by Ajai Shukla
CSCAP Regional Security Outlook
CSCAP Regional Security Outlook
On the 13th of June, four warships from the Indian Navy’s Visakhapatnam-based Eastern Fleet sailed into Shanghai, China on a four-day port visit. The four vessels --- INS Rana, Shivalik, Karmukh and Shakti --- had participated in JIMEX-12 (Japan-India Maritime Exercise - 2012), the inaugural bilateral maritime exercise, and were now patrolling the South China Sea.
The same day, another Indian warship, INS Savitri, docked in Port Victoria, Seychelles. The Savitri had come to participate in Seychelles’ National Day celebrations and then spend two months patrolling the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of Seychelles and Mauritius, along with two Indian Navy Dornier aircraft stationed in those island nations at their request.
Meanwhile, near the Gulf of Aden, an Indian guided missile frigate, INS Tabar, was engaged in convoy escort and anti-piracy patrols, coordinating with Japanese and Chinese warships under a joint mechanism called SHADE (Shared Awareness and De-confliction). Simultaneously, India’s Mumbai-based Western Fleet was sending a four-warship patrol to East Africa, the Red Sea and the Western Mediterranean.
As this busy naval calendar might suggest, India is fast emerging as the regional power that polices the Indian Ocean. Said India’s Defence Minister, AK Antony, to his admirals last May, “India’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean and the professional capability of our navy bestows upon us a natural ability to play a leading role in ensuring peace and stability in the Indian Ocean Region…. The security of maritime activity through the sea-lanes in Indian Ocean is of crucial importance for the economic prosperity of our nation and that of the world.”
Even as an increasingly muscular Indian Navy raises its profile in the Indian Ocean, it keeps a studied distance from any confrontation in the western Pacific. In January, President Barack Obama’s “rebalance to the Asia Pacific region” singled out India as a key US partner in Asia. In the bilateral dialogue between Washington and New Delhi, there is pressure for India to enhance its role. But India’s strategic calculus remains centred on the patch of water that it regards as its bailiwick: the northern Indian Ocean.
Indian maritime policymakers have declared they would resist being drawn into the emerging US-China rivalry in the Western Pacific, South China Sea and the Yellow Sea. In August, India’s then naval chief, Admiral Nirmal Verma, declared that, “notwithstanding major policy statements from the US, from our perspective the primary area of interest to us is from the Malacca Strait to the (Persian/Arabian) Gulf in the west and to the Cape of Good Hope in the south… The Pacific and the South China Sea are of concern to us, but activation in those areas is not on the cards.”
Restricting itself to the Indian Ocean might seem like strategic under-reach for South Asia’s most powerful country, but even this is a new dawn for Indian policymakers. For decades India’s leaders have remained continental in outlook, fixing their gaze on the disputed land borders in the north despite having experienced colonization from the sea. A recent naval chief has publicly lamented “a national psyche of sea blindness.” Only in the new century has relative weakness in the north, where a resurgent China looms large over the Himalayan frontiers, imposed a new maritime awareness on New Delhi policymakers, forcing them to look towards the oceanic south where India holds better cards than China. There the peninsular dagger of India’s Deccan Plateau thrusts a thousand miles into the Indian Ocean, dominating the International Shipping Lanes, or ISLs, the trade superhighways on which 100,000 vessels a year carry hydrocarbons and manufactured goods to and from the economic powerhouses of Southeast and East Asia.
Enhancing India’s advantages are the strategically priceless island chains of Lakshdweep and Andaman & Nicobar, which straddle the ISLs, the former in the Arabian Sea and the latter at the mouth of the Malacca Strait. Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, is now home to a full-fledged tri-service command with a fighter base and a growing complement of naval, air and ground assets. In July India opened a naval air base, INS Baaz, at the very mouth of the Malacca Strait. This will eventually have a 10,000-foot-long runway for fighter operations, providing effective control over the Malacca Strait.
The runway at INS Baaz, the new Indian naval base near Malacca
In New Delhi’s traditionally restrained strategic perspective, the Indian Ocean is not regarded as a potential naval battlefield on which vital national issues would be decided. Instead, it is seen as an Indian economic lifeline that must be safeguarded; and as a key vulnerability of potential enemies, notably China, who could be garrotted through a blockade of shipping if hostilities elsewhere were playing out adversely.
Even as this contingency figures centrally in Indian naval planning, defence ministry (MoD) planners pooh-pooh the US notion that India would be a natural partner for America in any superpower confrontation in the Indo-Pacific. “Rivalry with China is not pre-ordained, nor will we be drawn into someone else’s battles,” a top MoD planner explained. “Any walk down a path of naval confrontation with China will be driven exclusively by our own interests. The Sino-India dynamic is entirely different from the Sino-US one. We have to think dispassionately about the rivalries and differences here.”
Such caution has not held back Defence Minister Antony from voicing Indian concern at China’s assertiveness over the island territories that it claims in the waters off its coast. At the Shangri La Dialogue in June, Antony declared: “(M)aritime freedoms cannot be the exclusive prerogative of a few. Large parts of the common seas cannot be declared exclusive to any one country or group…. (T)he fullness of maritime freedoms can be realized only when all states, big and small, are willing to abide by universally agreed laws and principles.”
Antony also strongly backed the emerging Asian security architecture, including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting – Plus (ADMM Plus); and consultative mechanisms like the IOR-ARC (Indian Ocean Rim – Association for Regional Cooperation); and IONS (Indian Ocean Naval Symposium), an Indian-sponsored forum that convenes biennially, bringing together 35 naval chiefs from around the Indian Ocean rim. In New Delhi’s perspective the East Asia Summit and the ADMM Plus, despite their non-assertiveness, are important forums where China can be periodically held to account.
The Antony MoD’s wariness of China is fully matched by its suspicion of the US. But there is little restraint in the ministry of external affairs’ (MEA’s) enthusiasm over the US-India maritime relationship. Senior MEA diplomats conclude from the increasingly sophisticated US-India joint naval exercises that, “Common maritime interests allow US-India political convergence to play out in the political-military realm. Most of the political-military dialogue between Washington and New Delhi centres on the Indian Ocean Region, and on the US intentions there.”
Given that the maritime-oriented US Pacific Command (PACOM) is responsible for the Indian and Indian Ocean geographies, it is unsurprising that naval exercises constitute the bulk of the joint military training between the US and India. It also follows logically that the US Navy, of the four American services, backs the military relationship with India most enthusiastically.
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On 3rd April 1989, the cover of Time magazine featured the Indian-built frigate, INS Godavari, with a cover story entitled, “Superpower India.” This was the end of the 1970s and 1980s, a golden era for the Indian Navy, when the Soviet Union provided it with a stream of missile boats (e.g. the Osa class, and later the larger Nanuchkas and Tarantuls, reclassified as the Vijaydurg and Veer class), frigates and destroyers (e.g. the Rajput class), all at “friendship prices.” With New Delhi offering little clarity about the nature and purpose of India’s naval build up; alarm bells were sounding from Indonesia to Australia. But India’s economic crisis of 1991, and the resulting cuts in defence spending, led to what the navy still calls “the lost decade”. No warships were ordered during this period, leading to a shortfall that will take decades to make up.
Today, even with an all-time high share of 18 per cent of India’s $36 billion defence budget, the Indian Navy is struggling to reach its planned force level of 160 vessels, including 90 capital warships. These include the escorts and logistic backup for two aircraft carrier battle groups that New Delhi planners want “fully operational and combat worthy” at all times. Towards this end, three aircraft carriers are on the anvil: the much-delayed, 44,000 tonne INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Admiral Gorshkov, built in Russia) that was due to join the fleet next year, but has encountered potentially serious engine problems during ongoing pre-delivery sea trials in the Barents Sea; the 40,000 tonne INS Vikrant, India’s first indigenously designed and built aircraft carrier that was to enter service in 2015 but is running three years behind schedule; and another 65,000 tonne vessel that will follow the Vikrant. Meanwhile the navy flogs its lone aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, which celebrated its silver anniversary in the Indian Navy in May after having earlier served 25 years in the Royal Navy.
INS Vikramaditya has encountered an engine problem that will delay its delivery to India until late 2013
Like India’s aircraft carriers, the smaller warships are running late too. A report from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the national auditor, reveals that the Indian Navy today has just 61, 44 and 20 per cent respectively of the frigates, destroyers and corvettes that it has projected as its minimum requirement.
India’s newest warship, INS Sahyadri, a limited-stealth, 5,600-tonne, guided missile frigate of the Shivalik-class that was commissioned in July, takes the overall tally of vessels to 134, twenty-six short of its projected requirement. Alarmingly for naval planners who hope to boost these numbers, the CAG report notes: “the 5 vessels that will be inducted each year will barely suffice to replace warships that are decommissioned after completing their 30-40 year service lives.”
Not everyone subscribes to the warnings that the Indian Navy’s fleet is dangerously short of warships. Analysts, especially air power votaries, point to the significantly greater firepower that a new generation of indigenously built warships carry, arguing that this more than compensates for any shortfall in numbers. Measured tonne for tonne, Indian-built warships are amongst the most heavily armed vessels afloat. The seven 6,800-tonne destroyers being built under Project 15A and 15B, the first of which could be commissioned next year, will each carry sixteen Brahmos-2 surface-to-surface supersonic cruise missiles; the new (still unnamed) Long Range Surface-to-Air Missile (LR-SAM), an anti-missile system that India and Israel are jointly developing; a 130-millimetre super-rapid gun mount (SRGM); four 30-millimetre AK-630 rapid fire guns for close air defence; and a full suite of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) equipment, including the latest, India-developed HUMSA-NG bow mounted sonar. Each destroyer will embark two helicopters, kitted out for ASW missions.
Either way, India’s growing ability to design and build warships is likely to drive its emergence as a credible maritime force. Of 18 major warships that joined the fleet over the last two decades, 12 were designed and built in three MoD-owned shipyards in India: Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai (MDL); Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers, Kolkata (GRSE); and Goa Shipyard Ltd (GSL). Last year the MoD bought a fourth shipyard, Hindustan Shipyard Limited (HSL), which could be central to India’s submarine building programme.
These shipyards, however, do not have the capacity to build warships at the rate that the navy requires. So great are the infrastructure shortfalls that Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL), a non-defence shipyard owned by the Ministry of Shipping, has been contracted to build the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant. No defence shipyard has a slipway or dry dock large enough for an aircraft carrier, nor the modular shipbuilding facilities needed for such a vessel. To overcome this, MDL and GRSE have partnered private shipbuilders, which have recently put up excellent shipyards but lack experience in building larger warships. This will utilize private sector capacities, while also building them as constructors in their own right.
In July, MDL announced a joint venture company (JV) for building surface warships with Pipavav Defence & Offshore Engineering Company Ltd (PDOECL), which has a world-class shipyard near Bhavnagar, Gujarat, on the Arabian Sea. Another JV for building submarines was announced with Larsen & Toubro, which has played a central role in building India’s first nuclear ballistic missile submarine, INS Arihant; and which will soon inaugurate a spanking new shipyard at Katupally, near Chennai. GRSE is also implementing its own tie-ups.
MDL and GRSE are also completing major modernisation programmes, installing the modular workshops, slipways and Goliath cranes that support modular shipbuilding. This is expected to cut down the build time of a frigate from the current 96 months to just 60 months; and the build time of a destroyer from the current 120 months to 72 months. This follows heavy criticism, most recently by the CAG, which has noted that “The lead ship in all projects is delivered or expected to be delivered after a delay ranging from four to five years from the original delivery date.”
The mobilization of Indian warship building yards is long overdue, given the volume of navy orders. Already, 46 naval vessels are under construction: three in Russia (two Project 11356 or Teg-class frigates, and the aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya) and 43 in India. These include three 6,800-tonne destroyers being built by MDL under Project 15A (INS Kolkata, Kochi and Chennai); four similar destroyers under Project 15B; and six Scorpene submarines. Meanwhile GRSE is building four anti-submarine warfare corvettes; and eight upgraded landing craft for deployment in the Andaman Islands. Meanwhile, GSL is building four offshore patrol vessels (OPVs); while private shipyards are constructing five more OPVs; two cadet training ships; and six new catamaran-hulled survey vessels.
Besides these, the MoD has sanctioned another 49 vessels for the navy. These include: seven guided missile frigates under Project 17A, to be built simultaneously by MDL and GRSE; six AIP-equipped submarines under Project 75(I); four fast attack craft (FAC) at GRSE; eight mine hunter vessels (two will be built in South Korea by Kangnam Corp, with six more built by GSL after technology transfer). A private shipyard will build another cadet training ship, and shipbuilders are being identified for four Landing Platform Docks (LPDs) and 16 shallow water anti-submarine warfare (ASW) ships. The navy is evaluating options for a Deep Submergence and Rescue vessel (DSRV). Contracting will begin “in the coming months” for one survey training vessel and two diving support vessels.
If lack of numbers in the surface fleet is worrisome, the shortfall in the submarine fleet amounts to a critical operational weakness. Down to just 14 operational submarines (ten Russian Kilo-class submarines, known by their Indian nomenclature, the Sindhughosh-class; and four German HDW Type 209 submarines, called the Shishumar-class), about eight are operational at any given time. The navy’s ability to shut down crucial waterways, therefore, hinges mainly on the INS Chakra, the 12,700 tonne Akula II class nuclear attack submarine (SSN) that joined India’s eastern fleet in April, on a 10-year lease from Russia. New Delhi and Moscow are negotiating a lease for a second SSN for India.
The INS Chakra at its commissioning in Apr 2012
Meanwhile, the six Scorpene submarines that MDL is constructing will be delivered incrementally between 2015 and 2018. Only the last two Scorpenes will be built with MESMA Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) systems ab initio; the first four will be retrofitted with AIP later.
A long-running technology debate continues to delay six more submarines that the navy’s “30-Year Submarine Construction Plan” of 1999 envisages building under Project 75(I). While all sides agree on the need for AIP, an argument ensued over which procurement model the navy should follow. One camp argued for ambitious specifications, with vendors tasked to deliver those. The contending view was to choose between proven designs that were on offer. The first view was discredited by Australia’s experience with the Collins-class submarines; but argument continues over the kind of AIP --- Sterling engine or fuel cells --- the navy should opt for.
The Indian Navy is acutely aware of its inferiority in numbers to the People’s Liberation Army (Navy), or PLA(N), which operates some 50 conventional submarines and nine SSNs. Even the submarine wing of the otherwise moribund Pakistan Navy already has three AIP-equipped Agusta 90B submarines and is set to buy another six conventional submarines from China.
The picture is rosier in New Delhi’s quest for maritime domain awareness (MDA). For decades, the navy has relied on an outdated Soviet-era fleet of five IL-38 and eight Tu-142 aircraft. In early 2013, the first of eight Boeing P8I multi-mission maritime aircraft (MMA) will enter service, with the order likely to be increased by another four aircraft. The navy also plans to induct eight Medium Range Maritime Reconnaissance (MRMR) aircraft, and strengthen its MDA capability with additional Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Naval strategists argue, however, that India’s 7,500-kilometre coastline; its 2.2 million square kilometre EEZ; and the need to monitor the ISLs, demands a land-based surveillance network, like the Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) in Australia. That notion, however, is yet to translate into a procurement or development order.
The first flight of the Boeing P8I Poseidon multi-mission maritime aircraft at the Boeing facility in Seattle, USA
Occupied for now with consolidating its naval fleet, bases and doctrines, New Delhi is inclined to remain aloof from the unfolding confrontation in the Asia-Pacific. India has noted the lack of clarity in the evolving strategic matrix. While Beijing’s new belligerence over its territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan has created an “alliance of the alarmed”, New Delhi sees that as a fragile coalition with serious internal fault lines. Nor is there great belief in American steadfastness; India’s faith in US resolve was badly shaken by President Barack Obama’s controversial “G-2 condominium” proposal to Beijing in 2009, which India bitterly regarded as the ceding of Asian overlordship to China.
In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that New Delhi is hedging its bets. The Indian Navy, while regularly patrolling waters claimed by China, and strengthening partnerships with littoral states --- especially Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia --- is also keeping the door conspicuously open for China. This is not lost on Beijing. After the Sept 2012 visit to India by Liang Guanglie, China’s defence minister, a Xinhua commentary (which China’s Ministry of National Defense posted on its website) revealed that New Delhi and Beijing had discussed the US rebalancing to Asia. In a conspicuous departure from the cut-and-dried tone normally used in matters relating to India, the commentary noted: “As the world geo-political situation goes through a massive change, the coming together of the two largest countries that also have the strength of their economies could tilt balances.”
Could China, worried by the growing confrontation with the US on its eastern flank, be looking at clearing its western flank through a border agreement with India? If there is a game-changer in the offing, it could be such a Chinese decision. In the absence of a border settlement, New Delhi will continue to hedge, strengthening its naval power in the Indian Ocean while avoiding provocation in the waters beyond the Malacca Strait.
In the medium term (2012-2022), the Indian Navy will accumulate the resources --- three aircraft carrier battle groups; coastal air bases and forward air bases in the island chains of Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar; and a mix of conventional and nuclear-powered attack submarines --- that would be needed for imposing sea control over selected waters, while pursuing a sea denial strategy at multiple choke points on the International Shipping Lanes in the Indian Ocean. Networked through a constellation of satellites that will be launched over the coming decade, the Indian Navy would emerge as the predominant naval power in the northern Indian Ocean.
The southern Indian Ocean is another matter. New Delhi has evaluated, but appears currently disinclined towards building and operating overseas naval bases, especially in the Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and the East African seaboard. Indian naval planners worry that the PLA(N) has already decided to have a significant presence in the Indian Ocean. Vice Admiral Anup Singh, who until recently headed the Eastern Naval Command, notes that the PLA(N) sends a task force of three warships --- a destroyer, a frigate and a logistics vessel --- to the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy patrols, while the Indian Navy makes do with just one.
But a sustained PLA(N) presence in the Indian Ocean would require base support, as well as aircraft carriers on station. China’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning (formerly the Varyag, built in Ukraine), is not being immediately followed up with a second vessel. Nor has China moved towards setting up naval bases, which could perhaps be negotiated with Pakistan (Gwadar), and Sri Lanka (Hambantota). New Delhi believes that China’s supply to Pakistan of F-22 frigates, submarines and conceivably more equipment to come, is directed at creating local capabilities without the provocation of establishing a base.
For now, the Indian Navy’s growing muscularity has not evoked objections, not even from Beijing. Meanwhile, most littoral states have welcomed India’s growing control over the northern Indian Ocean, especially given the insecurity that piracy has bred. New Delhi, therefore, arguing that it is acting in the regional interest, is likely to remain an independent actor, eschewing overt alliances and maintaining a cooperative rather than a confrontational relationship with both China and the US.
 The Indian Navy Public Relations Office (PRO) released the schedule of 13th June 2012 in an official press release that day.
 Ministry of Defence, Directorate of Public Relations (DPR) press release on 8th May 2012, on the inauguration of the annual Naval Commanders’ Conference.
 The new US strategy, enunciated in the document, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” was announced on 5th January 2012.
 Admiral Nirmal Verma, addressing the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) on 25th June 2012, in London, on the topic: “Metamorphosis of Matters Maritime: An Indian Perspective.”
 While the potential blockading of Chinese trade and energy supplies has never been explicitly enunciated in any Indian public document, this is the unmistakeable sense that is conveyed by multiple policymakers in various interviews with the author.
 The idea of the Indo-Pacific, “a seamless stretch of ocean space linking the India and Pacific”, was highlighted by Shyam Saran in “Mapping the Indo-Pacific”, Indian Express, 29th Oct 2011. Saran pointed out that Hillary Clinton first spoke about the “Indo-Pacific” in a speech in Honolulu in Oct 2010. In an article in Foreign Policy magazine in 2011, Clinton again wrote about the need to “translate the growing connection between the Indian and Pacific Oceans into an operational concept.”
 This was stated in an off-the-record briefing to the author on 29th Aug 2012. This corroborates similar views expressed earlier by multiple MoD officials.
 Defence Minister AK Antony, rooted in the leftist politics of his home state, Kerala, tends to ideologically distrust the US.
 Washington and New Delhi resumed their political-military dialogue in April 2012, after a gap of six years, when Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Andrew Shapiro, visited New Delhi for a round of talks.
 The jurisdiction of the Tampa-headquartered US Central Command (CENTCOM) ends with Pakistan at the Pakistan-India border.
 This can be gleaned from three recent documents: the Maritime Capabilities Perspective Plan for 2012-27; the 12th Defence Plan; and 12th Infrastructure Plan.
 Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), Performance Audit of the Indigenous Construction of Indian Naval Warships, 2010
 Learning from the 1980s, the Indian Navy is transparent about its warship building programmes. These figures, and those in the preceding paragraph, were announced by navy chief, Admiral Nirmal Verma, at a New Delhi press conference on 7th Aug 2012.
 Xinhua commentary, “China, India make efforts to build military trust”, 5th Sept 12, posted on website of China’s Ministry of National Defense, http://eng.mod.gov.cn/MiltaryExchanges/2012-09/06/content_4397716.htm