Enhancing Indian Maritime Capabilities and Capacity in the Indian Ocean


The U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) and the National Defense Strategy (NDS), were released in December 2017, and January 2018, respectively. Together, they provide a welcome and tough call to action, particularly with respect to the threats posed by China and Russia.  Officially recognizing the re-emergence of long-term strategic competition with China and Russia, while re-validating the criticality of mutually beneficial alliances and partnerships provides a strategic imperative for greater U.S.-Indian cooperation.  The NDS calls for the development of innovative operational concepts and more lethal, agile, and resilient force posture and employment which if combined with increasing US resources for defense may provide new opportunities for collaboration.  

The NSS acknowledges the geopolitical competition with China unfolding in the Indo-Pacific, calls for the U.S. to expand our defense and security cooperation with India, and identifies India as a Major Defense Partner of the U.S. The NDS talks about shoring up balance of power relationships in the region and working with key countries in a bilateral and multilateral fashion to "preserve the free and open international system".  Given the strategic importance of greater U.S.-Indian cooperation,  there are ways of enhancing Indian maritime capabilities and capacity in the Indian Ocean, while improving interoperability with U.S. Forces.

First, why so much emphasis on the Indian Ocean?  The Indian Ocean could well be the key stage upon which great power competition will play out in the 21st Century.  Indian Ocean sea lanes are the strategically vital conduit for the energy and trade flows that make up a significant portion of the world's commerce.  The Indian Ocean is also home to some of the tightest and most traversed strategic choke-points in the world, to include the Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Malacca, and the Bab-el-Mandeb.  Through these choke-points, flows the oil, gas, and trade goods that are the engines of the global economy.  It is also the region where there is an accelerating competition in connecting Asia in terms of maritime infrastructure, road, rail, and pipeline development.  The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by China, which seeks to link, through infrastructure provision, economies across Eurasia and East Africa (much of this occurring in the Indian Ocean) could have huge strategic implications.  As China's investments in the Indian Ocean continue, it's economic and political influence in the region will increase unless balanced by the diplomatic, economic, and security initiatives of other nations, particularly India and the U.S.  And then there is China's military presence in the Indian Ocean.  China, now with a military base in the Horn of Africa at Djibouti and talk of construction of a new naval base in Jiwani, Pakistan point to an increasing Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean ostensibly to protect their economic interests.  This illustrates the point that the author has made in a previous article that the security competition that is taking place in the Indo-Pacific is happening largely in a maritime context, and future regional crises could very well occur, and be decided in the maritime domain.  .

This brings us back to the balance of power dynamics mentioned in the NDS.  Balance of power is an old concept in strategy and international relations.  The Indians, who hail from an ancient  and great civilization, are very familiar with the concept.  Aparna Pande, in her excellent new book, "From Chanakya to Modi", writes of the ancient Indian writer, Kautilya whose "Arthashastra" talks of realism in foreign policy and the need for balancing against states that may pose a potential threat to the kingdom. The Indians have been balancing against China since their 1962 war with China. Prime Minister Modi speaks of India's long history as a maritime nation, and that the primary responsibility for Indian Ocean security remains with those who live in the region.  He also warns that "regional connectivity cannot undermine sovereignty of nations".  

So how do we enhance U.S.-India cooperation to include multi-lateral engagement and what actions are needed to expand Indian maritime capability, capacity, and influence?   In national security matters, when you are standing still, you are actually backing up. With a Chinese military base in Djibouti and a planned Chinese naval and air base in Jinwani close to the Chinese built port of Gwadar in Pakistan, combined with China's BRI infrastructure provision across the region, the U.S. and India find themselves in a situation of playing catch-up.  This is why accelerating tangible implementation of the strategic partnership with India is so important and also why deepening collaboration at the operational and tactical level is the next logical next step in the relationship.  It is time to get down to a nuts and bolts discussion of mutually beneficial options to advance shared Indian and US interests, with the expectation that enhancing Indian maritime capability and increased US engagement in the region will be key elements of our strategy.  This calls for a frank discussion of Indian needs and priorities, potential U.S. contributions, implementation timelines, etc.

The author has previously suggested assisting the Indian Navy with increased information sharing, maritime domain awareness, enhanced humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities, anti-submarine warfare, and various capabilities to ensure sea control and power projection within the Indian Ocean in the face of the evolving capabilities of potential adversaries.  One of these capabilities should include helping the Indian Navy acquire the U.S. AEGIS combat system for India's next generation of destroyers.  This will give them the foundation they need to spiral this capability to sea-based ballistic missile defense in the future.

The author has also advocated U.S. assistance to India on developing maritime infrastructure to counterbalance China's BRI.   There are many ways that we could assist in this endeavor.  India will require significant investment in its maritime infrastructure to ensure India realizes its full economic potential in the coming decades.  Currently, much of India's container shipments are trans-shipped in Sri Lanka due to this lack of maritime infrastructure and inadequate deep water ports.   The BRI is not just about connecting Eurasia for increased trade and commerce.  It is a Chinese grand strategy that is marshaling all of China's levers of power for regional hegemony as a waypoint for something much bigger that they have in mind. India and the U.S.  working together, perhaps with other partners and allies, on maritime infrastructure in India and greater regional connectivity could provide an Indian and U.S. answer to the BRI.  This is not containment against China, but improved geostrategic balancing in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

.  In the broader Indo-Pacific, U.S Forces are overstretched and this is too vast an area to try and go it alone. China's activities in the South and East China Seas are case in point.  China, through land reclamation or island building, militarization of these reclaimed features, and other aggressive activities fundamentally violate international laws and conventions.  They are in essence, effectively establishing sea and air control over the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea.   There is also no reason not to believe that China may export some of the bad behavior seen in the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean.  If we think of the Indo-Pacific as a single theater, with multiple centers of gravity, it may be time to review  how U.S Forces are organized in this vital region in terms of command, control and areas of responsibility. 

The NSS and NDS call for an Indo-Pacific strategy and increased engagement with India.   In U.S. security architecture, the world is divided up into regional combatant commands in a classified document known as the Unified Command Plan (UCP).  This plan establishes geographic areas of responsibility (AOR).  The current UCP essentially divides the Indian Ocean between two Combatant Commanders (PACOM AND CENTCOM) with a small area to AFRICOM.  Given the strategic significance of the Indo-Pacific, putting this entire region under a single Combatant Commander is desirable to ensure synchronization and unity of effort. However, the AOR is huge, and span of control and focused engagement are a challenge.  

Additionally, it is unclear that current PACOM/CENTCOM/AFRICOM AOR boundaries are aligned with the Indian view of their strategic area of influence.  It might be appropriate to adjust AOR boundaries to assign most of the maritime space to PACOM.  While one could imagine several possibilities in terms of realignment of these maritime boundaries, that is beyond the scope of this article.  Suffice it to say that this is a conversation worth having with the Indians and among our leadership in the Department of Defense.  As we expand cooperation and engagement (e.g. increasing the number and complexity of bilateral and multilateral exercises, joint operations) with India it will be increasingly important to have an appropriately sized planning and operations staff focused on the IOR.  Ideally, this organization would be located in the IOR as well.  The preferred location would likely be driven by Indian preferences, perhaps Diego Garcia to start, with the eventual goal of moving to India as the partnership deepens.   One could envision a squadron sized staff reporting to the U.S. Seventh Fleet to start and ultimately evolving to a fleet when appropriate.  The evolution of the U.S. Navy organization in the Mid-East from  pre-Gulf War to today might be a good example.  The U.S. started with COMIDEASTFOR (Commander, Middle East Force) with no permanent forces and grew to today's Fifth Fleet located in Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf.

In conclusion,  the new U.S. strategic guidance contained in the NSS and NDS provides and excellent opportunity to ramp-up our efforts to work with India on a true co-equal basis to improve security and the prospect of the future, in the Indian Ocean.  India's core interest has to be the Indian Ocean, and the U.S., in promoting a strong India in the center of the Indian Ocean, also serves U.S. objectives.  There is currently a maritime arms race underway in Asia.  The best way to avoid conflict is through increased balancing, promoting an open and transparent security framework, and to ensure the continuity of a rules-based international order that has respect for international norms.