- Raisina Debates
- Apr 05 2018
“From GULFDEP to MALDEP”, said a senior Indian naval officer, “we have got the Indian Ocean covered”. He was referring to the Indian Navy’s new operations plan of “mission-ready deployments” of keeping all chokepoints in the Indian Ocean under constant surveillance. From 10 months after the navy re-oriented its fleet mission profile, operations managers seem to be putting the plan into action.
According to recent reports, a total of 15 war vessels – including top-of-the-line destroyers, frigates, corvettes and large patrol vessels -- now patrol seven areas of the waters around India, beyond the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, keeping an eye on all entry and exit routes to and from the Indian Ocean. This includes the important sea-lines of communications (SLOCs) and 'choke points' in the Indian Ocean, from the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Aden to the Malacca Strait and Sunda Strait. These ships, the Navy proudly claims, are tasked “round the clock, round the year”, and are supported by naval satellite Rukmini (GSAT-7), as well as daily sorties by Poseidon P-8I maritime patrol aircraft.
India’s naval leadership expects the new warship deployments plan to burnish the Indian Navy’s credentials as an ‘outcome-oriented’ security provider in the Indian Ocean. The Navy’s operations planners believe active surveillance by Indian ships and aircraft, coupled with regular exercises with partner navies, would deter Chinese naval ships and submarines from making frequent forays into India’s near-seas. Aggressive patrols by the Indian Navy and partner maritime forces in the near seas, they seem convinced, would deny the PLAN entry into India’s regional littorals.
But the idea that Indian naval power can prevent Chinese warships and submarines from accessing India’s near seas is inherently flawed. First, the plan is sure to wear out the Navy’s combat assets and trained personnel. With each warship being on task for three months before being “turned around”, most of the Navy’s combat ready ships will find themselves on an operational treadmill of a mission onto nowhere.
Not only will this result in crew and platform fatigue – raising the possibility of accidents and encounters at sea – the deployments won’t be able to restrict entry or egress of any foreign warships in the Indian Ocean.
Besides, the idea of a “constant watch” over choke points is seriously misplaced. Trading nations regard the oceans as a shared global commons, with equal-opportunity rights for all user states. Unless a sea-space is a site of overlapping claims (as in the case of the South China Sea) or a contested enclave in a geopolitically troubled spot (as in the Persian Gulf), no coastal state ever seeks to openly deny another the use of the high seas. This balance only changes during war, when navies try to block adversaries from entering critical sea spaces in the contested littorals. During peacetime operations maritime forces enjoy assured access to the seas that lie beyond national territorial waters, even if a coastal state insists on prior notification. Effort intensive as they are, “mission-ready patrols” are unlikely to yield dividends, as they aren’t an effective deterrent to any other nations military activity in the IOR.
India’s naval planners know the Indian Navy’s capacity for active defence has eroded in recent years. Last year, Navy chief Adm Lanba acknowledged critical capability shortfalls in multi-role helicopters, conventional submarines and mine counter-measure vessels needed concerted policy attention. But India’s anti-China maritime posture in the Indian Ocean is unlikely to find much support in South Asia where Beijing’s infrastructure and investment have been welcomed by regional states. Many on India’s maritime periphery have openly embraced China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The ideal course for New Delhi would be to emulate Beijing’s maritime playbook by leveraging naval operations in the Asia Pacific for political gains. In recent years, the Chinese navy has sought to project power in the Indian Ocean through a constant naval presence in India’s near seas.
By refusing to accept the Indian Ocean as an Indian backwater, the PLA Navy has made inroads into India’s geopolitical sphere of influence. India’s response must be through a strategy of counter power-projection in the South China Sea, long considered a Chinese preserve.
The process might already be underway, with a recent surge in India’s eastern naval deployments. At the naval commanders’ conference last year, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman acknowledged that the Indian Navy’s 'high operational tempo' is generating a maritime presence across the Indo-Pacific space. Indeed, New Delhi’s ‘Act East’ naval push is evident from the three-month deployment of INS Satpura and INS Kadmatt to East and Southeast Asia last year. When the heads of government of 10 ASEAN states visited New Delhi earlier this year, maritime security topped the agenda of discussions. Southeast Asian leaders have made their expectations for India’s active role in the region clear, especially in the South China Sea
What’s worrying, however, is that India’s maritime deployments in the Pacific do not display the intensity and vigour associated with an active naval projection strategy. Unlike the Indian Navy’s active operational posture in South Asia (focused increasingly on anti-submarine operations), India’s naval contingents in Southeast Asia have confined themselves to the benign and constabulary end of the operational spectrum. Compared to maritime exercises by other powerful Indo-Pacific states, India’s naval interactions in Southeast Asia remain vastly below par.
India has little option but to expand its naval engagements in the Asia Pacific. Upping the tempo of its Pacific operations would enable the projection of naval power in Southeast Asia’s sensitive littorals, also raising New Delhi’s strategic profile in the neighbouthood.
This is more than a rhetorical proposition. India’s maritime presence in the western Pacific creates complications for Beijing much in the way PLA Navy operations in the Indian Ocean restrict India’s strategic choices. Yet China’s political and territorial ambitions in the South China Sea make it far more sensitive to naval forays by unfriendly states, implying that the Indian Navy’s operations in Southeast Asia are likely to more effective than Indian analysts expect.
Burning up the ‘operational candle’, scouting internationally designated ‘free and open seas’, is neither viable nor sustainable.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).