Sunday 14 August 2022, 09:13 PM
Challenges Confronting the Indian Navy in the Emerging Indo-Pacific War Zone
By V.Adm.Pradeep Chauhan (Retd) | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 4/21/2019 4:37:17 PM
Challenges Confronting the Indian Navy in the Emerging Indo-Pacific War Zone

Over the next several decades, India will either succeed in positioning itself as a major global power or it will fail.  Which one of these alternatives comes to pass is very largely be a function of just how dextrously India is able to build and exercise its comprehensive maritime power, and, plan and execute its geopolitical game-moves within the maritime domain.   Maritime power, of course, is the ability of a nation-state to use its maritime space (the seas) for its own purposes while dissuading or deterring or denying others the use of the seas in ways that are to its disadvantage. This ability manifests itself in three basic sets of cognitive and physical activities, namely, ‘political’, ‘economic’ and ‘military’ which, taken together, form the bulk of what we call ‘geopolitics’.

While considering geopolitics, it is a major conceptual error to place geopolitics, geoeconomics and geostrategy and the same hierarchical level.Figure 1 offers a cogent depiction of the correct typology of geopolitics.

Like other countries, India’s geopolitics, too, is centred upon a set of ‘geoeconomic goals’ and another set of ‘non-geoeconomic goals’, all of which New Delhi seeks to obtain.  In both cases its efforts are either helped or hindered by the interpersonal relationships that exist between the Indian leadership and those of other nations with whom India interacts in competitive, collaborative or cooperative terms.   It should be noted that the two instruments of foreign policy, namely, diplomacy and the military (as also logistic-support structures for the military such as overseas bases) are major components of the ‘assurance and insurance mechanisms’ depicted in Figure 1.

It is very important to recognise that in geopolitics, the prefix ‘geo’ refers to a country’s ‘strategic geography’, i.e., the core spatial assumptions underpinning its grand strategy.[1]‘Strategic geography’ differs from real geography in that when a country superimposes a set of bounding latitudes and longitudes upon ‘real’ geography and then, within this bounded area, concentrates its grand strategy and pursues its interests, this bounded area reflects the country’s ‘strategic geography’.  Thus, it is perfectly natural for different States to have different strategic boundaries encompassing the ‘Indo-Pacific’.  Insofar as India is concerned, Prime Minister Modi has recently described the Indo-Pacific as ranging “from the shores of Africa to the shores of the Americas”[2]

India’s security hastwo major facets, which have numerous causal linkages with each other such that the infirmities as well the strengths of one significantly impact the other.  The first facet comprises the policies, strategies, organisational-structures and the delivery-mechanisms that guide and shape the country’s internal politics and determine its internal stability as a coherent geopolitical entity.  The second facet consists of elements that define and shape its interaction and interface with external structures — supranational and international organisations, nation-states, and, non-State entities, any of which may, at given points in time, be either supportive or inimical to its own geopolitical endeavours. 

As the principal maritime manifestation of the sovereign power of the Republic of India and as the country’s main instrument of India’s endeavour to be a net-provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond (an area that is seen as being coincident with the western expanse of the Indo-Pacific) the Indian Navy faces a large number of complex challenges,which may be categorised into those relevant to ‘conflict-prevention’, which is largely a function of ‘perception management’, and those related to the preparation-for and execution-of conflict at sea, which is largely a function of conceptual clarity, ‘capacity’ and ‘capability’. 

It is important, at this juncture itself, to differentiate between the terms ‘capacity’ and ‘capability’.  ‘Capacity’ connotes material wherewithal (the provision of ships, aircraft, submarines, etc.), while ‘capability’ denotes conceptual, organisational, operational, training, and legal acumen.  While capacity shortfalls (by way of material wherewithal) are not to be glossed-over, infirmities in capability (lack of cohesion, incoherent formulation and execution of policy, and, poor development of intangible factors such as inspirational leadership, aspirational-sensitivity and morale) are far more grave; and if at all priorities have to be assigned in addressing such shortcomings, ‘capability-enhancement’ must almost invariably take precedence over ‘capacity-building’. 

Of the several structural challenges confronting the Indian Navy, perhaps the foremost one is that related to ‘balance’.  Although under the Modi government there is certainly a gradual acceptance of an international system of ‘alignments’, there is little to suggest that India is getting comfortable with formal alliances or that India’s preference for strategic autonomy has diminished. It is very probable that for the foreseeable future,India is likely to remain outside any formal system of alliances.Consequently, the Indian Navy cannot afford to concentrate solely upon a small number of ‘niche-capabilities’  while other ‘alliance-partners’ provide the remainder.

The Indian Navy has no option but to develop holistically, addressing the full range of naval capabilities.  In so doing, it must attain and retain an optimal balance between surface, sub-surface, aerospace and cyber capacities and capabilities; between its ‘brown-water’ (near-shore) capacities and capabilities and its ‘blue-water’ (distant, deep-water) ones; and, between its combat-capabilities at sea and its shore-support capabilities.  This attainment and retention of balance is a central challenge because it is only through balanced development and deployment that the Service can remain relevant and significant across the entire spectrum of conflict.   Is the Indian Navy rising to this challenge?  The answer is ‘Yes’, as would be evident from the following indicative listing of its surface and subsurface ‘Order of Battle’ (ORBAT):


  • 01 x Aircraft Carrier (+ 3 under construction / planned-induction)
  • 11 x Guided-missile Destroyers (+ 4 under construction / planned-induction)
  • 16 x Guided-missile Frigates (+ 11 under construction / planned-induction)
  • 08 x Guided-Missile Corvettes (+ 06 under construction / planned-induction)
  • 12 x Guided-Missile ‘Light Corvettes’(+ 8 under construction / induction)
  • 03 x ASW Corvette (+ 1 under construction / induction)
  • 03 x ASW ‘Light-Corvettes’ (+ 12 under construction / planned-induction)
  • 10 x Offshore Patrols Vessels [OPVs] (+ 5 under construction / planned-induction)
  • 01 x LPD (+ 4 x LPD under procurement / planned-induction)
  • 03 x LST (L)
  • 04 x LST (M)
  • 08 x LCU Landing Craft [Utility]
  • 18 x Fast Attack Craft (FAC [G]) (+ 2 under construction / planned-induction)
  • 06 x MCMV Mine Counter-Measure Vessels (+ 12 under construction / planned-induction)
  • 04 x Fleet Tankers (+ 05 under construction / procurement)
  • 08 x Survey Ships
  • 04 x CHSV Catamaran-Hull Survey Vessels
  • 01 x Research Vessel (+ 1 under construction / planned-induction)
  • 01 x Ocean-going Tug
  • 01 x Diving-Support Vessel
  • 01 x Torpedo-Recovery Vessel 
  • 01 X Training Ships (+ 3 under construction / planned-induction)
  • 02 x Sail Training Ships
  • Total Ships: 126 (+ 83)
  • 02 x Nuclear-powered submarines (+ 11 under construction / planned-induction)
  • 13x Conventionally-powered submarines (+ 12 under construction / planned-induction)
  • 00 x Midgetsubmarines (+ 2 under construction / planned-induction)
  • Total Submarines: 15 (+ 25under construction / planned-induction) 

Ensuring that this naval growth is sustained by doctrinal coherence is a challenge that every major navy must face.  In our own case, the Navy seeks to rise to this challenge through a doctrinal-logic that is encapsulated by seven sequential steps:

  • Step 1.  Generate and teach a common lexicon through apex-level ‘Doctrine’.
  •  Step 2.  Articulate India’s ‘Core National Interest’ as derived from our Constitution, i.e., ‘the economic, material and societal well-being of the ‘People of India’
  • Step 3.  Identify and articulate India’s ‘Maritime Interests’ as subset-activities that will preserve, protect, and promote the Core National Interest. (India’s six principal maritime interests are:  
  • (1)  Protection from sea-based threats to our territorial integrity. 
  • (2)  Ensuring Stability in our maritime neighbourhood.
  •  (3)  Gaining and retaining a regionally favourable geostrategic and geopolitical maritime-position.
  •  (4)  Provision of holistic maritime security (additionally incorporating ‘human’ security).
  •  (5)  Creation, development, and sustenance of a ‘Blue’ Ocean-Economy, incorporating: 
  • (a)  The preservation, pursuit, promotion, and protection of our offshore infrastructure and maritime resources within and beyond the Maritime Zones of India.
  • (b)The preservation, pursuit, promotion, and protection and safety of our overseas and coastal seaborne trade and our Sea Lines of Communication, including the ports that constitute the nodes of this trade. 
  • (c) Support to Marine Scientific Research, including that in Antarctica and the Arctic. 
  • (6)  Provision of support — including succour and extrication-options — to our Diaspora.)
  •  Step 4.  Identify and articulate ‘Indian Naval Objectives’ which, when achieved, will preserve, protect, and promote each ‘Maritime Interest’ 
  • Step 5.  Identify and articulate the ‘Strategies/Plans’ that must be adopted in times of ‘peace’, ‘tension’, and ‘conflict’ to achieve each ‘Naval Objective’ 
  •  Step 6.  Integrate the various strategies into a common ‘Naval Strategy’, while retaining the distinctions between times of ‘peace’, ‘tension’, and ‘conflict’ 
  • Step 7.  Determine and articulate the capabilities needed to pursue the integrated strategies, through the promulgation of a ‘Maritime Capability Perspective Plan’, a ‘Maritime Infrastructure Perspective Plan’, and, a ‘Human Capital Strategy’.

Stemming from the need to ensure the territorial integrity of India, ‘coastalsecurity’ encompasses a variety of operational missions that lie within ‘brown’ or ‘green’ waters and also incorporates significant organisational and training activities that are designed to provide or enhance requisite capability.  Even in times of armed conflict, there are a host of missions that must, of operational-necessity, be executed within brown waters and, as such, a very large number of the Indian Navy’s brown-water forces have both substantial and substantive offensive and defensive firepower (along with associated surveillance-chains) in multiple dimensions.

Turning now to Blue-Water Challenges, the Indian Navy’s ‘sea-control’ missions are largely predicated upon her acquisition of ‘blue-water’ capability.Even in conditions where there is an absence of armed conflict, this involves operations ranging across the entire spectrum of options from hard-power to soft-power, as depicted in Figure 2:


The challenge for the Indian Navyis to develop, sustain and continuously improve both the capacity and the capability to shaping of the probable battle-space through ‘perception-management’ and ‘presence’ missions, the maintenance of ‘Maritime Domain Awareness’ (MDA) through direct as well as cooperative surveillance, the gathering and collation of intelligence on a regional basis, and, the efficient discharge of the ‘diplomatic’, ‘constabulary’ and ‘benign’ roles of the Navy. The mission-based deployments (indicatively illustrated in Figure 3) that are currently being undertaken by the Indian Navy involve continuous sea-deployments of major warships for average periods of time ranging from 270 to 310 days per year.  Given that there are only 365 days in a year and that unlike the case in the merchant marine, wives and families are not permitted on board, the social-strain upon the men and women in the Navy, quite apart from the operational and maintenance ‘stretch’ experienced by the ships themselves, is quite unimaginable and quite unknown-to and hence unappreciated-by the public at large.  Such deployments can only be sustained if, in addition to having adequate material-maintenance structures, the Navy also has adequate administrative social-support structures in place. 

The truth, however, is that the Navy has few if any of the structures — Separated Family Quarters, for example — that are commonplace in the Indian Army.  What the Navy relies upon, is a very proactive and time-tested system of caring for its personnel, known as the ‘Divisional System’, buttressed by some excellent voluntary work being done by the Navy Wives Welfare Association (NWWA).  These are, however, nowhere near enough.  As in so many other areas of the civil-military interface, bureaucratic indifference, apathy, and, occasionally, even hostility often arising out of misinformed envy, is a central challenge with which the beleaguered Navy continues to wrestle — with little victories and big defeats.

In times of active State-on-State conflict, the ‘blue-water’ challenge is the ability to routinely and efficiently mount and sustain naval operations-of-war at significant distances — of the order of several hundred nautical miles — from the Indian coast.  Not only is air power — or, given the contemporary technological context, ‘aerospace power’ — critical to sustain both offensive and defensive operations at these distances, but this air-power must be available both ‘here’ and ‘now’.  For the most part, air-to-air refuellers and enhanced Air Force abilities have overcome the ‘here’ component of this twin requirement for the sustenance of blue-water combat-operations.  However, the ‘now’ component requires aerospace power that is an embedded or integral component of fleet-capabilities at sea.  This is why integral air-power, as embodied by the synergistic combat-component known as a ‘Carrier Battle Group’ (CBG) has long been — and remains — a central operational concept of the Indian Navy.   Given the inescapable requirements of periodic repair-and-refit and occasional modernisation of the constituent elements of any given CBG, the minimum number of such CBGs that the Indian Navy needs so as to assure the availability of at least one CBG on each seaboard of the country is five.

However, the challenges of obtaining finances for even two, in the face of competing demands from the other Armed Forces of the country, threaten to overwhelm the Navy’s warfighting philosophy, capacity, and capability.In thinking about a CBG, the adjective ‘synergistic’ is particularly apt because the combat-capability of the group as a whole — which, for the most part, comprises an array of destroyers and frigates and could also include one or more SSN — is almost always greater than the sum of its parts.  Thus, while critically analysing the strengths and vulnerabilities of a CBG, it is always the ‘group’ and not the aircraft carrier alone that must remain the central point of reference.  Yet, aircraft carriers are so highly visible, so hugely symbolic, and, tend to attract so much attention, that many media-analysts end-up developing sophisticated but nevertheless fallacious arguments relating to the real and perceived vulnerabilities of this single platform alone, without realising that the CBG is like a mathematical integer that cannot be fractionalised.  Along with this integration, however, come a number of significant challenges that the Indian Navy is currently wrestling-with.  Examples include:

The mastery of complex operational-logistics and supply-chain management in respect of the air component of the CBG, involving, inter-alia — MiG-29K fighters, Kamov-28 and Kamov-31 helicopters (all ex-Russia), Sea King Mk 42B and Mk 42C helicopters (ex-UK), indigenous Tejas fighters and Dhruv and Chetak helicopters, as also the shore-based long-range maritime-patrol-and-ASW aircraft that are needed to complement and optimise CBG operations, such  as the P8-I (ex-USA), IL-38 SD and TU-142M (both ex-Russia), and the Indian-built Dornier 228. The operational integration of SSNs into the CBG.The integration of operational-support platforms such as Fleet tankers and hospital ships into CBG operational deployments.

The establishment of intra-navy interoperability and the maintenance of a common ‘sensor-shooter’ grid, incorporating the integration of data-linking systems that are occasionally embedded in platforms by the country-of-supply.The navy is busy working-out sustainable responses to these and allied challenges, which must be comprehensively addressed as India moves towards the fielding of two CBGs.

With the increasing overlap of the deployment patterns of the Indian Navy, the US Navy, the JMSDF and the Chinese Navy, across the Indo-Pacific oceanic expanse, additional challenges of interoperability, as also the avoidance of inadvertent escalation, will demand well-practiced responses by increasingly dispersed naval formations.  These include the formulation-of and adherence-to new multilateral Rules of Engagement and measures to preventadversarial incidents at sea.  As India seeks to preserve, promote, pursue and protect her own burgeoning maritime interests in waters east of the Strait of Malacca — especially her merchandise trade in the South China Sea  — which is in excess of 190 Billion US$  — she will be inevitably drawn into maritime engagement of one or another kind (cooperative, competitive, adversarial, combative) not only with the USA and China, but with other regional and sub-regional maritime powers as well, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. 

On our country’s western seaboard, too, challenges for the Indian Navy abound.  The utter unaffordability of any closure of the Strait of Hormuz is not only a function of India’s massive imports of crude oil, but is additionally underscored by the fact that the UAE is India’s second-largest export partner worldwide. As such, Indian access to almost all container-ports in the UAE mandates unhindered passage through the Strait of Hormuz.  Likewise is the case with the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, through which 110 billion US$ worth of Indian merchandise trade passes each year.  Indian Naval ‘presence’ missions are clearly necessary, but must necessarily mesh with those of other  significant regional and extra-regional maritime powers, such as the USA, the UK, France, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.The planning, maintainance and execution of such naval presence-cum-surveillance missions, and the concomitant demands they place upon naval interoperability are no mean challenge. 

Thechallenge of external merchandise trade as a determinant of naval blue water operations should never be underestimated.  India’s Trade-to-GDP Ratio has increased substantially over the past few decades to its present decadal average value of 37%.  Consequently, any geopolitical occurrence that adversely impacts India’s external merchandise-trade will now have an immediate and severe impact upon the country’s GDP. 

The mechanism that India has adopted to advance her maritime geopolitics within the Indo-Pacific is ‘Constructive Engagement’, guided by her ‘Look-East/Act-East’ and ‘Look West’ policies.  For the Indian Navy, all this has a number of manifestations.These include, inter alia, the training of foreign military and civilian defence personnel, warship visits, and, ‘combined’ (as well as ‘combined-and -joint’) military exercises.  However, India’s commitment to the provision of net security to the island States of the IOR remains an ongoing challenge of significant proportions.  As one of several mitigating measures that have been put in place, revitalising and rejuvenating the IONS Construct so as to leverage its very substantial potential, is one of the more important ones.  It is most encouraging to see the current leadership buckling down to this critical requirement in all earnest, as witness the excellent conduct of the recent Tenth Anniversary commemorative events of IONS that were held in Cochin from 12 to 14 November 2018.

Finally, there is the military challenge from probable collusion and possible collaboration between Pakistan and China in a conflict with India.  It is critical for readers to remember that two armies do not go to war, nor do two navies or air forces.  It is two or more NATIONS that go to war.  Even as Pakistan continues to get emboldened in its recklessness by support in terms of capacity and capability from China, it is, paradoxically, less and less in control of its contribution to escalation-dynamics vis-à-vis India.  This military challenge continues to bedevil all efforts at reasonableness. 

Insofar as China itself is concerned, Beijing’s contemporary maritime game-moves in the Indo-Pacific in general and the IOR in particular — whether termed the ‘String of Pearls’ or its rebranded version, ‘the Belt and Road Initiative’ — are manifestations of the geostrategy that China is employing to attain its geoeconomic goals.  As in the famous Chinese game of Wei-Qi (called ‘Go’ in Japan), the People’s Republic is putting in place the pieces that will shape her desired geopolitical space. 

For India and her navy, a critical question is: If India were to be nicer to China, would China be nice to India?  Since the concept of China being the Middle Kingdom — surrounded by vassal states whose very raison d’être is to pay tribute to China — is so deeply ingrained into the Chinese psyche, this expectation is an unreasonable one.   The lack of any meaningful ‘pushback’ against China’s incrementally expanding claims over geographical areas generates only disdain in the Chinese mind, as this is the very behaviour that is expected of vassals.  Thus, as China’s own geoeconomic imperatives inevitably cause her to enhance her presence in the Indian Ocean, the risks for India and her navy rise exponentially.

The detection and tracking of Chinese submarines — especially nuclear-powered ones (SSNs) is a challenge that requires India, too, to adopt a collaborative approach with countries such as Indonesia, Australia, Japan and the USA.  In this endeavour, however, political and idealogical challenges at the strategic level tend to cascade into the operational level and there is considerable uncertainty whether hardnosed Indian interests can, in fact, trump the clear politicobureaucratic preference for a continuously hedging strategy.

As always, at the sharp end of the Navy’s endeavours are its ships, aircraft, submarines, space and cyber assets, and, most of all, its human resources.  Here, occasional shrill Cassandran cries of doom from the media notwithstanding, there is cause for considerable satisfaction.  The overall combat capabilities — comprising the various weapon-sensor suites, the software-intensive integration systems, the integral-air capacity, and, the propulsion and power-generation plants — of contemporary Indian DDGs and FFGs compare quite favourably with those of other major navies and in a combat encounter, the Indian Navy is very likely to acquit itself well. 

That said, the severe lack of airborne ASW assets that are integral to the Navy’s major warships (from destroyers to corvettes) is a challenge that can only be met through a matching degree of urgency from the mandarins of the Ministry of Defence and Defence (Finance).  ASW helicopters, equipped with variable-depth sonar with high-end processing capabilities, sonobuoys, and good EW suites, are the optimum platform for seaborne ASW and the Navy urgently requires these in adequate numbers so as to take advantage of the potential offered by its otherwise-excellent ship-design.  For the present, the absence of multi-role helicopters has rendered this design-advantage null and void.  All these are but a small sampling of the challenges that confront the contemporary Indian Navy.  What it needs more than ever before, is assistance from the political and bureaucratic set-up, by way of a shared sense of ownership, involvement, empathy, understanding, and urgency.

V.Adm.Pradeep Chauhan (Retd)




भारत डिफेंस कवच की नई हिन्दी पत्रिका ‘डिफेंस मॉनिटर’ का ताजा अंक ऊपर दर्शाया गया है। इसके पहले दस पन्ने आप मुफ्त देख सकते हैं। पूरी पत्रिका पढ़ने के लिए कुछ राशि का भुगतान करना होता है। पुराने अंक आप पूरी तरह फ्री पढ़ सकते हैं। पत्रिका के अंकों पर क्लिक करें और देखें। -संपादक

Contact Us: 011-66051627

E-mail: [email protected]

Copyright 2018 Bharat Defence Kavach. All Rights Resevered.
Designed by : 4C Plus