Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published The Tribune Published on May 23, 2024

India faces a medium-term challenge from the Chinese PLA Navy, which has been active in terms of sending vessels on regular patrols in the Indian Ocean.

Navy needs a capacity boost to become ‘net security provider’

This is an uncommonly busy period for the Indian Navy. In recent months, its western fleet has taken a proactive posture in the northern Indian Ocean to guard the sea lanes against attacks by the Houthis and, more recently, the revived Somali piracy.

As of March-April, the Navy had 10 warships in the Arabian Sea and two in the Red Sea; in an unprecedented move, it also deployed 11 of its 16 submarines. This is perhaps the most significant deployment of the Navy in recent decades. It is also using its P8I long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft to intensify its patrol of the seas.

At the same time, the eastern fleet was carrying out an important strategic mission. In early May, it sent a flotilla of three ships to the South China Sea, where they visited Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. In May 2023, India and ASEAN had held their first-ever maritime exercise, though the Indian Navy has been involved in bilateral exercises with navies of several ASEAN nations.

In March, the Navy inaugurated and upgraded naval bases on the Minicoy islands as well as an important facility in Mauritius. The upgrading of a naval facility at Agatti and establishing INS Jatayu in Minicoy are clearly aimed as checking possible Chinese inroads in the Maldives. The new airstrip and jetty on Agalega island in Mauritius is part of a long-term plan for India’s deployments in the Indian Ocean Region to counter Chinese presence there. Beijing, it has been pointed out, is the only country with an embassy in each of the six Indian Ocean island states — Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar and the Comoros.

The upgrading of a naval facility at Agatti and establishing INS Jatayu in Minicoy are clearly aimed as checking possible Chinese inroads in the Maldives.

Last month, reports said that India is also upgrading its military infrastructure on the Andaman & Nicobar Islands that are adjacent to the Malacca Straits. Airfields there are getting longer runways, upgraded jetties and new roads are being built on the islands. The aim is to facilitate greater deployment warships, aircraft, missile batteries and troops there.

But the most active deployment of the Navy is related to the Houthis and revived Somali piracy. Shipping to the western Indian ports is directly affected by turbulence in West Asia and already prices of containers between northern Europe and China have doubled. There are reports that the developments could affect Indian exports by as much as $30 billion over the year if things remain bad.

At present, India is not part of the US-led security initiative called Operation Prosperity Guardian, which consists essentially of the Western alliance and was launched in mid-December. It is this alliance which is undertaking the attacks on Houthi bases in Yemen.

Recently, India joined the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a 34-member grouping led by the US Central Command (CENTCOM) based in Bahrain and also posted a liaison officer to the CENTCOM. The CMF is not an alliance; it is flexible and does not exercise any political or military mandate.

New Delhi itself has no quarrel with the Houthis. But they are backed by Iran, a country with which India enjoys good relations. The recent Indian decision to manage the Chabahar port is an indicator that India is also looking at a broader horizon in relation to the Eurasian and Indian Ocean components of its foreign and security policy.

India often boasts of its aim of becoming the ‘net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean, but as of now, it needs a sharp boost in its capacity to become one. As it is, it faces a medium-term challenge from the Chinese PLA Navy, which has been active since the last decade in terms of sending submarines, intelligence-gathering and research vessels on regular patrols in the Indian Ocean.

The recent Indian decision to manage the Chabahar port is an indicator that India is also looking at a broader horizon in relation to the Eurasian and Indian Ocean components of its foreign and security policy.

The Indian Navy is the smallest of the three services and has the lowest share of the defence budget. While it is important to stress partnerships with like-minded countries in the region, for a military service there is no alternative to raw power. Unfortunately, in the past decade, the Navy has had to trim its sails. In 2019, it announced that it was reducing its target of acquiring 200 ships by 2027 to 175. The Navy’s plans for a large aircraft carrier to follow on the Vikrant project have yet to get official approval.

Now, after much dithering, the government seems to be on the verge of taking a decision on the Rs 60,000-crore Project 75I submarine venture. Tenders of two companies, one having a Spanish partner and the other a German one, are being evaluated. A key technology that is being assessed is of Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) that enables conventional submarines to remain underwater for weeks. Under the Strategic Partnership Model, L&T is partnering with the Spanish company, Navantia, for the project, while Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Ltd has teamed up with ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems.

A major reason for the urgency now is that the first of four AIP submarines built by China for Pakistan was commissioned in April this year. Pakistan already operated French AIP-equipped Agosta 90B submarines. In 2016, Islamabad signed a deal with China for the supply of four new AIP-equipped submarines and four more of this type will later be built in Karachi.

Eleven of India’s 17 conventional submarines are decades old. It has two nuclear ballistic missile submarines, but these are dedicated to strategic deterrence and not related to the Navy. Besides Project 75I conventional submarines, India has been considering the idea of making nuclear-powered attack submarines, but the idea remains on the drawing board. Finding space for it in the current budget would be a daunting proposition.


This commentary originally appeared in The Tribune.

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