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Bolstering military abilities in Indian Ocean Region

By Sambit Dash

What happens in the high seas in its backyard, concerning India’s national aspirations, is India’s business.  

With 70 percent of the world’s petroleum shipment, 50 percent of world’s container traffic, dependence of world’s two most populous nations for their huge satiety for growth and with an Asian world order establishing, Indian Ocean Region has emerged to be the centre of geopolitical fluxes. This important Sea Lane of Communication (SLOC) however is being used by China to make strategic manoeuvres to encircle India and to assert its hegemony in the region. India, with a geographical advantage, needs to be proactive in order to establish its position as a responsible global power, right signals of which has been shown by the Narendra Modi government.

Indian Ocean Region extends from Australia in the east to South Africa in the west and leading economies of the world China, India, Japan and Australia depend on it. Of late, the docking of Chinese submarines in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, forcing an Indian submarine to surface, building of islands in the South China Sea, forging friendships with smaller Indian Ocean countries, an ambitious Maritime Silk Road (MSR) touted as ‘String of Pearls’ and the massive expansion of PLA-Navy of late has created a buzz of discomfort in India. Strengthening military capabilities should be a prominent feature of the “reverse string of pearl” strategy.

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(Image: thetimes.co.uk)

Military Capabilities
India has been fundamentally against militarisation of Indian Ocean. However of late, the massive spurt in growing its military presence in the region, pretty much exponentially, by the Chinese only mean that India needs to build an effective deterrence. Chinese economy and PLA-Navy’s massive fleet are far from India’s reach but backing on better security relationships it has and a regime that has set its priorities in the region, an effort is underway to catch up.

Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC): This facility overseeing the crucial Malacca Strait through which about 60,000 ships pass each year, is India’s easternmost bastion and has not seen much capacity building since its establishment in 2001. However Indian Navy chief Admiral Robin Dhowan has reiterated that the defence ministry has set ANC as a priority and probably will have a division-level force with 15,000 troops, fighter squadron, more airstrips and major warships. There is a need to equip it with Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW), keeping in view the increase in Chinese submarine excursions. A bold ‘geo-economic vision’, as analyst C Raja Mohan calls it, needs to be realised in this 572 group of island. Additionally for India, ANC can prove to be an example for functioning of an otherwise mired in squabble unified command. India needs to take advantage of China’s ‘Malacca dilemma’ through this strategic point.

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(Image: atimes.com)

Shipbuilding: India has 28 shipyards, which thanks to public sector work culture and being stuck in pre-modern era have failed the aspirations of a Navy in need. China has over 800 shipyards and even countries like Vietnam and Phillipines produce quality ships at competitive price. Privatisation of shipbuilding industry needs to be undertaken if India is to make great strides in sea. There are about 2600 ships capable of ocean transport in China which surpasses all others by more than a mile. The new ship acquisition policy announced by Arun jaitley in July 2014, in order to raise India’s home fleet by four times its current capacity, has been a welcome move. Perhaps a policy like China to build new ships fitting specifications by Navy so as to ne ready for ocean transport could be explored.

Dredge: Incessant dredging activity by China and its ‘creation’ of ‘Spratly Island Chain’ and ‘Fiery Cross Reef’, which is against the UNCLOS, and has all machinations for military use, has concerned the international community. India’s dredging industry has been plagued by slow pace of project award and implementation. The Maritime Agenda 2010-2020 pegs an investment of Rs 200 billion by 2020 for dredging and with opportunities which cannot be met by Dredging Coporation of India, forming a policy on dredging and opening that sector to private players could help explore posibilities of extending it to meet military needs.

Aircraft carriers: India currently possesses an ageing and limited capacity INS Viraat which is set to be decommissioned in 2016. INS Vikramaditya is India’s primary aircraft carrier and serves as a statement in the Indian Ocean backyard. India home-grown aircraft carrier INS Vikraant, made by Cochin Shipyard could be inducted in 2017 and the other nuclear powered carrier INS Vishal is in the design phase. While China has two aircraft carriers, one which it built on its own, the building of world’s longest dock at Sanya captured the world’s attention. With the aid of its partner US, which has its 6th fleet in the Indian Ocean, with whom it is set to carry out its 19th war exercise in October, and who sees India as a ‘lynchpin’ in the ‘pivot’ strategy of strenghening its position in the Asia-Pacific, India should speed up the process of technology transfer in building indigenous aircraft carriers.

Submarines: China has 68 submarines and India has 14 and that speaks volumes, if not all, about China’s under sea capabilities. They might be a generation behind the West but suffices to counters India’s posse. India has however attempted to catch up by adding 15 submarines to its fleet, including three nuclear ballistic-missile (SSBN) ones but the key feature is that most of them are built in India itself. This should boost India’s abilities to build more and at home. But an effective strategy to counter China’s huge submarine fleet is to develop anti-submarine warfare (ASW). The current fleet of about 6 ASW aircrafts might pale in front of the Chinese.

Mission Sea-Base: China is keen on sea-basing, a concept where overseas missions can be undertaken without land based command, control and support. It acquired a Mobile Landing Platform in July this year, rolled out its fifth replenishment ship and has made laws for commercial ships to meet naval standards. India’s sea-basing capabilities are negligent however its long-standing naval partner US could help India develop capacity in that regard and that is what India should look for from its strategic partner.

Indian Ocean – the hotbed of activities
A conventional full-scale war may be a thing of past and thus India’s long standing policy of not having overseas military bases may hold good but in a scenario where isolated conflicts and posturing might demand show of power, ‘Places not bases’ strategy would help. In that regard India’s healthy relation with Indian Ocean countries is very important.

India’s maritime focus should be to go beyond A2/AD (Anti Access/ Area Denial). New Delhi has mandated a three pronged strategy for the high seas which involves bolstering submarine capacity, augmenting carrier battle groups and stregthening air power and thorugh its humanitarian and peace-keeping objectives. By the way of anti-piracy operations in Gulf of Aden (incidentally with China) and Operation Rahat in Yemen it has demostrated its intent of a responsible sea power.

India’s naval policy plagued by structural and institutional issues riding on a deep disconnect between Navy and bureaucracy has not espoused great faith in building its capabilities. It will take much more, than the state of affairs presently to put forth a sea-based deterrent vis-à-vis China. A beginning step could be to have a single government agency with the expertise and mandate which would replace the current 14 odd agencies that work in an uncoordinated manner in ocean related matters.

It might be true what the Chinese say, Indian Ocean may not be India’s ocean, but what happens in the high seas in its backyard, concerning India’s national aspirations, is definitely India’s business.

Sambit Dash is a faculty member in Melaka Manipal Medical College at Manipal University, is an alumnus of Takshashila’s public policy course, the Graduate Certificate in Public Policy and writes on public policy, social issues and geopolitics. The views are personal. 

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