Defence Primer,Indian Navy,Indian Ocean

Indian Ocean

During the next 15 years, the Indian Navy (IN) will have to grapple with a complex and unpredictable security environment as the Indian Ocean/Asia-Pacific region undergoes a major power transition resulting from the rise of China, deals with regional instability, and faces the proliferation of disruptive military technologies. These developments will shape the capabilities needed to achieve Indian national security objectives, as well as the operational employment of those capabilities. To succeed, the IN will need to acquire and maintain three overlapping foundational capabilities: Sea control in the Indian Ocean, power projection within the Indian Ocean, and power projection beyond the Indian Ocean. With these foundations in place, the Navy can then scale, modify, or augment its operations to meet emergent challenges. This paper discusses each of these foundational capabilities in turn, explaining their importance, identifying impediments to acquiring them, and suggesting means of overcoming impediments. Developing these foundational capabilities will be costly, requiring India to acquire a considerable amount of additional naval capacity. By doing so, however, it can help ensure that the IN has the building blocks needed to meet the challenges of the coming decades.

Sea Control

The most foundational capability that the IN will need to develop in the next 15 years is the ability to maintain sea control in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). On its face, the term might seem to suggest exclusionary or coercive use of the oceans. And in the event of conflict, navies must have the ability to deny an adversary use of the sea at particular times and places. However, sea control also seeks to ensure that the maritime domain remains an open common, in which shipping passes freely and one’s navy is able to manoeuver at will. Without it, a country’s adversary could prevent its naval forces from exercising their most basic functions of protecting sea lines of communication (SLOCs), facilitating commerce, and generating security.

The primary impediments to Indian sea control in the IOR come from evolving Chinese naval and air capabilities and, to a lesser extent, from Pakistani Navy developments. China’s submarine and surface forces are growing both qualitatively and quantitatively, and these forces are expanding operations beyond their traditional areas. China also is in the process of operationalising its first aircraft carrier, setting the stage for carrier strike group operations. Further, Chinese long-range air and ballistic missile capabilities, supported by a robust command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) architecture provide an asymmetric capability to project power into the IOR from China.

With regard to Pakistan, the establishment of a Naval Strategic Force Command in 2012 could portend a future in which Pakistan employs nuclear weapons at sea. Pakistan’s move to acquire at least eight diesel submarines fitted with air-independent propulsion systems from China in the 2023-2028 timeframe adds more uncertainty to this subsurface mix. Pakistan also possesses a variety of surface assets, including frigates and fast-attack craft. And, in the aerial domain, Pakistan employs the US-made P-3 Orion anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft carrying the Harpoon missile. Together, these burgeoning capabilities will challenge India’s traditionally preeminent position in the Indian Ocean, and could significantly erode its freedom of manoeuver.

Indian leaders will need to pay close attention to these challenges and devise effective responses. These will likely include enhanced maritime-domain awareness (MDA); improved anti-submarine warfare (ASW); development of more mobile, dispersed and resilient forces to mitigate air and missile threats; and better electronic warfare capabilities.

As sea control is foundational to maritime operations, maritime domain awareness is foundational to sea control. In future, the traditional view of MDA must expand to multi-domain awareness that includes the surface, subsurface, air, and cyber realms, since operations across these domains are synergistic and mutually supporting. Effective MDA depends on networks of fixed and mobile sensors that provide surveillance of areas of interest, and also requires the ability to fuse, integrate, and distribute the resulting operational information. The application of information technology and data analytics to development of a multi-domain common operational picture (COP) is an area of ongoing innovation.

ASW will be a mission area of particular importance as India tries to cope with the challenges posed by Chinese and Pakistani submarines. The traditional threat to disrupt sea lanes of communication posed by an adversary’s submarine forces is expanding to include the threat of submarine-launched cruise missile attack on maritime and land targets. Improved quieting will make submarines increasingly difficult to detect in future while nuclear or air-independent propulsion will increase their range and endurance. China is now deploying both conventional and nuclear-powered submarines in the Indian Ocean, which have resupplied at ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

To counter this, the IN will need a robust subsurface COP as well as the ability to hold hostile submarines at risk when required. This is potentially an area of increased cooperation between India and US., which could leverage the US Navy’s six decades of experience with strategic anti-submarine warfare. These efforts could include other partners as well.

India’s acquisition of the capable P-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) will increase its ASW surveillance and engagement capabilities. The geography of the IOR, which enables choke-point ASW sensor employment, facilitates submarine detection. However, maintaining track on and re-acquiring submarines remain a significant challenge, and airborne ASW and geography alone may be insufficient to provide truly robust anti-submarine surveillance. An enhanced IN ASW architecture might employ fixed sensor arrays located at choke-points, augmented by mobile, potentially unmanned, sensors for initial detections. These detections would be handed-off to fixed or rotary-wing air or surface platforms to maintain track. The ASW COP could be enhanced by integrating non-acoustic information from Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and Communications Intelligence (COMINT) sensors, and partner information. Effective integration of these data will pose technical and operational challenges but can provide major benefits. Careful requirements analysis will be necessary to determine what mix of air, surface and submarine ASW capabilities will be optimal. US systems analysis capabilities could be helpful in this effort, helping India to identify a logical path forward in a resource-scarce environment.

Enhancing Surface Warfare (SuW) capabilities in the IOR poses challenges similar to ASW, with some important differences. Maintaining an SuW COP is easier in some respects, since most or all of the sensors that support ASW can also support SuW. Additional sensors, including conventional and over-the-horizon radars (OTH-R), unmanned air or surface systems, and potential future space assets, can provide persistent wide-area surveillance. Engagement of adversary surface ships is complicated, however, by increasingly capable offensive and defensive systems. This is particularly true of Chinese surface combatants, which possess layered hard and soft-kill air-defence systems, as well as long-range anti-ship missiles. To counter this, IN may want to enhance both its offensive and defensive capabilities. On the offensive side, IN could expand fielding of the proven BrahMos missile, and further improve its range and survivability. BrahMos fielding options could include expeditionary coastal defence cruise missile (CDCM) batteries, which could be deployed rapidly to locations such as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to control access to the Indian Ocean. India might also leverage its mature ballistic missile programme to develop an anti-ship ballistic missile capability. Defensively, IN could improve the survivability of its naval forces by investing in improved air and missile defence capabilities. Because hard-kill defence against modern anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles is technically challenging and expensive, IN might want to emphasise soft-kill options to include on and off-board electronic attack and decoy capabilities. These capabilities should be employed as part of an operational construct that includes emission control, mobility, and dispersed operations to complicate adversary targeting. These concepts are also applicable to land-based forces such as the CDCM discussed earlier.

Whatever mix of capabilities India ultimately adopts, technical and operational integration of data from multiple sensors, potentially including those belonging to partner states, will be essential, thus enabling the creation of a maritime common operating picture for the IOR. India has already made significant progress in this direction with the inauguration of the Informational Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) for the centralIOR, as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiatives in the Seychelles, Mauritius and Maldives to expand India’s maritime domain awareness network with coastal surveillance radars. Due to the prowess of India’s civilian technology sector, and the depth of its manpower resources, India may well have a comparative advantage in this area.

 Power Projection Within the Indian Ocean Region

The second set of capabilities that IN will need to acquire is power projection within the IOR. While sea control refers to the general ability to ensure open access and freedom of manoeuver, power projection entails the ability to bring naval capabilities to bear rapidly in a particular location, often in support of land or air operations. These capabilities could include a range of kinetic and non-kinetic fires, as well as amphibious assault and expeditionary sealift. Of particular importance will be India’s ability to reach core areas of interest, including its coastal areas, maritime zones, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), continental shelf, the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Andaman Sea, including the Malacca Strait.

Possible impediments to India’s ability to project power within the IOR include China’s expanding footprint in the Indian Ocean, and growing Pakistani capabilities, as discussed earlier. India will also have to contend with non-state actors, such as those who carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks; and an arc of instability on the IOR periphery, which is the locus of such problems as Somali piracy, Makram coast drug trafficking and the ongoing conflict in Yemen, where India conducted a well-executed noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO), Operation Rahat, in April 2015 when it rescued over 5,000 people.

To respond to these challenges, India will need to develop sufficient maritime strike capabilities to hold at risk Pakistani and Chinese naval forces and bases in the IOR. This could involve a range of force-employment options up and down the escalation ladder, including cruise missiles, special operations forces and air assets. Improvements in Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), targeting, and command and control (C2) architecture will also be useful. These capabilities can facilitate decision making and battle management in increasingly complex maritime environments. Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) such as the MQ-1 Predator, networked with 4th/5th generation land or sea-based fighter aircraft, could be helpful in this regard.

The acquisition of additional amphibious ships and the adoption of amphibious warfare doctrines and operating concepts will also be important. Amphibious ships have enormous capacity and extended sea legs, enabling them to support ongoing power-projection efforts. They also are ideal for providing regional security force assistance, engagement, and maritime diplomacy, which can help India to shape the IOR security environment. India could consider collaborating in the amphibious space with Japan and Australia, which are also in the initial phases of developing amphibious capabilities.

In addition, amphibious capabilities are required to support Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), Non-combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) and expeditionary operations. They could also support Indian peacekeeping missions in Africa, most notably in the Congo, where India provides the largest contingent in the UN peacekeeping force. IN recognises the need for amphibious capability and plans to build four Landing Platform Docks (LPDs).

  1. and India have a history of amphibious and HADR collaborations. In 2007, US sold the Amphibious Transport Dock-class ship USS TRENTON, now the INS JALASHWA, to India. And from 2008 to 2010, US and India held an annual bilateral tabletop exercise known as Habu Nag, focused on developing the skills necessary to conduct HADR operations. It is time to revive and enhance this important training to feature an actual landing exercise, and include other interested countries such as Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. Such preparation may be especially important in coming years because of climate change, which could trigger extreme weather events and increase the demand signal for HADR missions. The 1991 response to Cyclone Marian, which devastated Bangladesh, illustrates this need. Over two million people were affected and approximately 140,000 people lost their lives in this tragic storm. Operation SEA ANGEL, led from a US amphibious task force, which included helicopters and landing ships distributing aid and medical care to millions of people, proved the value of a sea-based response to humanitarian disasters.

 Power Projection Beyond the Indian Ocean Region

The third foundational capability that India will need to develop is power projection beyond the IOR. Although India’s primary interest lies in the Indian Ocean itself, the ability to establish an operational presence and protect equities, contribute to collective efforts, and influence outcomes in greater maritime Asia is important as well. This is particularly true given the strategic interconnectedness of the two regions, ongoing challenges to fundamental norms such as freedom of navigation in the Asia-Pacific, and India’s Act East policy.

Impediments to Indian power projection beyond the IOR would come predominantly from China’s robust anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) architecture. While similar to some of the challenges presented above, the A2/AD problem here will be much greater as it was designed to counter the powerful offensive capabilities associated with US aircraft carrier strike groups (CSG). This type of capability will pose significant problems for Indian naval assets seeking to enter and remain in the region.

India can take a number of steps in an effort to overcome these impediments. First, it could increase the size and reach of its submarine force. Given their stealth and survivability, submarines can operate effectively in non-permissive A2/AD environments that would repulse surface ships. India currently has 14 operational submarines, and a long-range plan to expand the force to a total of 24. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has called for expansion of the submarine fleet beyond even this number. Although a detailed operational and campaign analysis will be necessary to determine precise quantities, the mix should include nuclear attack submarines, which will have better range and on-station time than conventionally powered subs.

Second, India could increase the size and reach of its surface fleet, though its ships would still face difficulties penetrating a complex A2/AD environment. Surface ships armed with longer-range missiles, and operating from a greater standoff range, could mitigate this problem, using the developmental subsonic Nirbhay missile, or an extended-range version of the supersonic BrahMos. Campaign analysis-based modelling would help determine the most effective mix of weapons and platforms.

Third, IN could improve its logistical capabilities. Helpful measures would include acquiring additional logistic support ships, and improving combatant ship design to increase fuel and ammunition capacity and provide longer-range and on-station endurance. India could also consider establishing more forward-deployed units, with associated shore-based support infrastructure.

Fourth, India could develop its ability to execute network-centric operations. This would require the acquisition of global C4ISR capabilities, including space-based assets. Network-centric operations would provide Indian Naval Forces, ranging from aircraft to carrier battle groups to submarines, the necessary battle-space awareness and command and control to operate with greater precision, and thus enhance survivability, in a difficult A2/AD environment. Networked C4ISR is also a key enabler for effective maritime strike operations.

Finally, for many future missions and scenarios, including the provision of general maritime security—such as counter piracy, counter terrorism, HADR, NEO—as well as responses to potential crises with China, Indian interests will likely align with US and other regional states like Japan, Australia and Vietnam. India could make more effective contributions to joint security operations, and enjoy greater success penetrating robust A2/AD architectures, as part of a coalition of these states than it could by attempting to operate independently. IN may therefore wish to develop varying degrees of interoperability with other navies. Although some might worry that this could erode India’s strategic independence, such interoperability would not require formal alliances, and could be scaled to suit India’s relationships with a range of partners. Thus, if properly managed, interoperability could significantly enhance India’s security without unduly impinging on its autonomy.


The development of the three foundational capabilities discussed above will require India to balance strategic priorities with available resources as part of an ongoing commitment towards building naval capacity. Doing so will not be easy, from either a political or a fiscal standpoint. To make the task more manageable, India could decide to focus its near-term efforts on its highest priority, foundational goals, such as Indian Ocean sea control, and pursue other capabilities over the longer term. Whatever specific approach it chooses, developing these capabilities will help ensure that India is able not only to maintain its traditional sphere of influence in a rapidly changing maritime Asia, but also emerge as a major regional power, playing a more important strategic role than ever before.

This article was originally published in Defence Primer

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).



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