Indian Navy celebrates Navy Day on 4 December which coincides with the naval missile attack on Karachi harbour during 1971 war with Pakistan. That happened when Indian Navy had complete domination in the IOR amongst resident nations. 47 years later, a lot has changed which has impacted the IOR security paradigm. It is worth examining some the emerging dynamics in the Indian Ocean and opportunities it offers to Indian Navy to exploit her full potential.
During the Cold War period there was relative calm in this region, there being two power Centres and bipolar alignments. The area of containment and competition was primarily in the Atlantic and Pacific. Indian Ocean did not witness turbulence as if this Ocean did not flow between two oceans. All that has changed after the end of Cold War. The European nations outsourced most of their security to the US under the NATO umbrella. Oil prices shifted the focus to the Gulf. The attention of the US turned more towards security of sea lanes of communication for safe passage of energy for themselves and the allies. Of late, despite having declared their pivot to Indo- Pacific Strategy, US seems to be looking inwards with its America First Policy. This will have impact in deployment pattern of the US Navy in this region.
Countries, not in the NATO alliance but energy dependent on the gulf, have been deploying their naval combatants in the IOR. It was not uncommon for the Indian Navy to exchange pleasantries with naval ships from over 15-20 countries from outside the region. The numbers went up to 38-40 countries at the peak of piracy in the Gulf of Aden off the Somalian coast.
The Iran-Iraq conflict, invasion of Kuwait, fall of Saddam and 9/11 WTC attack changed the contours of security worldwide. Global war on terror, Taliban in Afghanistan, Musharraf adventure in Kargil etc. finally spilled into sea when the 26/11 attacks happened in Mumbai. It was significant that the terrorists could also use the seas apart from the navies to wage war by breaching territorial integrity of a nation. The entire focus, worldwide, shifted towards Coastal and Maritime Security.
While these events were taking place, one country was rapidly enhancing its economic and military power – China. The hunger for power, both economic and military, necessitated increased need of energy and security of the routes thereof, both over seas and land. China began strengthening her navy by building nuclear powered and nuclear armed submarines and also by building her first aircraft carrier, clearly announcing her far sea operation intentions. This was divergent from her earlier near sea operational vision. China became more and more aware that with the passage of time her needs would multiply and could be met only by trans continental and oceanic expansion. Clearly, the Gulf, South America and Africa were the energy and resource destinations. To secure the lanes of these passages and acutely aware of the long logistics tail associated with these destinations, China used her economic diplomacy which invariably facilitated her naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Military Strategy Paper of 2015 spelled out clearly its intentions on becoming a maritime power. The subsequent debt trap of Sri Lanka, Myanmar and possibly the Maldives speak for themselves.
Another important geopolitical development was elimination of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan by the US Seals. This led to the US and NATO pull out from Afghanistan and decline of Pakistan’s relevance in US calculus. China found this to be an opportunity to fulfil her desires of Indian encirclement and devised the CPEC, MSR and took control of Gwadar port on the Makran coast. Gwadar offered twin advantage. While China would ensure surveillance on US Naval presence in the Gulf across straits of Hormuz, its surrogate Pakistan could counter any attempt by the Indian Navy to restrict their operational space on the western flank.
The fact remains that despite China’s effort to create land-based routes for energy transportation, over 50% of her hydrocarbon will continue to transit over Indian Ocean in next 3/4 decades. The Malacca dilemma is not disappearing in a hurry. This is significant since China justifies presence of her Navy in the IOR thus restrains the Indian Navy’s manoeuvring space. Also, most of Indian Naval movements and activities could be susceptible to surveillance. China’s support to Pakistan emboldens it with added inventory of 8 additional Chinese submarines and possibly more of Ziangwei class frigates in future. The likelihood of port facilities in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Male and full-fledged bases at Djibouti and Gwadar would lead to a near continuous presence of the Chinese Navy. The Chinese are determined to displace the US in the Pacific and IOR as the dominant naval power. This has become evident by China’s robust assertion and strident behaviour in its maritime littorals and construction of artificial structures and military infrastructure in the South China Sea. China’s attitude has been one of complete disregard to rule based world order having rejected the PCA verdict on South China Sea nine dash line, a case brought up by the Philippines.
China and India have avoided open rivalry despite their border frictions. There has been growing geo economic competition on account of CPEC which passes through Gilgit Baltistan, an area forming part of Indian territory occupied by Pakistan, the Maritime Silk Route touching ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Chinese submarines also deploy in the Indian Ocean more often. These developments in and around Indian Ocean have encouraged the Indian Navy to enlarge her combat engagement with US and Japan with the likelihood of Australia joining in the near future. This has also encouraged the US to cooperate with India in its Make in India drive. Indian Naval Chief announced last year that ships, aircraft and submarines are on Mission Based Deployment at all choke points in IOR 24x7 to make their Maritime Domain Awareness picture robust and current. This gives the Naval combatants more time to react to any developing situation. The recent political developments in Maldives and Sri Lanka have only justified the Navy’s long-standing belief that security of the region is important for the economic development of India. Prime Minister Modi’s coined acronym SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) was both a timely and visionary political statement.
This is the backdrop in which the resident and non-resident navies will be operating in the very near future. The entire sea space is likely to become more crowded but transparent, with each country becoming more aware of other’s deployment. The sea lanes of communication will be the focus area. Enhanced economic activities will call for more and more cooperation to avoid unintended or accidental confrontation. Shared security could become a necessity. There would be increased presence of combatants since suspicions would be hard to dispel given the relations amongst the regional countries.
The historic baggage of unresolved boundary and the collusion of China with Pakistan would continue to exert pressure on Indian defence budget. Maritime deterrence, both conventional and nuclear, will have to be maintained to prevent any fall out of escalation over land boundaries. Security of sea lanes closer to Makran coast will become a bigger challenge given the belligerence of Pakistan which is likely to increase given the Chinese collusion and full operationalisation of Gwadar. The protection of trade, against both traditional and non-traditional security challenges, will witness overall increase.
This situation offers opportunity of greater political (budgetary) and diplomatic support for scaling up Naval Capabilities for round the clock surveillance of IOR. The Navy will need to add to its Maritime Patrol Aircraft and Anti-Submarine Helicopter inventory urgently, apart from its ongoing surface ship and submarine building programmes. Since airborne platforms are import dependent, the identification, selection and negotiations would have to be completed post haste for induction. The Navy has been discharging these duties with available assets in professional manner, time has come to sustain these operational deployments for longer periods in the coming decades. We must take care of our own security and prosperity, do not expect any other country to fight for our cause in the IOR or over continental borders.
Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha(Retd)
Former CinC Western Naval Command &
Chief of Integrated Defence Staff