guard, there still is not necessarily a reason that those authorities would have had to justify them interdicting and boarding the suspect trawler. It is plausible that they could have been ordered to stop all suspect vessels, but it is not clear that the trawler full of terrorists would have met the criteria of a suspect vessel at first glance (it was just a fishing boat heading to Mumbai). Without a good description or location of the boat, how would the Indian Navy or Coast Guard target it? This instance demonstrates the difficulty of both achieving something like total Maritime Domain Awareness, and then applying that knowledge to drive successful operations.
How often did Indian intelligence and/or the various maritime security agencies get warnings of this type, and if so, would the operational result of that be instructions to interdict all vessels in a certain area? How would the boundaries of such a search area defined? How would “suspect” vessels be identified without an accurate description of the target? How long could any maritime force sustain widespread interdiction of suspect vessels? Even an unlimited number of maritime platforms and ship-tracking sensors will not make any difference in terms of differentiating the bad guys from the rest of the civilian traffic if the bad guys are able to blend in. Realistically, the only way that the Indians would have been successful in stopping the attackers would have actionable indicators derived from analysis or penetration of those illicit networks such as the location or description of a specific boat.
Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence Officer and currently serves on the OPNAV staff. He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
A few weeks ago I was at a conference in Portsmouth, United Kingdom, assessing the historical, contemporary, and future relationship between the Royal Navy and the nation. Amongst the discussions that took place was one chaired by the former First Sea Lord concerning the issue of construction and procurement, in particular the ability of Britain’s shipbuilding industry to meet the requirements of the RN and at what cost. The UK still produces some of the most technologically sophisticated warships and weapons systems in the world, as the Type-45 destroyers are testament to. Yet, they increasingly come at a premium at odds with the current weak state of the country’s economy and an austere government that has instigated huge cuts to its armed forces, particularly its navy, following 2010’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). The rationalisation of Britain’s defence industry from decades of mergers and takeovers and the rise of monopolistic monoliths like BAE Systems do not help, with a lack of domestic competition for national defence contracts that might otherwise lower prices. Still, a major issue lies in the decreasing numbers and frequency of warship orders, and the higher cost per unit this inevitably produces. We’ve already seen Britain outsourcing certain shipbuilding capabilities, with four new Royal Fleet Auxiliary tankers ordered from South Korea in February of this year, and it now seems unlikely that another tanker will be produced in the UK again for the RFA, at least in the short to medium-term future, as those skills are lost from its workforce. The question is where Britain draws the line. Does the UK and RN need to make a firm decision as to what industrial capacity it should safeguard in its national strategic interest, such as nuclear submarine construction, and what could be procured from overseas without loosing too much operational capability? Smaller patrol craft and minesweepers perhaps? To do so could produce a more affordable, sustainable navy, and abate the continuous reduction in numbers.
As a historian who studies the post-Second World War development of colonial naval forces into sovereign Commonwealth navies, this issue to me highlights a fascinating shift in strategic-economic relations that raises questions and concerns in areas of geopolitical uncertainty. For several decades, the vast majority of the world’s arms, particularly more technologically-sophisticated warships, came from the same small group of producers located in the traditional ‘First World’. The underdeveloped industries of post-colonial countries, a hangover from imperial policies to turn colonial economies into primarily suppliers of raw materials for the metropole’s industry, meant that they were often continuingly dependent on the former ‘imperial motherland’ to supply them with equipment for their nascent armed forces, subsidised by development aid packages. This was particularly the case in countries that didn’t wish to align themselves in the bi-polar international system of the Cold War, such as initially India. Countries like Britain derived not only economic benefits from such a relationship, including offloading its outdated and surplus warships, but political and strategic ones too from being able to shape the composition and capabilities of such beneficiaries to complement its own designs for ‘Commonwealth Defence’. India recognised the undesirableness of such a situation, and has made a concerted effort to overhaul its shipbuilding industry over the last fifty years, embarking upon ambitious indigenous construction programmes, including recently Shivalik-class stealth frigates and Vikrant-class aircraft carriers. Other formerly ‘developing’ countries, most notably China, also now have impressive manufacturing capabilities. With that comes opportunities for export, and as the industrial capacity of established producers in the West declines and is surpassed by the more-competitive emerging economies of the East, new defence agreements will be forged between untraditional partners. The link between economic and politico-strategic influence is intrinsic, and as countries such as Britain were once able to use naval procurement as leverage and a way of furthering their own interests, new producers such as China and India can be expected to do the same. This could lead to the creation of new strategic alliances and increased uncertainty in regions of escalating maritime tension and instability, with potentially frightening consequences for all.
Dr Daniel Owen Spence is Lecturer in Imperial and International History at Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom, and publishes research on nineteenth and twentieth century naval history.