Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2019-08-23 07:16:55 Published on Aug 23, 2019
Disputes with Pakistan and China limit India’s sea projection. But the country has a growing need to protect vital sea routes and this changes its approach. Ties with America and Russia influence New Delhi’s posture
India (re)discovers the Indian Ocean

Modern India cannot but have a sharp awareness of the importance of sea power. It is conscious of the country’s painful history when, beginning in the 16th century, traders from Europe rudely disrupted the stability of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), established trading stations on the Indian peninsula and then subsequently conquered and impoverished the subcontinent.

Independent India’s leaders have therefore devoted a great deal of thought to the country’s maritime past and future and have sought to recreate that world where the Indian Ocean is the source of everyone’s prosperity, and no one seeks hegemony over it. However, the lack of resources and developments beyond their control, have prevented them from giving full rein to their ideas and plans. Moreover, with its disputes with Pakistan and China, India’s strategic focus has been on its continental borders.

But as the country becomes one of the world’s leading economies, the centre of gravity of its strategic thinking is shifting towards the Indian Ocean, through whose sea lanes two thirds of the world’s oil, a third of the bulk cargo and half of all container traffic travel. India is conscious that its sea power will help preserve peace and stability in the Indian Ocean in the coming decades, something that it needs to undertake its economic transformation.

Sadly, in recent times, the Indian Ocean littoral has seen a great deal of conflict, especially in its most critical region, the Persian Gulf. It has also been afflicted by piracy in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa that has required fleets of the international community to safeguard the region. In the 1980s it saw a long-running terrorist insurgency in Sri Lanka requiring the commitment of an Indian military force for some years. Long running tensions between nuclear armed India and Pakistan have led to war in the past and pose an ever-present danger to the stability of the region.

The major priority for Indian strategic planning is protecting the sea lines of communications (SLOCs), since they are the channel through which 83 per cent of India’s crude oil comes. As it is 95 per cent of all Indian trade uses the oceanic sea lanes. The first task for India is, of course, to protect the mainland, recall the Mumbai attack of November 2008 and a brief brush with Sri Lanka based terrorism. Thereafter comes the importance of protecting its island territories in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, and, finally, the 2.37 million square kms of the EEZ with important fishery resources, as well as the country’s most important domestic oil reserves.


Jutting 2000 km into the ocean, India has played a central role in the history of the Indian Ocean. The ocean, actually, its two huge bays—the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal– have carried commerce since the times of Sumer and Mohenjodaro. Uniquely, the ocean can be accessed only through its choke points at Cape of Good Hope, Bab-el-Mandeb, Hormuz, Malacca, Mozambique channel, Sunda and Lombok Straits, which are often the fulcrum of military and pirate activity.

The Turk and Moghul conquerors of India who came across the mountain passes through Afghanistan, eventually assimilated into the body politic of the country. But they never quite understood the maritime imperative and as a result they were not able to deal with a succession of Europeans who came as traders and eventually established their hegemony over the ocean and its littoral. The British were the last great hegemons, and they used India as their base to maintain their control of the ocean and the littoral spread from East Africa, to West and South-east Asia for over a century till India became independent in 1947.


Freedom also brought partition of the subcontinent. One major consequence of the emergence of Pakistan was the loss of control over the land routes to Central and West Asia and beyond. Prolonged hostility of Pakistan and geographically difficult northern and eastern borders, has meant that India, in effect, has been an island and so that most of its overseas trade uses SLOCs.

Independent India decided that it would not take sides in the Cold War and became a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in the 1950s. India began to assert itself to assume the responsibilities of protecting its coast as well as its seaborne trade in the event of war. To this end, given the experience of World War II, it was felt that India needed a “balanced” navy, one with a combination of aircraft carriers, surface combatants and submarines, along with shore-based aviation and support vessels. But India’s continental commitments—the ongoing conflicts with Pakistan and China—ensured that the Navy has had a low priority for resources.

Well into the mid-1960s, India remained dependent on UK for its naval requirements—frigates, destroyers, mine-sweepers and, in 1961, the aircraft carrier Vikrant (ex-Hercules). The break came in 1965 when it decided to induct ex-Soviet Foxtrot class submarines since the British expressed their unwillingness to provide any.

Cold War

The Cold War came to India in 1971 when the United States decided to support Pakistan against its rebel province East Pakistan. An extremely dangerous situation emerged and India intervened, leading to the the emergence of a new nation, Bangladesh. In the last phase of the 13 day war, the US ordered a carrier battle group, led by USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal. A Soviet battle group, followed the Enterprise into the area. Fortunately, the war ended before any clash occurred.

But the entry of the Enterprise, its implied threat to India, shaped Indian thinking thereafter and leading to its first nuclear test in 1974. India began adopting a political position calling for all foreign navies to depart from the Indian Ocean, even while seeking to build a stronger navy with Soviet assistance. But by the end of the decade, there was another development which affected India—the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, variously mooted as a Soviet thrust towards the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. The Soviet era peaked in the 1980s even as the Soviets agreed to provide top-of-the-line equipment like their Kashin-class destroyers, the latest Kilo-class submarines and TU-142 M long range maritime patrol aircraft; they even leased a nuclear-propelled submarine to India.

The end of the Cold War

But the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had already initiated a strategic shift in India, marked by the conscious decision to seek weapons systems from elsewhere, notably Europe. As part of this India acquired the HDW Class 209 diesel electric submarines and also planned to make them in India. Other acquisitions—the Jaguar strike aircraft optimized for maritime strike, the Dornier Do 228 surveillance aircraft—too signaled this trend as, indeed, did the acquisition of the second aircraft carrier, the INS VIraat (ex HMS Hermes of UK) equipped with Harrier V/STOL fighters.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a major strategic setback for India as it was confronted with a major problem in maintaining its Soviet equipment. The nuclear propelled submarine’s lease was terminated. Fortunately, this also coincided with India reaching the point where it could construct large warships like the INS Delhi, which were Indian designed and fabricated, though they still required Soviet/Russian sensors and weapons.

From the mid 1980s, with the growing proximity to the US, India’s attitude towards Washington changed, and New Delhi accepted that the US played a general role as a stabiliser in the Indian Ocean region. The US supported Indian interventions in Sri Lanka in 1987 and Maldives in 1988. In turn, New Delhi was generally supportive of the US war against Iraq in the wake of the invasion of Kuwait in 1991.

The end of the Cold War also persuaded New Delhi to launch a new phase of diplomacy beginning 1991, that involved confidence building by holding naval exercises with foreign navies, notably with the US and India’s South-east Asian neighbours. The goal was to show that India was no Soviet puppet, but an independent actor. New Delhi also took the initiative, along with South Africa, to promote the inter-governmental Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) in 1997 to promote economic growth and security for the IOR.

A new element into India’s larger power calculations was added in May 1998 when the country carried out five nuclear weapons tests, with the situation becoming more complex when traditional rival Pakistan followed suit. After a break, in which India came under severe US sanctions, relations were renewed, and actually became stronger. The improved relations saw the Indian Navy assist the US war effort in Afghanistan by escorting US ships transiting the Straits of Malacca.

Another big shift began to occur in India’s perspectives from around 2008 or so. This coincided with a similar change in perceptions of the US and its allies. It was marked by what the US called its decision to “pivot” to Asia. On one hand, after assessing the developments, the Indian Navy issued its maritime doctrine in 2009 which said that “sea control is the central concept around which the IN is structured.” On the other, India took steps towards closer cooperation with the US Navy.

At the same time, however, New Delhi also took the initiative to maintain its IOR leadership role by the initiative to create the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in 2008. This links 24 IOR countries and 8 observer nations to promote cooperation among the maritime security agencies of the member countries through seminars, working groups and actual exercises.


This was around the period in which the PLA Navy made its first major foray in the Indian Ocean as part of the international mission to deal with piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the eastern coast of Somalia. Since then, even though piracy is over, China has maintained a task force in the region, dispatching its 31st task force to the region in June 2019.

Chinese economic growth, its dependence on trade and resources from abroad has made it conscious of the importance of its SLOCs going across the Indian Ocean. China has systematically emerged as the major, if not principal, trading partner of countries of the ASEAN, India, Pakistan, Iran, and the African countries of the IOR littoral. It also became a major importer of natural resources, mainly crude oil from the region. Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it has also become a major financer of infrastructure for many of the poorer countries of the region.

Besides developing closer political ties with India’s traditional friends Sri Lanka and Maldives, China has taken measures ranging from stepping up its naval activity in the Indian Ocean, to developing ports and pipelines to avoid what is often termed as its Malacca Dilemma because over 80 per cent of its oil imports go through these straits and waters dominated by India. Since 2014, Chinese naval presence has been a constant feature of the IOR. In 2017, it established its first overseas military base in Djibouti and there have been reports of a facility coming up on the Jiwani peninsula across the sea in Gwadar, Pakistan.

The Indo-Pacific

This has generated concerns in India which has a major dispute with China in relation to their land border and Beijing’s use of Pakistan as a foil to India in South Asia. The Indian reaction has been to draw closer to the United States which retains by far the strongest military position in the Indian Ocean. This process has been assisted by the Indo-US Nuclear Deal of 2005 and the subsequent Indian acquisition of American military equipment.

In turn, the US has sought to use the closer alignment with India to offset the Chinese gravitational pull in East Asia. India’s Act East policy, aimed at playing a greater political and economic role in the South-east Asian region, fits well with what is now called the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) mooted by the US and Japan in the region.

As a gesture signaling the seriousness of its intent, Washington renamed its Hawaii-headquartered Pacific Command as the “Indo-Pacific Command” and now looks at the region from the western shores of India to the western shores of the US as one politico-military region. This has been incapsulated in the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean region enunciated at in January 26, 2015 on the occasion of President Obama’s visit to New Delhi.

Over the years, India has signed several “foundational” agreements aimed at lubricating military cooperation between the two countries. Among these are those which relate to sharing information and logistical facilities in the region. US-supplied P8I maritime surveillance aircraft and the soon to be acquired Sea Guardian drones form an increasingly important components of the networks to track Chinese naval movements.

However, there is an important difference in the way India views the Indo-Pacific. Prime Minister Modi told the Shangrila Dialogue in 2018, that India viewed it as a geographical concept covering the western shores of the US to the eastern shores of Africa. Further, he said, it was not an exclusionary notion directed against China.

Differing visions of what Indo-Pacific is, limits Indo-US cooperation to the eastern Indian Ocean. The western part of the region which is of far greater importance to India, sees little or no interaction since it is looked after by other US geographic commands—the AFRICOM and the CENTCOM. Indeed, this is underscored by the June 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (ISPR) issued by the US Department of Defence.

The Blue Economy

Sea power does not depend on naval might alone. There are other elements —merchant marine, marine construction, maritime diplomacy– that provide the integrated whole of what constitutes sea power. Indeed, India is now seeking to integrate what it calls the ‘Blue’ oceanic economy into its larger economic planning.

One part of this is the Modi government’s Sagarmala project to build and upgrade ports and enhance their inland connectivity. This is aimed at promoting coastal trade and thereby reducing logistics costs and promoting coastal economic zones. The Modi government has articulated its support for the Blue Economy concept repeatedly by adopting the acronym SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region) as the liet motif of its Indian Ocean policy.

As for the Navy, it completed the first phase construction of a new base on the western coast at Karwar in 2005. Several years ago it also began to construct a new facility in the east coast at Rambilli, 50 km south-west of Vishakapatnam which will house India’s nuclear submarine assets. With its peninsular position and strong bases, Indian planners believe that they do not really need bases in other IOR countries, though they may seek repair and maintenance facilities there.

There needs to be interdependence between maritime commerce and naval capabilities, but India remains an anemic player in both areas. India’s foreign trade in 2017 was just $ 756 billion, as compared $ 3.95 trillion of China. Another measure—that of the merchant marine of the two brings out this as well. As of now, India has 1,719 commercial ships as compared to 4,600 of China. In other words, whether it is for raw materials or accessories and components, China’s dependence on secure oceans is great and is matched by the investments it is making in its navy, merchant marine, ports and facilities abroad. Presumably, India, which, too, seeks to follow the model of export-led growth, will likely to step up its naval and maritime investments as its dependence on overseas SLOCs grows.

The Indian Navy

India may draw closer to the US politically, it still sees itself as an strategically autonomous player. Its contemporary maritime strategy remains independent and involves four elements—sea control, power projection ashore, presence and strategic deterrence. The essence of sea control is to assure usage of the seas and deny it to the adversary; power projection is a subset of this ability. “Presence” is more about peacetime display of the interests of a nation through ship visits and exercises, as well as elements of coercive diplomacy. Strategic deterrence are the strategic capabilities of the country to keep similar capabilities of potential adversaries in check.

This is what provides its force mix comprising of aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, patrol vessel etc. India currently operates one aircraft carrier (ex Gorshkov) with a contingent of Mig-29 fighters. Most of the warships are Indian designed and made such as the 6 lead destroyers of the Kolkata and Delhi class. In addition, there are 13 frigates of which half have been made in Russia and 22 Indian made corvettes.

India has fabricated a nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), the Arihant, with Russian assistance and operates a Russian made attack submarine (SSN) Chakra on lease. In addition, it has two French-designed but Indian made Kalvari class, 9 Russian made Kilo class and four German/Indian made Class 209 conventional submarines. India also has several amphibious warfare ships, such as the US-made Jalashwa (ex-Trenton), as well as several Landing Ship Tanks and Landing Craft mainly of Indian. But the Navy remains hampered by the lack of adequate helicopters, sonars and torpedoes.

Under the latest version of the Maritime Capabilities Perspective Plan, the Indian Navy will have some 200-ship and 500 aircraft force by 2027. Currently Indian Navy has 137 ships. Even though the Indian Navy it remains a “balanced navy” with aerial, surface and sub-surface capabilities, it suffers from a number of problems that begin with the fact that it continues to get a short shrift in terms of resources. In terms of naval construction, India has reached a stage where it has 100 per cent “float” capacity of building all the hulls it needs. But in areas like “move” which involves engines and transmission, it is still at around 50 per cent and when it comes to “fight”, that is sensors, radars, sonars, missiles, and torpedoes, it still has some way to go. But, not only is the overall budget of the Indian military declining as a proportion of the GDP, the share of the Navy, too has been going down from 18.2 per cent in 2012-2013 to 13.11 per cent in 2018-2019.

This has an impact on naval plans. There is an overall slowdown in the construction of warships. With the first domestically built aircraft carrier yet to be commissioned, there is little news of follow on carriers. Because of the slow output of its yards, it is seeking to obtain 3 frigates off-the-shelf from Russia. The Navy also has an in-principle approval for the construction of 6 nuclear powered attack submarines which could be built with Russian assistance. At the same time, relations with the US have helped India acquire powerful surveillance capabilities through US-made P8I maritime surveillance and attack aircraft. A deal for acquiring Sea Guardian drones is in the offing. The resource issue may see the Indian Navy shifting its priorities towards developing a fleet of nuclear propelled attack submarines (SSNs) in the place of large carriers.

The Mumbai attack of 2008 led to crash project to enhance surveillance capabilities along the coast. A new Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) has been set up near New Delhi to network sensors and optelectronic devices linking 51 nodes along India’s coast. This has been linked to the Navy’s National Maritime Domain Awareness system which links coastal surveillance radars in Mauritius, Madagascar, Seychelles, Oman, Maldives and Sri Lanka with naval surveillance platforms. India is in talks with other nations on the Indian ocean littoral to expand the system.

India maintains a vigorous “presence” across the Indo-Pacific. Its naval ships are frequent visitors to ports in Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. Besides the multilateral exercises like MILAN and Malabar, it is also undertakes coordinated patrol Corpat exercises with the Myanmar, Indonesian and Bangladesh Navies and bilateral exercises with the Singapore, Oman, Russia, Sri Lanka, UK, and South Africa. It has logistics exchange agreements with the US and France and its navy has access to Singapore and Duqm ports. India is developing the Chah Bahar port in Iran to enhance access to Central Asia and Afghanistan and it has also undertaken the Sittwe port project in Myanmar as part of its effort to promote connectivity to its North-east.


India may have large ambitions for its ocean. But the Indian Navy’s current force holdings are relatively modest for the tasks that the country confronts. The future of Indian seapower depends on many inter-related developments. First, and most important, is whether India can get on to the path of high and sustained economic growth so as to generate the resources to fulfil its seapower ambitions. This is linked, too, to whether it can manage to moderate competition and conflict with China and Pakistan, and thereby shift its politico-military priorities in the oceanic direction.

The Chinese have developed important interests in the Indian Ocean region. In the coming decades, the PLAN is likely to boost its presence in the IOR significantly, with one or even maybe two aircraft carrier battle groups and even more bases. But it is highly unlikely that they will have the ability to challenge India in the Indian Ocean. Their interest will be in the protection of their SLOCs and their economic and trading interests in the region.

This, of course, does not preclude competition to gain the diplomatic upper hand in this or that section of the IOR littoral or even military or covert intervention. India is particularly sensitive to activities in Sri Lanka and the Maldives because both of them are proximate to its key sea lanes, which also happen to be some of the most important sea lanes in the world.

Aligning with a powerful actor like the US, has been enormously beneficial to India not only in direct military terms, but in aiding New Delhi to develop important ties with American allies like Japan, Australia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia. But there is also risk in this association of India being entangled in periodic US ventures which, in the recent past in Iraq and Afghanistan, have proved to be uncommonly destructive, expensive and destabilising.

India’s primary interest remains in a peaceful and stable Indian Ocean which will enable it to achieve its primary goal of the economic transformation of the huge, but poor country. What India would prefer is an autonomous role, have friendly and even close ties with the dominant force, the US Navy towards maintaining peace, stability and SLOC security in the region and providing humanitarian aid and relief, wherever it is needed. It would like to undertake issue-based cooperation with other Navies such as that of China, Japan, Australia, and of course, the ASEAN. At the same time, it could mark out an area related to its primary goals of homeland security and strategic deterrence where it would seek to maintain capabilities that do not require any third party assistance.

This commentary originally appeared in Limes.

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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