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Indian Maritime Airpower Pt. 1

This article originally featured on South Asia Defence and Strategic Review and is republished with permission.

By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Retd) 

The once fierce IN-IAF debate about the relative efficacy of carrier-borne airpower versus shore-based airpower supported by airborne replenishment tankers has largely been muted by the availability of budgetary support for both. In fact, serious practitioners of India’s military airpower now include all three Indian Armed Forces. In terms of their holdings, operational reach, and logistical complexity, they rank in the following order: the Indian Air Force, the Indian Navy, and the Indian Army. However, the country’s paramilitary forces, too, — most especially the Indian Coast Guard and, to a lesser extent, the Air Wing of the Border Security Force (BSF) — have a significant role in the deployment of military airpower within the country and its maritime zones.  Driving this more ‘egalitarian’ approach is the growing realization that India’s rise demands an urgent and substantive investment in all dimensions of national security. These include internal (societal) as well as external dimensions. They also include intangible facets (building trust-capital, education and human resource skilling, sustainable resource-management, etc.,) as well as tangible ones (infrastructure, technology, manpower, equipment, etc.) Importantly, the investment of large sums of money is common to all of these. 

Narrowing our focus to the tangible facets of our external security, and further, to an examination of available options for the application of air power for maritime security, we find India once again in a rather unenviable position for a self-avowed major maritime power. In the coming month or two, the Indian Navy will (very unwisely and very prematurely, in the opinion of this writer) decommission the Viraat — mainly for lack of her integral Sea Harrier aircraft, which have already been phased out. This decision is typically that of a new toy relegating an older one to the basement and is probably due to the ‘Air Force-conditioning’ of the Navy’s senior naval aviators who were at the apex levels of the Navy when this decision was made. The fact that a duly constituted Board of Officers (BoO) took this decision is merely a fig leaf of a cover, for the BoO’s decision would have been governed and bound by Terms of Reference given to it. The Viraat, in her earlier avatar as the Hermes, has served admirably as a commando carrier and is internally equipped to embark and sustain 900 fully armed troops. Thus, even as the induction of four new Landing Platforms Dock (LPD) remains mired in the Kafkaesque labyrinth of the South and North Blocks where the Ministries of Defence and Finance play their own version of the Pentagon Wars, the Navy has squandered the opportunity of sustaining the Viraat as an immediately available ‘Landing Platform: Helicopter’ (LPH). The ship ought to have been delinked from frontline Fleet operations, made to embark 16 ALH (the time-intensiveness of their blade-folding would not be an issue as they would be required solely for deliberate deployment and not for reactionary ones), and been used to gain invaluable procedural and operational-logistical experience for amphibious operations. But that, as the aphorism goes, is another story that will be dilated upon elsewhere. 

Where frontline Fleet operations are concerned, the new Vikrant is still a couple of years away from induction, and in the interim, the Vikramaditya and her integral air group (comprising MiG-29K variants and a woefully inadequate number of rotary-wing aircraft such as the Kamov-31, and the venerable Sea King Mk 42B and Chetak) will be all that can be fielded for the critical here-and-now element of naval airpower.On the other hand, we have the media-driven hype and hoopla over the several aerospace exhibitions and related mega-events that are being organized with increasing frequency under the ‘Make-in-India’ banner — and often by one or another ‘chamber of commerce.’ These certainly cause adrenaline rushes and surges of nationalistic fervor, but good advertising cannot for long compensate for the lack of a good product. On perhaps a more useful level, however, all this serves to generate a renewed examination of the available options in respect of this desired air power. As a consequence, debates are reignited on the ‘desirability’ versus ‘affordability,’ and the ‘desirability’ versus the ‘survivability’ of aircraft carriers versus land-based air power, contextualized not only to the prevailing security environment, but also to that expected to prevail in the immediately foreseeable future. Thus, while the criticality of the maritime domain — and that of the military maritime domain — is beyond any reasonable doubt, the question is whether aircraft carriers do, indeed, provide the biggest ‘bang’ for our collective ‘buck.’ 

As mentioned above, there are two fundamental threads along which this debate tends to proceed. The first argues for and against the ‘cost’ — or, more appropriately (even if less frequently), the ‘cost-effectiveness’ — of aircraft carriers, both within the paradigm of conflict as well as outside of it. The second examines the survivability (defensibility) of aircraft carriers in the contemporary and foreseeable battle milieu.  

Since the option of not having any airborne surveillance or combat capability at all is one that all schools of thought reject, it is relevant to compare the ‘costs’ involved and the ‘cost-effectiveness’ accruing from sea-based (integral) airpower versus land-based airpower. Inevitably, the steep cost of an aircraft carrier makes it the subject of intense scrutiny by experts and the lay public alike. And indeed, an informed debate is entirely right and proper for it is public taxes that allow one or the other option to be exercised.  Of course, the operative word there is ‘informed.’ 

Cost Comparison between Airbases at Sea and on Land 

It is true that a modern aircraft carrier costs an enormous amount of money to procure, even more to construct indigenously, and even more for it to be operated and periodically maintained (refitted), along with its complement of aircraft, over the several decades of its operational life. Available open-source inputs indicate that the final cost of the Vikramaditya has been of the order of ₹ 12,500 Crore (USD ~$1.8 billion), while the ongoing construction of the 40,000-tonne indigenous aircraft carrier (the Vikrant) will reportedly cost the exchequer some ₹ 24,000 Crore (USD ~$3.6 billion) although this latter figure also includes the cost of infrastructure enhancement of the Cochin Shipyard, where the Vikrant is being built. These are very considerable sums of money. What about the costs of the shore-based air-power option? There are equally forbidding costs to be airborne here as well — in the construction and periodic maintenance of ‘coastal’, ‘inland’ and ‘forward’ IAF airbases. For instance, just the replacement cost of a single runway on an existing air force base can easily cross ₹ 600 Crore.  In the case of a ‘virgin’ airbase, the construction cost would have to include land-leveling and associated land-development costs as well. At the USA’s Atlanta airport, for example, the cost of adding a fifth runway capable of routinely handling wide-bodied jet aircraft was $1.24 billion which is about ₹ 7,500 Crore. Add to this the cost of the parallel taxi track, the sheltered, bombproof hangars, the ATC, the various radars, navigational and communication equipment, and the self-defense wherewithal—and one ends up with a cost far in excess of the overall cost of construction of an indigenous aircraft carrier.

The largest and the first indigenously-built, 40,000 tonne aircraft carrier (IAC) named INS Vikrant was undocked on 10 Jun 2015 at a simple ceremony held at the Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL). (Indian Navy photo)  

Some analysts, in attempting to counter the inclusion of all this airbase infrastructure have tried to inflate the cost of the aircraft carrier by adding the life-cycle cost of the escort forces which, together with the carrier itself, make up a Carrier Battle Group. However, the difference is that even without the aircraft carrier each of these warships that comprise the CBG are potent and eminently deployable platforms, while without the aircraft that it supports, shore-based infrastructure is meaningless. However, the lack of mobility of an airbase ashore is where the aircraft carrier really scores over the former. Each aircraft carrier provides for an extensively mobile’airbase, thereby virtualizing a number of static ones. Once the emotive content is removed from the comparative equation, the aircraft carrier, with its operational life of some 45-50 years, is readily seen to offer the most cost-effective option for dealing with mobile maritime threats. That said, it is equally obvious that shore-based threats that emanate deep inland (and which must be countered there) cannot be met by carrier-borne airpower.  There is, thus, little option but to simultaneously incur the expenditure required to build up the nation’s shore-based airpower, most especially that of the Indian Air Force.  

Carrier Survivability 

This brings us to the question of the survivability (defensibility) of the aircraft carrier in the contemporary and foreseeable battle milieu.           

Several Indian analysts worriedly point to the acquisition by potential adversaries of reconnaissance satellites, anti-ship ballistic missiles, supersonic (and now ‘hypersonic’) long-range cruise missiles, nuclear-propelled attack submarines (SSNs), very quiet diesel-electric submarines, and so on. These are serious apprehensions and neither can nor should evoke glib responses that are driven by empty bravado. There are real lives involved and that too, in large numbers. A modern aircraft carrier is run by a highly trained crew of well over 1,500 men. This roughly corresponds to one-and-a-half Infantry Battalions of the Indian Army! Other than in a nuclear war, it is impossible for the Indian Army to lose one-and-a-half battalions to enemy combat-power in just a few minutes. However, the fact this magnitude of human loss may occur in so compressed a timeframe is exactly what could happen were one of the Indian Navy’s contemporary aircraft carriers to be sunk as a result of enemy action. The effect upon residual fighting capability, as also upon resultant morale at the Naval, Armed Forces, and national levels would be no less catastrophic. Hence issues involving a careful vulnerability-assessment and equally careful vulnerability-mitigation are serious matters that merit serious and informed discussion and debate. 

Operational Employment 

As mentioned in the cover story of the Nov-Dec 2016 edition of this magazine (See “The Indian Navy, Rising to New Challenges”, pp. 19-23), in order to maximize her options for strategic or operational maneuver (at the regional-theater level) in responding to military aggression by potentially adversarial nation-states such as China and Pakistan, India is inevitably driven to acquire, possess and master ‘blue water’ naval capability. This capability is centered upon the Carrier Battle Group (CBG), which is a synergistic and mutually-supporting conglomerate of warships centered upon an aircraft carrier, such that the combat-capability of the group as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is very important to bear in mind that it is the group and not the aircraft carrier alone that must remain the central point of reference and it is a basic analytical error to try and fractionalize the CBG. Of course, not all analysts are able to resist the temptation of analyzing the aircraft carrier as a standalone ship (largely because a carrier is so hugely symbolic and tends to attract so much attention). The net result is the development of a set of apparently sophisticated but nevertheless fallacious arguments relating to the real and perceived vulnerabilities of this single platform alone. 

A typical combat-engagement cycle involves sequential Surveillance, Detection, Classification, Identification, Localization, Tracking, Attack-Criteria (i.e. Evasion / Engagement), and Damage Assessment. It is against this cycle that the vulnerability of an Indian CBG in times of conflict needs to be assessed. The first problem for an enemy that seeks the destruction of an aircraft carrier of the size and type under discussion is one of combat surveillance and resultant detection.  

CBGs routinely put to sea well before any crisis deteriorates into conflict and would invariably have been judiciously positioned firmly within ‘blue-waters.’ The fact that all carrier-operating navies realize the folly of keeping aircraft carriers in harbor and put them out to sea well in time is borne out by history. In the six years of the Second World War, only one aircraft carrier (the Imperial Japanese Ship Amagi) was ever sunk while in port. Thus, as Dr. Loren Thompson of the USA’s Lexington Institute reminds us, “…the most basic protection the carrier has against being detected… is distance. The areas in which carriers typically operate are so vast that adversaries would be hard-pressed to find them even in the absence of active countermeasures by the battle group.” 

The magnitude of this problem needs to be appreciated. The Indian Ocean has an area of some 73.6 million square kilometers. Even if one were to consider just the 3.86 million square kilometers of the Arabian Sea alone, it would be obvious that continuous surveillance of such a large water body is well outside current capabilities of any form of shore-based radar, including the much touted Over-the-Horizon ones. Persistent surveillance by sea-based radars (aboard ships and submarines) is a complex affair. The average range of detection by a shipborne radar of a large surface ship is only about 30 nm (56 km), thereby yielding detection within an area (πr2) of 9852 km², which is just 0.2 percent of the Arabian Sea! For the entire Arabian Sea to be kept under surveillance against a CBG, one would need some 471 ships, each with continuously-operating surface-detection radar, manned on a ‘24 x 7’ basis by a set of highly trained and constantly awake and alert radar operators. Persistent surveillance by submarines is a non-starter as detection-ranges are significantly lower due to the low height of the radar antenna — apart from not being an operationally viable option.

Consequently, the options of choice are satellite-based oceanic surveillance and oceanic surveillance by airborne radars. However, since any contemporary Indian CBG would be quite comfortably able to cover a distance of some 900-1,000 km in a 24-hour period, real-time detection is needed. Insofar as satellite-based detection is concerned, this calls for ground stations whose footprint would enable real time downloads of imagery (electro-optical, radar, infrared, or whatever) of medium/large objects detected at sea. An adversary seeking to make the Indian Ocean transparent must therefore possess an adequate number of adequately located ground stations. As the name implies, ground stations require ground. Such an adversary must, therefore, possess adequate territory upon which ground stations can be positioned — even if such ground stations are contemporary, small, and/or portable ones, such as the U.S./NATO ‘RAPIDS’ (Resource and Program Information Development System). All this is well beyond the current or near-term capabilities of either of India’s likely adversaries.

Turning finally to airborne detection, this is typically achieved through shore-based Long Range Maritime Patrol’ (LRMP) aircraft such as the P3C Orion, the Boeing P8I, etc. Pakistan has some capability within the Arabian Sea and China has some marginal capability at the eastern fringes of the Bay of Bengal. These capabilities are further degraded by the Indian Navy’s deployment pattern in respect of the CBG. In accordance of the principles of maneuver warfare (as opposed to those of attrition warfare), the CBG would not normally be deployed where the enemy’s tri-service strength is the greatest — in this case, within the unrefuelled combat radius of an intact enemy’s shore-based Fighter Ground Attack (FGA) aircraft. Indeed, the deployment pattern of the CBG is an overarching factor that is germane right across the combat-engagement cycle under consideration.  

But what if detection is, indeed, achieved? How survivable is the aircraft carrier thereafter? This is what the second part of this article will explore…stay tuned. 

Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan retired as Commandant of the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala. He is an alumnus of the prestigious National Defence College.

Featured image: Admiral Gorshkov under refit to become INS Vikramaditya. Note ski deck. (Photo via Defense.pk)

The US-India Logistics Agreement and its Implications for Asia’s Strategic Balance

The following article was originally featured by the Pacific Forum-CSIS’s PacNet series and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.           

By Abhijit Singh 

Recently, editorial columns in Indian newspapers have become a battleground for strategic commentators to debate the merits of India’s defense logistics pact with the United States. Despite a public declaration by the Indian government regarding the “non-military” nature of the Logistics Exchange Memoranda of Agreement (LEMOA), the pact hasn’t resonated favorably with a section of India’s strategic elite, who reject the idea of providing the US military with operational access to Indian facilities. New Delhi might have much to gain from the LEMOA, which could be critical in establishing a favorable balance of power in Asia.

The critics argue that the arrangement does not benefit India in the same way that it advantages the US military. As a leading Indian defense analyst put it, “the government seems to have been guided more by the fear of being accused of succumbing to pressure from Washington and less by an evaluation of whether this might benefit India’s military.” As a result, Indian defense ministry officials find themselves under pressure to explain why they believe an agreement with the US on military logistics is in India’s best interests.

New Delhi’s stock response has been that the pact is strictly “conditional,” and allows access to supplies and services to the military forces of both countries only when engaged in a specific set of predetermined activities. At a press conference in Washington after the signing of the agreement, Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar was at pains to explain that the agreement has nothing to do with the setting up of a military base. “It’s only about logistics support to each other’s fleet” he averred, “like supply of fuel, supply of many other things which are required for joint operations, humanitarian assistance and many other relief operations.”

And yet there is little denying that in today’s maritime environment, every ‘place’ that provides logistics support essentially performs the role of a peacetime military base, albeit in limited ways. This is because operational logistics is the life-blood of contemporary maritime missions. Any ocean-going navy that can secure logistical pit-stops can guarantee itself a wider operational footprint in distant littorals. In fact, leading maritime powers, including the United States, Russia and China, are reluctant to set up permanent bases in distant lands because what they aim to achieve in terms of strategic presence is made possible through low-level repair and replenishment ‘places.’  To be sure, with over 800 foreign military installations, the US still has a globe-girdling presence, but few of its existing overseas facilities are permanent military bases.

To better appreciate why foreign military bases do not enjoy the same appeal as in earlier times, one must study the history of their evolution. The permanent naval base was a product of 19th-century politics when Britain, the leading maritime power, set up a network of military bases around the world to sustain its global supremacy. In the latter half of the 20th century, Britain was replaced by the United States, which soon came to dominate the world’s economic and strategic landscape. The US system of military bases consisted of several thousand installations at hundreds of basing sites in over 100 countries. The logic of the military basing system was intimately related to the dynamics of conflict. A military base was seen as a forward deployment position to enforce a denial regime on the enemy. It was a useful way of keeping the pressure on adversaries, and it allowed the US military to dominate the international system and prevent the rise of another hegemon.

But the logic of overseas bases has eroded. The absence of a real war in the intervening years has seen the law of diminishing returns kick in vis-à-vis foreign military bases, and an attenuation of their animating rationale. After struggling with rising domestic opposition to its military presence in Asia, the United States has been looking for more pragmatic options.

Since prolonged military presence on a foreign land isn’t a practical solution to any of its strategic problems, the US has been prioritizing logistics pacts that involve continuing support of rotational troops but no permanent deployments. These are variants of the “Acquisition and Cross-Service Agreements” (ACSAs) – or logistical arrangements for military support, supplies, and services (food, fuel, transportation, ammunition, and equipment) – that the United States shares with many of its NATO partners. And yet, despite being avowedly in support of peacetime operations and regional humanitarian contingencies, these pacts have not changed the public perception that US military presence overseas advance America’s imperialist ambitions.

A case in point is the recent Extended Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with Manila, which provides the US military access to five military bases in Philippines. Even though the agreement was signed in 2014, strong domestic opposition within Philippines from civil rights groups resulted in a legal stalemate at the country’s Supreme Court. In January this year, when the court finally ruled in the pact’s favor, its decision seemed motivated mainly by the China-factor – the increased threat posed by China in the Philippines’ near-seas.

While the defense pact has a limited objective – enabling US troops to rotate through the Philippines, ensuring a persistent but intermittent presence – the new military facilities in Philippines aren’t expected to be any less potent than the United States’ erstwhile permanent bases in the country. The infrastructure will facilitate a spectrum of peacetime missions in the South China Sea, including training and capacity building, area patrols, aerial surveys, and fleet exercises. It will also enable the Philippines to call upon the US for critical military assistance in the event of a crisis.

The United States isn’t the only country to depend on military logistics pacts to achieve broader strategic objectives. Increasingly, China is resorting to the same means. The PLA’s logistical base at Djibouti doesn’t just provide support for China’s anti-piracy missions, but also enables a round-the-year naval presence in the Indian Ocean. What is more, China’s recent commercial facilities in the Indian Ocean Region seem more in the nature of dual-use bases, which can quickly be upgraded to medium-grade military facilities in a crisis.

New Delhi must come to terms with the fact that LEMOA’s utility lies in facilitating greater US-India operational coordination in Asia. Notwithstanding Parrikar’s assurances to the contrary, closer maritime interaction between India and the US will increasingly involve operational access to each other’s bases for strategic purposes. Even if the necessary cooperation is cleared on a case-by-case basis and driven mainly by regional capacity building and HADR needs, the Indian Navy and the US Navy might find themselves acting increasingly in concert to achieve common strategic objectives in the regional commons.

This does not mean LEMOA promotes US geopolitical interests at India’s expense. If anything, the pact empowers the Indian Navy to expand its own operations in the Indo-Pacific region. It is an aspiration that the Navy professed to recently when it released a map for public viewing that showed Indian naval deployments over the past 12 months, spread across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific region.

Given the fraught nature of security in the Asian commons, India has been looking for ways to emphasize a rules-based order in the region. To consolidate its status as a crucial security provider, the Indian Navy will need to act in close coordination with the US Navy, the leading maritime power in Indo-Pacific, to ensure a fair, open, and balanced regional security architecture.

Abhijit Singh (abhijit.singh27@gmail.com), a former Indian naval officer, is Senior Fellow and Head, Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi. You can follow him on Twitter at @abhijit227.

Featured Image: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks with Indian Naval Officers as he tours Indian Naval Station Karwar as part of a visit to the Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, April 11, 2016. Carter is visiting India to solidify the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.(Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz)(Released)

America’s Expectation versus India’s Expediency: India as a Regional Net Security Provider

This article was originally posted at India’s National Maritime Foundation. It is republished on CIMSEC with the author’s permission. Read the piece in its original form here.

By Gurpreet S. Khurana

During the ‘Raisina Dialogue’ held in March 2016 at New Delhi, Admiral Harry Harris, the Commander of United States (US) Pacific Command (USPACOM) referred to the first ever tri-lateral (Australia, Japan and India) [i] ministerial discussions held in September 2015. ADM Harris’ comments addressed “maritime security – including freedom of navigation patrols,” and proposed “expanding this tri-lateral to a quadrilateral venue” by involving the US.[ii] Later, while addressing questions, the crux of his message was that the high level of ‘inter-operability’ achieved during complex India-US Malabar exercises should not be an end into itself, but translated into “coordinated operations.”[iii] Admiral Harris’ answers suggested– albeit implicitly –that India undertake ‘coordinated freedom of navigation patrols’ in the South China Sea (SCS). Evidently, such patrols could be used to restrain China’s growing military assertiveness in the SCS, and its process of legal “norm-building” in the maritime-territorial disputes with the other littoral countries of the SCS.

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PACOM Chief ADM. Harry Harris gives a speech at the Raisina Dialogue on March 2, 2016, in New Delhi, India. Read the Admiral’s speech here.

India has consistently upheld the US position in terms of being a non-party to the SCS disputes by supporting dispute-resolution through well-established norms of international law and freedom of navigation in international waters, including the SCS. Nonetheless, Indian Defence Minister Mr. Manohar Parrikar lost little time in clarifying India’s position, saying that “As of now, India has never taken part in any joint patrol; we only do joint exercises. The question of joint patrol does not arise.”[iv]

The case indicates an ‘apparent’ mismatch between US expectations for India, and what New Delhi is willing to deliver to its ‘strategic partner.’ This can be contextualized and explained through analytical insight into the salient policy pronouncements from either side. The most instructive among these are those articulating India’s role as a ‘net security provider’ in Asia. This essay aims to analyse such a role to understand the ‘aberration’ in the otherwise healthy trajectory of India and the United State’s contemporary strategic relationship and in doing so, enable a better comprehension of the India’s perspective on its compelling strategic and foreign policy considerations.

America’s Articulation

The ‘net security provider’ concept emerged during the 2009 ‘Shangri La Dialogue.’ when then-US Secretary of Defence Mr. Robert Gates stated,

When it comes to India, we have seen a watershed in our relations – cooperation that would have been unthinkable in the recent past… In coming years, we look to India to be a partner and net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.”[v]

This sentiment of the USA was thereafter reiterated on various occasions – both formally and otherwise – including in the 2010 US ‘Quadrennial Defense Review’ (QDR). The statement in QDR-10 predicted,

India’s military capabilities are rapidly improving through increased defense acquisitions, and they now include long-range maritime surveillance, maritime interdiction and patrolling, air interdiction, and strategic airlift. India has already established its worldwide military influence through counterpiracy, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief efforts. As its military capabilities grow, India will contribute to Asia as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.[vi]

India’s Articulation

India’s political leadership and policymakers clearly supported the proposed role for India in principle. Addressing the top brass of the Indian Navy and Defence Ministry in 2011, then-Indian Defence Minster Mr. AK Antony emphatically assured India’s maritime neighbours of “unstinted support for their security and economic prosperity.” He continued to say that the Indian Navy has been:

mandated to be a net security provider to island nations in the Indian Ocean Region… most of the major international shipping lanes are located along our island territories. This bestows on us the ability to be a potent and stabilising force in the region.”[vii]

More recently, in 2013, the then-Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh said,

We have…sought to assume our responsibility for stability in the Indian Ocean Region. We are well positioned… to become a net provider of security in our immediate region and beyond.”[viii]

These seminal articulations represent a valuable starting point in analyzing India’s projected role as a ‘Net Security Provider.’ This is divided into three parts for the sake of objectivity, with each one analyzing a specific facet of India’s broader national-strategic imperative to fulfill such a role. These aspects are Geographical Area, Capacity and Capability, and Cultural Ethos.

Geographical Area

Primary Area of Interest

By virtue of its geographic location and peninsular disposition, India’s most critical national interests are closely connected with events in the Indian Ocean. This is broadly so for the northern Indian Ocean, and more specifically for regions categorized as ‘primary areas of maritime interest’ in the Indian Maritime-Security Strategy, 2015 (IMSS-15). [ix]

In nearly all articulations of India’s role as a ‘net security provider’ – both Indian and American – the ‘Indian Ocean” is a ‘common thread’ while the phrase “…and beyond” has never been specifically defined. Arguably, the latter phrase would refer more accurately to the Persian Gulf or Red Sea as India’s ‘primary areas of maritime interest,’ rather than the SCS that – notwithstanding India’s increasing economic and strategic stakes there – is a ‘secondary area of maritime interest.’ (Such classification does not, however, undermine the criticality of the SCS to India’s vital interests). In this context, India’s Professor Mahapatra aptly inquires:

If India and the U.S. have not contemplated similar kinds of patrol in Indian Ocean, what could justify India and U.S. patrolling waters of South China Sea?[x]

Geo-Strategic Frontiers

A related, though distinct, definition of ‘Geo-Strategic Frontiers’ is also relevant here. As part of a country’s military-strategic calculus, this phrase refers to geographical boundaries necessary for that country to achieve ‘strategic depth’ against a potential State adversary. Recent American analyses, such as the one by Professor James Holmes on ‘Get Ready, India: China’s Navy is Pushing West[xi] (towards the Indian Ocean), are indeed instructive for India, and add to trends that were noted in India nearly a decade ago.[xii] However, it is unlikely that India would need to extend its strategic depth vis-à-vis China eastwards beyond the Southeast Asian straits. Notably, these maritime choke-points constitute a major strategic challenge for the PLA Navy itself.

The ‘Geo-Strategic Frontiers’ of a country are also contingent upon the ‘capacity’ and ‘capability’ of its own and friendly military forces to influence events in the area within the said frontiers. This aspect is addressed below.

Capacity and Capability[xiii]

In 2012, the IDSA undertook a study on Out of Area Contingency (OOAC) missions by Indian armed forces. The study deduced that:

the reach of current air and sealift capabilities means that, realistically speaking, India can conduct OOAC operations only within the Indian Ocean region (IOR).”[xiv]

Even while India’s strategic sealift and airlift capacities are being augmented, the finding of the aforesaid study is likely to remain valid for the foreseeable future. The same is true for India’s capability in other forms of maritime power projection.

The new Indian Maritime Security Strategy (IMSS-15) aptly emphasizes the term ‘net security’, rather than ‘net provider [of security].’ Further, it pegs India’s role as a ‘net security’ provider to the question of ‘capability.’ Accordingly, it defines the term ‘net security’ as:

a state of actual security available in an area, upon balancing prevailing threats, inherent risks and rising challenges in a maritime environment, against the ability to monitor, contain and counter all of these.”[xv]

The analysis of IMMS-15 clearly indicates that the Indian Navy seeks to contribute to maritime security and stability in its primary and secondary areas of interest, broadly constituting the entire swath of the Indo-Pacific region. To do so, India is not only developing its own capabilities for distant operations, but also providing ‘capacity building’ and ‘capability enhancement’ assistance to friendly countries in the region. However, since the November 2008 seaborne terrorist attacks against Mumbai, the sub-conventional threats to India’s coastal and offshore security will continue to pose major challenges for the Navy. These challenges will require it to deftly balance its force expansion and modernization between the two competing imperatives of ‘blue water’ and ‘brown water’ operations.[xvi] 

Cultural Ethos

As stated above, IMSS-15 dwells upon India’s regional role as a “provider of net security” rather than a ‘net provider of security.’ Ostensibly, an additional aim is to dispel any notion that India seeks to act as a hegemonic power or a ‘policeman’ in the region. Such intent flows from India’s cultural ethos and is closely linked to its evolution as a modern nation-state.

IMSS-15
IMSS-15. Click to read. 

Another facet of cultural ethos is the pride with which Indians identify themselves based on their civilizational genesis, something more profound and deep-seated than the concept of ‘nationalism’. Together with the aforementioned non-hegemonic stance, this facet manifests in India’s long-standing policy of not involving itself in coalition military operations, except those mandated by the United Nations. This policy also manifests in the operational domain. Unless operating under the UN flag, Indian military forces are averse to undertaking ‘joint’ (or “combined”) operations, like joint patrols, since such operations would involve placing Indian forces under foreign Command and Control (C2). The Indian Defence Minister’s negation of the possibility of ‘joint (naval) patrols’ may be seen in this context.

Other conditions notwithstanding, the statement by ADM Harris at the Raisina Dialogue deserves more attention than it has received. He proposed turning India-US “joint (naval) exercises” into “coordinated (naval) operations.” His preference for the term ‘coordinated’ rather than ‘joint’ is noteworthy. While in common English parlance, the two terms may be considered synonymous, the difference is significant in ‘operational’ terms. Whereas a ‘joint’ operation involves a unified C2 of military forces, a ‘coordinated’ operation permits the forces to maintain their respective national C2 structures. In the past, the Indian Navy has indeed undertaken ‘coordinated’ operations with the US Navy on various occasions. The examples include the 2002 escort missions for US high-value ships in the Malacca Straits and the 2004-05 Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) mission in the aftermath the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Even during more recent anti-piracy missions to escort merchant vessels in the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Navy coordinated its operations with the US-led coalition naval forces, as well as other navies deployed for the same mission. The notable commonality among these operations, however, was that these were all conducted in the Indian Ocean or its contiguous straits.

Concluding Remarks

The subtext of the US-India Joint Statement of January 2015 on “our diversified bilateral strategic partnership”[xvii] clearly indicates our broader strategic convergence, and the fact that India needs the strategic partnership of America as much as the other way around. However, occasional dissonance in the bilateral relationship cannot be ignored. Notwithstanding the diplomatic ‘refrain’ as a natural occurrence between two major democracies, the dissonance cannot be slighted, particularly in the light of the emerging regional security environment. Also, the discord may not lie in Indian’s longstanding foreign policy tenet of ‘Strategic Autonomy’ (or ‘Non-Alignment 2.0’), as is usually touted. As with other facets of the bilateral relationship, the occasional discord mostly manifests at the functional level. In context of India-US military strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, the aberrations at this level could be addressed by bridging national policymaking with strategy formulation of the military forces.

Given America’s ‘overstretched’ maritime-military resources and its increasing contribution to capability and capacity in the Indian Navy over the years, a US expectation for India to provide for regional security and stability in the maritime-centric Indo-Pacific region is not misplaced. At the operational level too, the US expectation for India to convert ‘joint’ naval exercises into ‘coordinated’ operations may be justifiable. However, it seems that India’s broader strategic imperatives in terms of the three key facets of Geographical Area, Capacity and Capability, and Cultural Ethos are not in consonance with such expectations, at least not yet.

Captain (IN) Gurpreet S Khurana, PhD is Executive Director, National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy, or the Government of India. He can be reached at gurpreet.bulbul@gmail.com.

[i] ‘US, India, Japan Hold First Trilateral Ministerial Dialogue, Call for Freedom of Navigation’, NDTV, 30 September 2015, at
http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/us-india-japan-hold-first-trilateral-ministerial-dialogue-call-for-freedom-of-navigation-1224830

[ii] “Let’s Be Ambitious Together”, Remarks by Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, The Raisina Dialogue, New Delhi, India, 2 March 2016, at
http://www.pacom.mil/Media/SpeechesTestimony/tabid/6706/Article/683842/raisina-dialogue-remarks-lets-be-ambitious-together.aspx

[iii] Dinkar Pheri, ‘U.S. push for joint patrols in Indo-Pacific region’, The Hindu, 3 March 2016, at
http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/us-push-for-joint-patrols-in-indopacific-region/article8306481.ece

[iv] Sushant Singh and Pranav Kulkarni, ‘Question of joint patrolling with the US does not arise: Parrikar’, The Indian Express, 5 March 2016, at
http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/question-of-joint-patrolling-with-the-us-does-not-arise-need-to-cut-the-flab-from-the-military-parrikar/

[v] ‘America’s security role in the Asia-Pacific’, Address by Dr Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defence, Shangri-La Dialogue, 30 May 2009, at
http://www.iiss.org/en/events/shangri%20la%20dialogue/archive/shangri-la-dialogue-2009-99ea/first-plenary-session-5080/dr-robert-gates-6609

[vi] Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) Report, US Department of Defense, February 2010, p. 60 at
http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/QDR/QDR_as_of_29JAN10_1600.pdf

[vii] ‘Indian Navy-Net Security Provider to Island Nations in IOR: Antony’, Press Information Bureau, Government of India (Ministry of Defence), 12 October 2011, at
http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=76590

[viii] PM’s speech at the Foundation Stone Laying Ceremony for the Indian National Defence University at Gurgaon, Press Information Bureau, Government of India (Prime Minister’s Office), 23 May 2013, at
http://pib.nic.in/newsite/mbErel.aspx?relid=96146

[ix] ‘Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy’, Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence (Navy), 2015, p.31-32, at http://indiannavy.nic.in/sites/default/files/Indian_Maritime_Security_Strategy_Document_25Jan16.pdf

[x] Professor Chintamani Mahapatra, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, cited in Anjana Pasricha, ‘India Rejects Joint Naval Patrols with US in South China Sea’, Voice of America (VOA), 11 March 2016, at http://www.voanews.com/content/india-rejects-joint-naval-patrols-with-us-in-south-china-sea/3231567.html

[xi] James Holmes, ‘Get Ready, India: China’s Navy is Pushing West’, The National Interest, 8 March 2016, at http://www.nationalinterest.org/feature/look-out-india-chinas-navy-pushing-west-15426

[xii] See for instance, Gurpreet S Khurana, ‘China’s ‘String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean and Its Security Implications’, Strategic Analysis (IDSA), 32:1, p.1-39, at https://www.academia.edu/7727023/Chinas_String_of_Pearls_in_the_Indian_Ocean_and_Its_Security_Implications

[xiii] The ‘capacity’ of a military force refers to its wherewithal in the limited context of its hardware. ‘Capability’ refers to the ability of the force in a more comprehensive sense encompassing not only its physical capacity, but also the conceptual and human components. For details, see Gurpreet S Khurana. Porthole: Geopolitical, Strategic and Maritime Terms and Concepts (Pentagon, New Delhi: 2016), pp.30-31

[xiv] Net Security Provider: India’s Out-of-Area Contingency Operations (IDSA/ Magnum Books, October 2012), p.53

[xv] ‘Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy’, Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence (Navy), 2015, p.80, at
http://indiannavy.nic.in/sites/default/files/Indian_Maritime_Security_Strategy_Document_25Jan16.pdf

[xvi] Gurpreet S Khurana, ‘‘Net Security Provider’ Defined: An Analysis of India’s New Maritime Strategy-2015’, National Maritime Foundation (NMF) View Point, 23 November 2015, at
http://www.maritimeindia.org/View%20Profile/635838396645834619.pdf

[xvii] ‘U.S.-India Joint Statement’, Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, 25 January 2015, at
https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/25/us-india-joint-statement-shared-effort-progress-all

Featured Image: ADM. Harris speaking at the Raisina Dialogue in March, 2016.  Photo courtesy of Embassy of the United States of America-New Delhi/Released.

India: International Fleet Review 2016

This article was originally published by the South Asia Analysis Group.  It is republished here with the author’s permission.  Read the article in its original form here.

By Commodore RS Vasan IN (Ret)

“An Opportunity for India to showcase the Capacity, Capability, and Intent of a strong, vibrant, emerging Maritime Nation in the 21st Century.”

The IFR 2016 will indeed be a grand spectacle as more than one hundred ships from the navies of over fifty countries will participate in this exercise that is carried out every five years. The event, which in the  initial years  was mostly limited to the participation of ships from the Indian Navy, Indian Coast Guard and the merchant navy, has transformed in to an international event with a major maritime event conducted in 2001 under the initiative of then Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Susheel Kumar. The marching of the naval officers and sailors from ships around the world along the marine drive in Mumbai and the presence of ships from around the world signaled a new era in maritime diplomacy. The intentions of a maritime India to occupy center stage in both regional and global missions by using the Indian Navy as an instrument of national policy were explicit.

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Indian Navy carrier. Indian Navy photo.

As the participants of the IFR witnessed scores of indigenous ships of the Indian Navy, it was evident that the Indian Navy was in the process of transforming from a buyer’s navy to a builder’s navy. The process was a prerequisite to assuming greater regional leadership role and responsibilities. This did not escape the attention of the participant nations and motivated them to engage with India at many levels.  It is not to be forgotten that this initiative was taken under the leadership of Admiral Susheel Kumar, who succeeded Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. Admiral Bhagwat was relieved of his duties as CNS on 30 December 1998 by the NDA Government under certain debatable circumstances. The Navy’s morale, which was dented, had to be built up brick by brick and the IFR of 2001 from that point of view provided a launching pad for the force that was fast becoming a blue water Navy. The theme ‘Bridges of Friendship’ was very well received and created an environment that facilitated the process of integration of a regional navy in to a global matrix.

While both the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard have conducted the Fleet Reviews on the east coast (The very first Indian Coast Guard Fleet Review by the Raksha Mantri was conducted off the east coast when the author was the Regional Commander of the Indian Coast Guard, Region East), this is the first time that an international fleet review of this scale is being conducted in the Bay of Bengal. By design, this also complements the ‘Look East’ policy of the Government of India. It also adds value to other maritime initiatives, such as the biannual Milan (established as an initiative for meeting of the naval minds in Port Blair) and the Indian Ocean Symposium (IONS), now a well-established forum among Navies of not just the Indian Ocean but also the rest of the world.

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Indian Navy maritime patrol craft. Indian Navy photo.

By all expectations, China will be a first-time participant in the Indian Fleet Review. From the point of view of PLA-Navy, participation  signals its intention to be a part of global initiatives in the Indian Ocean. The anti-piracy patrols by PLAN units, which are still underway off the coast of Somalia, provided ample opportunity for the Chinese Navy to assert its intention to be part of the international mechanisms to combat piracy. Both the Indian Navy and the Chinese Navy worked shoulder to shoulder in warding off this threat, though India was concerned about the presence of another extra regional player in its traditional back yard. The visit of the Chinese submarines both conventional and nuclear last year again caused ripples in Delhi. There are no doubts that India and China will jostle for power and influence in the Indian Ocean Region. While India does have geography on its side, the  surplus funds that can be channeled for initiatives such as the Maritime Silk Road and the One Belt One Road will change the strategic landscape of Indian Ocean Region. The IFR also comes at a time when there are great initiatives being taken by China in Asia, Africa and Europe in terms of connectivity. The fact that the PRC plans to build a naval base in Djibouti  and has huge investments in the maritime sector in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, and Pakistan are of concern to India, which appears to have conceded strategic space to China in its areas of influence. The presence of the INS Vikramaditya and India’s nuclear submarines  would send a message to observers about the might of the Indian Navy that can be brought to bear as and when required in areas of interest. The presence of a P-8i surveillance aircraft could also generate interest in the capability of this newly acquired platform, capable of locating and tracking submarines and  surface assets of extra-regional powers in the Indian Ocean. The message that the Indian Navy is net-centric warfare capable as a result of plenty of indigenous efforts would be very clear.

The Indian Navy has inherited many of the traditions and practices from the Royal Indian Navy while adding its own local flavor. The President of India, by virtue of being the Supreme Commander of the Armed forces, reviews the fleet invariably before he or she demits office during the tenure of five years as the President. It is a mega-event by any standards, and even the state Government has committed more than 83 crores in beautifying the city of Vizag, which houses the Eastern Naval Command and important maintenance facilities of the Navy. It is also the base for the nuclear submarines of the Indian Navy, including strategic assets. All the arrangements have been reviewed at the level of the Raksha Mantri and the Navy and nation are geared up for this event in the first week of February that will showcase the prowess of the Indian Navy. A successful conclusion of the IFR will reinforce the position of the Indian Navy as a professional arm that can be used as a powerful instrument of national policy both in war and peace.

Historically, the role of the Indian Navy after the spectacular missile attacks on ships and oil tank farms Karachi in 1971, with the then-only Asian carrier Vikrant enforcing a blockade off then East Pakistan indicates how it is important to possess and use a strong navy for furthering national objectives. The fact that the Indian Navy was not used at all during the war in 1965 therefore comes as a surprise. The role of the Indian Navy during the tsunami of 2004, its evacuation of Indian nationals from war torn areas, and its ability to relief and succor to the flood and cyclone affected victims on many occasions highlights strength of the Indian Navy that has proved its mettle.

The Mumbai terror attack in November 2008 changed the way maritime threats were perceived and brought about a paradigm shift in the maritime security architecture (MSA). The Indian Navy was placed at the apex of the MSA and made responsible for both coastal and oceanic security. Without going into the details, suffice it to say that the entire gamut of maritime threats and response mechanisms have undergone a sea change.

It is not out of place to recollect that it was the Indian Navy that first brought out a National Maritime Doctrine in 2004 revised it in 2007, 2009, and 2015. Even in terms of indigenization, the Indian Navy is way ahead of its sister services, having embarked on indigenization in the late 60s. The first indigenous frigate Nilgiri and its follow-ons have provided the nation with options for ship building in both PSUs and private yards. The fact that the Indian Navy was able to even design a carrier and orchestrate its construction in the Cochin Shipyard Limited is a tribute to the leadership, the naval designers, and in-house capability to produce warships of different size. The design of stealth ships such as the Shivalik, large destroyers such as the INS Kochi, construction of corvettes, and the completion of the naval off-shore vessels are all praiseworthy. The most notable feature of the Indian Navy’s indigenization process is the addition of INS Arihant which provides that strategic deterrence capability that eluded India for many decades. The construction of improved versions of Arihant and also the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) are logical

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Indian Navy photo.

conclusions to the aspirations of a blue water navy that has both regional and global roles. However, the dwindling strength of conventional submarines has been a source of great concern to the planners in Delhi. There are some recent efforts to ensure that this serious deficiency is overcome both by accelerating the Scorpene production and also embarking on the indigenous production of project 75A submarines for which more than 60,000 crores  has been earmarked.

The shape and size of the Indian Navy is formidable as India moves in to the next century. With geography and a growing economy on its side, India’s Navy will continue to complement the ambitions of a maritime India. A powerful Navy will promote maritime safety and security in the Indian Ocean. As a guarantor of net security at sea, safeguarding the global commons, maritime interests, and the sea lines of communications that represent the life lines and arteries of global trade and commerce will be a top priority for the Indian Navy.

India is conscious of the fact that there are rich dividends in forging strategic alliance with other like-minded nations on a case by case basis while retaining its strategic autonomy. The trilateral treaty with Sri Lanka and Maldives and Exercise Malabar or other such exercises are all measures to ensure that the maritime domain remains manageable and the Indian Navy is in a position to control the happenings in areas of interest. Maritime engagement with Mauritius, Seychelles, Mombasa, Oman, and other maritime nations are all significant in ensuring that there is seamless integration of the maritime domain, and that all the maritime nations in the region are under one umbrella and can work in unison to serve the interests of the century of the seas. The IFR will be a keenly watched event around the world and the navies who are part of this Indian initiative will carry back cherished memories from this mega-event. From the point of view of the Indian Navy, it will again provide an opportunity to take the initiative from “Building Bridges of Friendship” in 2001  to  an architecture that is “United  through Oceans” in 2016 and beyond.

Commodore RS Vasan is an alumnus of Defence Services Staff College, the Naval War College, and the International Visitor Leadership Prgramme. He is presently the Director of Chennai Centre for China Studies and also the Head of Strategy and Security Studies at Center for Asia Studies. Commodore Vasan has been associated with many think tanks since retirement after a distinguished service of 34 years that included a share of command, staff, and instructional tenures both in the Navy and the Coast Guard. He is regular speaker at many international events and writes extensively on maritime issues and International relations. He can be contacted at rsvasan2010@gmail.com