Strengthening the Indian Chakravyuh: Optimizing India's Strategic Advantages in the Maritime Domain

                          

   

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

exposed. 

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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.

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 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.

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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

influence.

 

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

cooperation agenda.

 

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.

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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

like:

 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.