The long and fascinating five thousand plus year history of India is also an important part of the
story of civilization itself. One need only to look at the sophisticated prehistoric Indus Valley
civilization that rivaled or perhaps surpassed those of ancient Egypt or Babylonia. Or the ruins
of the great temple complex Angkor Wat in Cambodia whose stone reliefs depict the story of
the great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. These scenes of history repeat
themselves in the many Hindu and Buddhist temples and inscriptions throughout much of
Southeast Asia and beyond. Much of the spread of these Indian cultural influences were the
result of India's seafaring history.
India's maritime traditions date back to ancient times and certainly by early Roman times east-
west trade patterns had emerged riding on the monsoon trade winds. Indian dhows once plied
the waters of the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea, to Oman, Gujarat, and the Kerala coast. The
ancient Roman trading port of Muziris has been located on the Kerala backwaters in Southern
India along with Roman coins and amphorae. It would appear that lots of Roman sesterces
(ancient Roman coins) went to buy Indian pepper and other spices.
Today, as the silk and spice routes are returning, would be a great time for India to revive her
strong maritime heritage in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It would also present an
opportunity for the U.S. and its Allies to assist India in expanding its maritime presence,
capabilities, capacity and maritime infrastructure in the Indian Ocean, thereby helping to
preserve the balance of power and the rules-based international order in the region. This
would provide regional partners with options to offset increasing Chinese influence as well as
opportunities for the U.S. and its allies to increase cooperation and interoperability with the
Indian Navy while assisting India to expand its presence, capability, and influence in the region.
As China's port infrastructure and naval presence increases in the Indian Ocean, so too does its
influence. India realizes that it must respond to China's naval expansion. Prime Minister Modi
has said that the "primary responsibility for Indian Ocean security remains with those who live
in this region" and that "regional connectivity cannot undermine sovereignty of nations." India
also well understands the delicate art of balancing, from Kautilya's ancient writings in the
Arthashastra, to the more modern era when China invaded Tibet, the balance of power has
factored into India's foreign policy.
Indian naval and air capabilities operating from the sub-continent provide a solid anchor for
Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), sea control, and power projection near India. These are
highly capable naval and air forces whom I have seen operate at sea. However, some
adjustments in force posture and basing may be appropriate to respond to China's presence in
the Indian Ocean. Due to the sheer size of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the reach of forces
based on the sub-continent is insufficient to protect India's interests throughout the region.
When President Xi Jinping first introduced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, China's
massive investment and infrastructure provision plan across Eurasia, many hailed it as a
welcome economic advance toward Asian connectivity, promoting new supply and value
chains. At the time, while the U.S. government seemed paralyzed and had very little to say,
India was pretty much alone on the world stage voicing skepticism of China's plan and ultimate
motives. In fact, India did not attend the 2017 two-day forum in Beijing on the BRI where
President Xi feted other world leaders.
From India's perspective, one can certainly understand their concerns about China's expansion
into the IOR with port facilities in Gwadar, Pakistan, Hambantota, Sri Lanka, investments in
Bangladesh and Myanmar, and China's first overseas military base in Djibouti. China's
significant investment and inroads in the Maldives is also a disturbing trend. India's concern
about encirclement with these Chinese-built port facilities and infrastructure, which were
initially referred to as a "string of pearls", is understandable given that these facilities could be
easily convertible into dual-use facilities and that India's southern and western flank are now
So what potential options do India and her partners have to counter Chinese
expansionism? The acclaimed author, Robert Kaplan, has said that "India can best project
power from the sea". India, along with her strategic partners, must look for "places and bases"
in the Indian Ocean from which to promote commercial interests, assure access, protect vital
sea lines of communications (SLOCs), and to project power when and where necessary. Great
power competition is nothing new in the Indian Ocean. The U.S. and the former Soviet Union
jostled for position, power, and influence in this region throughout the Cold War. India has
seen this movie too. Now is the time to revive India's historic maritime traditions and establish
or modernize port facilities from which to operate with her friends and partners.
India's maritime force design and posture, to include basing, should flow from an overarching
strategy and priorities. As I wrote in my last article, I feel that India's top priority
should be Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) and sea control in the Indian Ocean, anchored
by and extending out from bases on the subcontinent. India currently has a lot of maritime
capability and basing located on India's west coast. This is understandable given the need to
protect vital sea lanes, ensure energy security coming from the Persian Gulf, and to defend
against Pakistan. This basing posture may not be optimized to monitor and counter China's
more recent forays into the Indian Ocean. With Nepal moving closer to China, China's maritime
infrastructure investments in Chittagong, Bangladesh, Sittwe and Kyaukphyu, Myanmar, India
might be better served to put more emphasis on the Bay of Bengal area. Additionally, the
Indian Navy may want to look at options to enhance resilience in view of China's long range
strike capabilities. For example, the ability to disperse capabilities from large bases like INS
Vajrakosh and Kadamba. The U.S. experience under former President Reagan and former
Secretary of the Navy Lehman, the Strategic Homeporting strategy, may be a useful model.
In terms of the aforementioned strategy, once the anchor is set, India should look to
improve and/or add forward bases to expand their reach and achieve specific operational and
strategic objectives. The following recommendations on potential locations for India to pursue
forward operating bases will be addressed in order of strategic priority.
If China is the number one strategic priority, then expanding capability and operations in the
Andaman and Nicobar Islands should be the top priority. First, these islands stand sentinel
over one of the most strategic maritime choke-points in the world, the Strait of Malacca,
through which flows the commerce and energy supplies that power the Asian economies.
Previous Indian deployments of P-8I aircraft to these strategically-located islands was
absolutely the right move. More needs to be done in terms of infrastructure improvements to
airfields and port facilities to support future deployments. These include airfield runway
extensions and upgrades to accommodate India’s P8I aircraft and improved ports and ship
carrying capacity to facilitate having additional ships operating from the islands. India should
also consider communications and sensor upgrades and the ability to deploy additional forces
such as coastal defense cruise missiles (CDCMs) and air defenses. It should also be mentioned
that these islands are Indian territory so expansion is not contingent on negotiating access.
The other exciting feature of upgrading facilities on the Andaman and Nicobar islands are the
opportunities presented for increasing interoperability and cooperation with strategic partners.
The U.S., India, and Australia all fly the P-8. The Australians also have the strategically located
Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean southwest of Indonesia. Imagine a future where these
strategic partners could more routinely operate and fly P-8s together, using each other's
facilities with future logistics agreements in place, and covering vast swaths of the Indian
Ocean. This would greatly improve maritime domain awareness (MDA) and operational and
contingency response times to future incidents like the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Additionally, with India's acquisition of the MQ9 B Guardian drones, intelligence, surveillance &
reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities will be greatly increased. Operating the Guardian drones out
of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands will be a force multiplier.
The potential to facilitate interoperability with partners extends well beyond P-8
operations. If India decides to pursue reciprocal basing access with the U.S. and
Australia, shared use of Andaman/Nicobar, Cocos Island, and the U.S. base in Diego Garcia
could be a win-win-win. Finally, Japan has expressed an interest in assisting India in upgrading
the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. While projects currently being discussed are rather modest,
this could grow to more important infrastructure investments to balance China's BRI.
The other potentially important overseas basing opportunity, working our way west in the Bay
of Bengal, would be the port of Trincomalee in Sri Lanka. Trincomalee is one of the finest
natural deep-water harbors of the world. It would be perfect for operating ships and
submarines out of. India already has a commercial presence in Trincomalee managing oil tank
farms and has been seeking to expand this presence. An Indian Navy presence in Trincomalee
would be useful to balance Chinese access to (and 99 percent control) of the Sri Lankan port of
Hambantota. It would also increase Indian naval presence in the Bay of Bengal, heretofore
secure in terms of India's reach, but now like much of the Indian Ocean, where a competition
with China is underway.
Regarding the strategic importance of Trincomalee, it is useful to take a look at the historical
significance of this port with respect to India. The British Navy's East Indies Station was based
out of Trincomalee during World War Two. It is also important to note that the strategic
significance of Trincomalee is well known. The Japanese attacked the British Fleet at Colombo
and Trincomalee in the Spring of 1942. This was following the successful attacks at Pearl
Harbor, Malaya, and Singapore. Churchill described the attack on Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) as one
of the most dangerous moments of the war. He feared that if the Japanese took Ceylon that
they could use it as a springboard to attack India. Churchill had said that if India fell, his
government would have fallen, and that would have been the end. Regarding, Sri Lanka and
the Bay of Bengal, the Japanese came this way in World War Two. You can be sure the Chinese
have studied this history.
Again, working our way west, the strategically-located Maldives Islands are also a location
where the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force should seek more access. China has made
significant inroads into the Maldives to include the construction and opening this year of the
Sinamale Bridge linking the islands of Male and Hulhule. Additionally, increased Chinese
investment and tourism in the Maldives accounts for a significant source of income and
The Indian Navy has a history of operating from Maldivian waters to assist the Maldivian
military in exclusive economic zone surveillance and patrols. With India's history of operating
closely with the Maldives in counter terrorism, the provision of light helicopters, and joint
patrols, etc., and with the Maldives gravitating closer into China's orbit, India would be well
served to increase military to military engagement as well as a continued push toward gaining
access to facilities. Due south of Male, the capital of the Maldives, is Gan in the Addu Atoll
which has the only other airport in the Maldives. India had once considered taking over Gan
after the British left in the 1960s. This would still be an attractive naval and airbase. From the
Indian Naval base of Kochi on the southwest coast of India it is approximately 506 nautical
miles. Having a small naval facility in Gan could reduce response times for contingencies in this
part of the Indian Ocean, but more significantly, would extend the reach and endurance of
Indian maritime patrol aircraft. This could greatly enhance MDA.
Duqm, Oman is another interesting location for India to consider as a future logistics hub. India
has lengthy historic ties to Oman, stemming from the maritime trade mentioned earlier in this
article and also from the colonial era when the Sultanate of Oman became a British
Protectorate. Duqm's strategic location in the North Arabian Sea but well outside the Persian
Gulf and the attendant security concerns of the Strait of Hormuz mark it as an ideal way station
from which the Indian Navy can operate. This would give the Indian Navy additional flexibility
and options in ensuring the security of her vital energy supplies as well the protection of the
large Indian diaspora in the region.
Beyond being a potential logistics hub, Duqm is well placed to extend Indian MDA and perhaps
more importantly, from an Indian perspective, for power projection and sea control against
Pakistan. Duqm would also provide potential training opportunities with U.S. forces transiting
to/from the Persian Gulf. Wouldn’t it be great if the U.S. and India could collaborate on a future
logistics and infrastructure project in Duqm? It could be an important addition to the U.S.-India
The Southwest Indian Ocean also presents strategic opportunities for India and her strategic
partners. As we look toward 2025 and beyond, there will be an increased interest by both
Asian and Western powers in East Africa as the reintegration of South Asia, East Africa,
Southwest Asia, Central Asia and East Asia continues. The shipping traffic bound for Asia
around the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, has increased in recent years,
stemming from ships originating from West Africa and South America. Additionally, there are
purported to be large oil and natural gas deposits in East Africa to include offshore assets.
Increased interest in the oil and gas sector here closer to Asia's expanding economies may well
increase the strategic importance of this area.
Potential overseas operating bases worth exploring in the Southwest Indian Ocean include
Madagascar and Port Victoria in the Seychelles. Madagascar has major seaports at or near the
critical Mozambique Channel. Additionally, President Kovind of India visited Madagascar in
April of this year seeking greater cooperation in the maritime domain, to include cooperation in
sustainable fishing and blue economy development, as well as the potential for greater
cooperation with the Indian Navy and Coast Guard. Port Victoria in the Seychelles also looks to
be a prime location for the Indian Navy to have a greater presence. India had previously signed
an agreement with the Seychelles to build a military facility on Assumption Island that faced
growing opposition in the Seychelles and has yet to be ratified. One way India may want to
approach the concerns of Indian Ocean countries, such as the Seychelles, about pressure from
China is to think about presenting this in terms of a scalable spectrum of options. This
approach will be discussed in the conclusion.
It is important to note the strategic significance of France's military presence in the Indo-
Asia-Pacific. In the Southwest Indian Ocean, French armed forces are divided between the
Reunion and Mayotte islands. These forces include two frigates, two patrol vessels, one light
landing ship and air assets. One of the primary duties of these forces is to protect France's
extensive exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the area. This could provide an excellent
opportunity for bilateral maritime security operations between India and France as well
opportunities to work together to build maritime capacity in the region. France, as a key Ally of
the U.S., may provide opportunities for operational synergies and overlapping bilateral
engagements between the U.S., India, and France.
As great power competition returns to the Indian Ocean, India will be best served by having a
web of "places" and "bases" from which her commercial shipping, navy, and air forces can
operate. As India seeks to increase access to key places and bases in the Indian Ocean a
scalable, tailored approach to pursuing access could be taken based on the strategic value of
the location and host nation willingness to grant access. This strategy might look something
1) Access to existing facilities, routine port visits, exercises, and mil-to-mil engagement with everyone who will allow it.
2) Targeted commercial investments in strategic locations that could evolve into dual-use facilities.
3) Selective investments in combat support infrastructure including logistics, command and control, and sensors at strategic locations.
4) Permanent basing access.
It is also important to acknowledge that the strategic value of a location will not always align
with host nation willingness to grant access, and that India will need to balance investments in
base infrastructure with investments in the forces that would operate from it.
Another aspect of this to consider is that naval forces, by nature, are more diplomatic and less
threatening than land forces. The U.S. experience, with Commander, Middle East Force in
Bahrain provides a good example. Initially, comprised of no permanently assigned forces, a
small headquarters element and three to five ships deployed on a rotating basis, the footprint
in Bahrain was rather small. Actual command was from a flagship, the USS LaSalle and not a
building. Today this initial small footprint has grown to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.
With China's massive investment in the BRI one can reasonably predict that China's
naval presence will continue to grow apace in the Indian Ocean. India will need to counter
balance this increased presence. It will not have to match China symmetrically, but will have to
create an environment where misuse of China's power will be constrained by Indian and
regional capabilities, thereby complicating China’s risk calculus. As India looks for strategic
advantage in the Indian Ocean, a key component will be the strategic geography of the IOR,
home field advantage, and India’s security partnerships. India understands this. As the
Arthashastra pointed out centuries ago, the “circle of states” or “rajamandala” is alive and well
today. India’s effort toward increased balancing and a more effective military strategy makes a
lot of sense in these uncertain times.