India’s Maritime Significance
On the 5th of April, India celebrates National Maritime Day to commemorate Indian maritime history. India has a 7500 km long coastline with 12 major ports and over 200 non-major ports. India’s Maritime Strategy has been under the focus of successive Indian governments and today the contribution of the maritime sector accounts for 95% of India’s total trade volume and 65% of the overall trade value. When a country’s trade is vastly dependent on the sea, it requires a strong naval force to defend Sea Lines of Communication, SLOC. The Indian government has therefore been paying attention to the development of its navy all along with post-partition history.
Being an important country in Indian Ocean Region (IOR) India has always aspired to dominate the Indian Ocean.
Despite trumpeting non-alignment as the basis of its foreign policy, India has been siding with Moscow, particularly for acquiring weapons and ensuring Veto at the UN to secure Indian interests. Of late, India has been seen developing good relations with the USA as well. The US considers India as an important bulwark state to counter Chinese growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region. In the US Indo-Pacific strategy, India has therefore been epitomized as the net security provider for the region.
India’s Naval Development
India has been steadily focusing on the development of its navy.
With a modest start at the time of partition, the Indian Navy actually started gaining strength in post-1960s conflicts with China and Pakistan.
It did miserably specifically during the 1965 war with Pakistan when 50% of its platforms were under refit at the time of crisis. Pakistan Navy bombarded Dwarka with impunity and confined the Indian Navy’s fleet inside the harbour. By 1971, the Indian Navy had gained strength and challenged Pakistan Navy on both eastern and western fronts. It bombarded Kemari oil storage tanks while also hitting and damaging a few naval ships. PNS/M Hangor however sank INS Khukri while severely damaging INS Kirpan. During the decade of 80s Indian Navy was tasked to support regional countries in thwarting internal turmoil. This support via sea was extended to Mauritius, Seychelles, and Maldives to avert coups against the governments. Indian Navy due to its enhanced outreach has been involved in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Operations HA&DR as well as evacuation operations in the region.
As of now, the Indian Navy has a significant inventory comprising various types of seagoing and aerial platforms. A brief overview tells us that it has around 150 ships of various tonnages with one aircraft carrier, 10 destroyers, 13 frigates, 23 corvettes, and 10 large Offshore Patrol Vessels as main combatants. It has auxiliary units, training, and survey ships also. The Indian Navy has a total of 18 submarines. Two of India’s submarines are nuclear-powered; one attack submarine SSN on loan from Russia and one Arihant-class domestically designed and built ballistic-missile submarine SSBN. It has a fleet of aviation units consisting of fighter planes, Long Range Maritime Patrol LRMP aircraft, and helicopters. The Indian fleet is overwhelmingly of Russian origin. Indian Navy has however a chequered history of safety about its platforms. Since 1990, it has had 4 sinking incidents and 8 collisions took place. During the last six years, Indian submarines have been successfully detected and localized four times by Pakistan Navy.
India’s Naval Ambitions
With the Galwan Valley brawl between China and India in hindsight, it is evident that India must be grappling with the notion of a two-front war on land. An economical and effective way out for India could be to tackle China and Pakistan at sea for which US Indo- Pacific strategy provides a workable solution. The Indian fleet may look impressive vis-a-vis Pakistan Navy but it’s outnumbered by the People’s Liberation Army Navy PLAN. The Indian navy’s primary fighting vessels are outnumbered by the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet alone, which has some 11 destroyers, 19 frigates, 22 submarines (including two Nuclear Powered Submarines SSNs and four Nuclear Powered Ballistic Missile carrying submarines SSBNs), and one aircraft carrier.
The Indian Navy has been striving to strengthen its fleet over a period of time in particular the submarine force.
Indian Navy has been focussing on acquiring a number of advanced vessels, especially submarines both nuclear-powered and diesel-electric. In this regard, two more Arihant-class SSBNs are in production and are expected to join the fleet by 2025. The Indian Navy also aspires to construct six Project-75 Alpha-class SSNs and to replace its leased Russian SSN INS Chakra with another leased Akula-class SSN by 2025. Indian Navy has also been working to acquire six new Project 75I-class diesel-electric attack submarines since 1997 but the project has been marred with technical and procedural glitches for long. Reportedly, as per the latest information available on the project tender’s deadline has been extended till June 2022 and the submarines are hoped to join the fleet by the year 2030.
The Real Test of India’s Maritime Strategy
The Russia-Ukraine war has caught Indian foreign policy in a whirlwind dilemma.
The notion of non-alignment has been put to a real test now. India has been abstaining from condemning Russia. It has been subtly admonished by its newfound love in Europe and the USA, especially the Quad members. However, its reliance on Russia for military hardware and time-tested political support on international forums restricts India from reproving the Russian invasion of Ukraine overtly. On the fillip side, Indian military capability is a must to act as a net security provider in the region especially to counter China which is the basic premise of the US Indo-Pacific strategy. India is in a catch22 situation now; if it denounces Russia it will have to face the brunt in military and political domains which may cost her dearly. On the other hand, if India isn’t able to convince the US of its “non-aligned” stance, the US and EU support to counter China and attaining the status of net security provider will thus be conditional. How much leverage India has in this situation will actually bring to the limelight the efficacy or otherwise of Indian diplomacy and the policy formulation.
The Indian aspirations to dominate the Indian Ocean as a net security provider are cowed by the prevailing geo-strategic environment confronting Indian influences.
It will remain subjected to the amicable outcome of the situations being handled by not only the Indian leadership but also by the leadership of the USA, its allies, and Russia.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at South Asia Times and regularly contributes to the English Print Medium. She is presently associated with the Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times.)