By Vice Admiral Biswajit Dasgupta
The Traditional Military Mindset
The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has historically remained an area of maritime interest for extra-regional powers. The advent of the ‘Age-of-Sails’ in the 16th century introduced concepts of global trade and conquest, which in turn ushered in eras of colonization, exploitation, and untold misery upon unsuspecting countries, with the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British jostling for influence in the region. While these were strong maritime powers, all nations that suffered at their hands had no maritime forces worth their name. After the Second World War, British naval power East of Suez declined and this vacuum was filled by the United States. All along, the significance of sea power in India’s strategic thought remained practically non-existent. The IOR, from being a ‘British Lake’, became relatively insignificant during the Cold War with newly independent nations struggling to keep their internal security situations and land borders under control and great power rivalry focusing predominantly on the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. India’s defence also focussed primarily on maintaining a powerful army to counter traditional threats on its western and northern borders. Consequently, the focus of our maritime strategy also remained West-centric, well into the first decade of the twenty first century.
A Grudging Shift In Orientation
In very recent times, India has attempted to overcome its ‘Sea Blindness’, not only due to the realisation of the economic potential and other benefits of the oceans but also the possibility of its use to the detriment of our national interests. The rude shake-up as a result of the 26/11 attacks, directed some of our national security consciousness towards the sea. In its aftermath, while revamp of maritime security has been seriously attempted, its translation into strengthening infrastructure and mechanisms on ground has been a challenge, given the large number of stakeholders with their own legacy mind-sets and turf consciousness. The exponential growth of China’s naval power as part of its ‘great power’ ambition, continuous presence of a PLA Navy Task Force, research vessels and fishing fleets in the IOR, its ambitious aircraft carrier and warship development programmes as well as its massive space-based surveillance capability have forced a shift of attention to the East. While China’s presence in the IOR remains limited for now, its intentions could well change over time and its future force capability would permit calculated gambles into the Indian Ocean Region.
What Does ‘Look East & Act East’ Mean For The Indian Navy?
With a large part of the Indo-Pacific region lying to our East, ensuring credible deterrence against any misadventure prejudicial to our interests would only be possible with a powerful naval presence on our Eastern Seaboard. A strong Maritime Theatre Command (MTC) with formidable ships, submarines and aircraft positioned on the Eastern Seaboard is, therefore, the need of the hour. The Andaman and Nicobar Command, which was a Naval Command till 2001, continues to be entirely maritime in its orientation. It not only needs to be strengthened but also be fully integrated into and placed squarely under the MTC, whenever that happens. Any other formulation will run against the most basic character of maritime operations.
Not just that – while we may slowly be waking up from ‘Sea-blindness’, we have yet to acknowledge our ‘East- blindness’, that has been the result of our historical military obsession with the West. The Eastern Naval Command and the Eastern Fleet, as also its air and underwater arms need to be significantly augmented to be even more potent than the Western Naval Command or at least at par, with an equal mix of old and new platforms on both seaboards. This, however, has never been the case; and unless we acknowledge our East-blindness, we will not even attempt a cure. The decision to base the newly commissioned indigenous aircraft carrier, Vikrant, on the Eastern Seaboard is a welcome move and this must be complemented with more blue-water assets necessary to generate not just a credible Carrier Task Force (CTF) but also for other multifarious operational tasks in a conflict scenario.
Carriers Or Submarines?
While on the subject of carriers, it may be worth commenting on a periodically erupting and totally misinformed debate by self-styled maritime experts regarding the choice between an aircraft carrier-centric naval force and a submarine-centric one. It is as if they are saying “Decide what you want. Carriers or submarines?” Such a lack of understanding compounds the maritime myopia that we have inherited. It is important to understand that each capability serves a different purpose. While submarines, with their ability to operate covertly, pose a strong deterrent against potential adversaries and are often preferred platforms for sea-denial in conflict, an aircraft carrier with its integral air wing and supporting task force, is the most flexible and potent asset in the Navy’s arsenal. Its ability to establish sea control and carry out an array of operations across the spectrum of operations provides it with the combat edge to effectively influence maritime affairs in our vast Area of Responsibility (AOR). Land-based aviation is no alternative to the ‘here and now’ airpower that an aircraft carrier can provide anywhere across vast expanse of the oceans. For a three dimensional blue-water force, we need all kinds of assets – carriers, ships both large and small, air assets and underwater assets of all kinds. One cannot do the work of the other but together, they create a credible capability to further our maritime interests and deter adversaries.
A three-dimensional navy requires three-dimensional surveillance. The Indian Navy, over the years, has developed a robust framework towards developing Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) in our areas of interests. What this really amounts to, is domain awareness with respect to ship traffic, facilitated by our air assets, mission-based deployments of warships and other means of information gathering. Domain awareness about aircraft flying in the vicinity of task forces at sea is provided through open-source information about commercial traffic and shipboard long-range sensors. While these aspects are relatively easier to handle and obtain, the underwater domain is the deep, dark underbelly of the oceans where the environment is extremely challenging. Developing Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) is a task that will require acquisition or development of technologies and sensors to enable detection of underwater contacts, their production and deployment in desired areas as also the ability to monitor them and respond appropriately. These involve the most complex of technologies and demand pooling of resources and synergy of effort across diverse stakeholders within the country and outside. Leveraging the strengths of friendly foreign nations would greatly help in this effort.
Collaborative Mechanisms For Peace & Mutual Support
The Indian Navy is a benign, non-interfering, non-threatening, yet strong force for peace and stability in the IOR and has always looked to the seas as a driver for growth, prosperity and cultural exchange. It is. therefore, not surprising that it is a preferred partner in the maritime theatre and has strong navy-to-navy linkages with most navies of the Indo-Pacific region, devoting significant time, resources and capability to enhance inter-operability through bilateral as well as multilateral exchanges. It has allowed us to develop mechanisms for information exchange, sustenance through logistic support arrangements, regular interactions and exercises, capability building, capacity enhancement and technology collaborations, that are key enablers to cooperative engagement and building commonality of purpose.
This is especially relevant, as several challenges that the world faces today are transnational and cannot be tackled by any one country alone The geographical expanse of these challenges, lack of maritime capability with smaller nations and disregard for international laws and codes of conduct by some countries only compound these challenges. When nations and navies come together to tackle common challenges, learn from each other, leverage each other’s strengths, mitigate each other’s shortcomings, bridge training, capability and technology gaps and work together for the common good, everyone benefits in some way or the other. This is how we expect to develop our bilateral and multilateral engagements with friendly foreign navies. As the largest navy in the region, the Indian Navy must take the lead and be the prime facilitator for such collaborative efforts.
Indigenous Defence Manufacturing
Dependency on foreign sources for defence hardware creates vulnerabilities and this has become even more apparent with the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. India has embarked upon the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ mission to reduce such dependencies. However, it is also an undeniable fact that several areas of high technology are currently well beyond our reach. Developing defence hardware at the highest end of technology requires significant investments in research and have long gestation periods from concept to production. Moreover, such defence equipment cannot provide the economy of scale that is necessary to run a profitable business unless there is a ready export market for the developed products.
Therefore, while promulgation of positive indigenisation lists which comprise items that need to be designed developed and manufactured in India is a good idea, these are not going to be realised overnight. As we go about this process in right earnest, we must not allow our combat potential to be blunted because of a capability that has not been realised through our quest for indigenisation. Defence systems must perform with accuracy and reliability in conflict, where there is no room for trial and error. Fragile geo-political situations can spiral out of control at short notice and there will be no time to go arms-shopping at that time. Therefore, the trade-off between indigenous efforts and combat readiness needs to be weighed carefully and understood by all who are in the business of the nation’s defence.
The Future Is Here
The starkest lesson from our history must never be forgotten. We were colonised by strong maritime powers at a time when we were weak at sea. Sea-blindness must give way to sea-consciousness East-blindness must give way to a balanced posture across the maritime theatre. What we thought was a distant possibility a couple of decades ago is now a reality. The Indian Ocean Region is teeming with multinational forces, not all of which are well-disposed towards India. Our recent experiences have clearly indicated where our strategic and operational focus should be directed in the maritime arena. It is undisputedly in the Indo-Pacific Region that lies to our East. Geo-politics of the time will determine partnerships that we must nurture to align with our national objectives.
Our capabilities must grow rapidly to address what we perceive as threats to our maritime interests in the foreseeable future. While we pursue the path of indigenisation, we must ensure that tangible outcomes are apparent within acceptable time frames so that our desired combat potential is maintained. Our peninsular geography provides us a tremendous advantage to develop and deploy maritime capability as a strong instrument of national power, which we must leverage to best effect. No more time can be lost in procrastination, delays, flawed policy or inefficiency. The Navy will remain at our maritime frontline and that frontline will, arguably, be towards our East. Hence, as we Look East and Act East, we must be prepared to Fight East as well. There are signs of what the future may hold and we can only ignore these signs at our own peril.
VAdm. Biswajit Dasgupta is the Flag Officer Commanding-In-Chief, Eastern Naval Command