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Indian Navy: Present Security Scenario and Areas of Concern
By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan (Retd) | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 12/19/2019 3:56:46 PM
Indian Navy: Present Security Scenario and Areas of Concern

Any examination of the security scenario obtaining in the maritime domain vis-à-vis India must rest upon the axiomatic assertion that India wishes to use the seas for her own purposes while simultaneously dissuading or deterring or preventing others from using the seas in ways that are to India’s disadvantage.The ability to do so is the measure of India’s ‘maritime power’, which comprises political, economic and military power generated through use-of-the-sea activities. The military component of India’s maritime power is concentrated in the Indian Navy (and, to a lesser extent, in the Indian Coast Guard and other maritime-enforcement organisations). It is true that there are several components of maritime power that lie outside the Navy-Coast Guard amalgam (e.g., India’s dependence upon the sea for its economic wellbeing; the maritime bent of mind of the government and of the people; the size and enterprise of the sea-faring population; India’s ship-building capability; the size, age, and condition India’s merchant fleet – both coastal, and foreign-going;  the percentage of imports and exports being carried in Indian-flagged ships as opposed to foreign-flag ones; the number, types, and functional efficiency of India’s major and minor ports; the cargo-handling ability of the 13 major and 200 non-major ports, and the infrastructure for multi-modal transport of sea-borne goods; the state, size, and technological advancement of the coastal and deep-sea fishing fleets, and their geographic spread; and so on and so forth). However, the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard are the principal ‘enabling instruments’ that allow these other components of maritime power to be exercised.  They are also the ‘preventive instruments’ that dissuade, deter, or prevent others — State entities and malevolent non-State ones as well — from using the seas in ways that are to India’s disadvantage.  Indeed, within the Maritime Zones of India the Indian Navy operates in seamless coordination with the Indian Coast Guard. On the high seas that lie beyond the country’s Maritime Zones, however, the Indian Navy is the sole maritime manifestation of the sovereign power of the Republic of India. 

The ‘reasons’ for India desiring to exercise ‘maritime power’ in the first place are collectively known as India’s maritime interests.  The ‘security scenario’ obtaining at a given point in time is the assessment of the risks that impact the preservation, promotion, pursuit and protection of each maritime interest in prevailing environmental-conditions of peace, tension and conflict.  ‘Risk’ is not the same as ‘threat’ (although the former may well change into the later).  Every country represents some degree of risk to every other country’s pursuit of its own national maritime interests. The summative assessment of risk defines what we call the ‘security environment’.  Insofar as India is concerned, at least seven major risks can be readily identified in the maritime domain.

These are: (1) risks to India’s territorial integrity, principally involving China, Pakistan and State-sponsored malevolent non-State actors; (2) the risks of States such as China imposing constrictions on India’s freedom to operate in the geopolitical space of its choosing, particularly in the Indian Ocean; (3) India’s growing dependence upon external maritime merchandise-trade and the consequent risk of trade-disruptions; (4) the impact of climate change upon India’s maritime security and her transition to a ‘Blue’ Economy; (5) non-traditional security risks such as terrorism, piracy and maritime crime; (6) risks to India’s energy-security and the transportation of energy imports and exports; and (7) risks related to inter-State conflict.

It will be obvious from the foregoing listing of risks in the maritime domain that the comprehensiveness of any assessment of the security-scenario prevailing presupposes a clear conceptual understanding of the meaning and ramifications of the term ‘security’.  The world (most certainly including India) has moved along from the traditional conceptualisation of security, which was limited to the defence of territory within a State-system whose defining characteristic was an incessant competition for military superiority with other nation-states, all lying within a classic state of anarchy, largely devoid of superior or governing authority.  Contemporary India, in common with most countries, recognises the multifaceted nature of security, encompassing multiple dimensions.  These include (but are not necessarily limited to-) ‘political’ security, ‘economic’ security, ‘societal’ security, and ‘environmental’ security — in addition to ‘military’ security.  In other words, ‘military’ security may well be a major facet of security, but it is certainly not the only one. 

That said, this article will concentrate upon the military security scenario obtaining, and that too, limited to the military-maritime (naval) domain. The primary sources of military risk within the maritime domain are Pakistan and China, whether acting in collusion or collaboration.  Secondary sources of military risk include an outbreak of armed conflict between State players other than India, which could impact India either directly (by dragging India into the conflict) or indirectly (wherein Indian maritime interests are severely impacted by an ongoing conflict).

Within a given or prevailing security scenario, like any navy of consequence, the roles of the Indian Navy may be represented by the four faces of a solid-pyramid.  The military role is the base, while the remaining three faces respectively represent the diplomatic role, the constabulary (policing) role, and the benign (humanitarian) role. To a large extent (although not exclusively so) the benign and the constabulary role lie within the ‘preventive’ functions of the Navy’s contribution to the country’s maritime power.  Coastal security, for example, is a very important component of India’s maritime security, but for all that, the Navy exercises coastal security largely (although, once again, not exclusively) through ‘preventive’ actions.  Farther to seaward, the security scenario, within which the maritime endeavours of the nation are operative, is shaped by the diplomatic role.  However, the effectiveness of the diplomatic role is itself a function of prevailing perceptions of the effectiveness with which the navy is able to discharge its military role. Perception-management, therefore, is a vital part of shaping the security environment. The perception that the Indian Navy seeks to create and sustain is that India is a responsible geo-strategically and militarily significant maritime power that cannot be ignored, trifled-with, or opposed, without great cost.

An outbreak of armed conflict between India and Pakistan remains the most immediate maritime risk.  The casus belli (cause of war) encompasses a range of possibilities.  These include (but are not limited to) an Indian reaction to a gross act of terror by Pakistani-sponsored malevolent non-State actors: a conflict around water-sharing that is caused or exacerbated by climate-induced water-stress; a Pakistani misadventure in the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and/or Ladakh; Indian actions to retake its sovereign territory in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK); a serious and attributable attempt by Pakistan to incite or ignite insurgencies in Indian states such as Punjab; a media-generated public frenzy over sharply increased ceasefire violations across the India-Pakistan Line of Control (LoC), etc. 

In all of these scenarios there is an important constant, which is the fact that two armies do not go to war, nor do two air forces, or two navies.  Two nations go the war.  Since both India and Pakistan are strong proponents of the concept of ‘manoeuvre’ warfare (as opposed to ‘attrition warfare’), there is a natural tendency for an early geographical spread of armed conflict, not merely from one sector of the land border to another, but from the land-border to the maritime domain. 

It is very important to recognise that there are fundamental differences in the manner that navies and armies fight, with particular regard to the manner in which they are legally able to use terrestrial spaces.  Since mankind lives on the land, things that happen at sea have real relevance only if they affect affairs upon the land.  In combat, navies can affect the land in one of two ways: either through commodity-denial, or, by addressing the land directly.  As the name itself implies, in seeking commodity-denial each belligerent’s maritime commodity-vulnerabilities are determined and then the maritime supply-chain of each such commodity is disrupted for as long as it takes for the concerned nation’s own hoard to run out.  A good example is India’s commodity-vulnerability in terms of crude oil.  Everyone in India (and Pakistan) is aware that India’s largest import is that of crude oil.  In 2018-19, for example, India’s imports of crude oil had grown to well over 80% of the national demand, amounting to an import of 226.642 million metric tons, or, 4.55 million barrels of crude-oil per day!  What is less well known is that thanks to India now having becoming the fourth-largest crude-oil refining nation on the planet, petroleum products, generated by the refining of crude-oil, constitute India’s single largest export item!  India’s trade-protection by the Indian Navy is, therefore, a central feature of India’s several combat-related security scenarios.  Grim as this is, Pakistan’s corresponding situation is a far worse one. This is because Pakistan has a grossly inadequate crude-oil refining capacity, leading to a far greater vulnerability to any denial of seaborne imports of petroleum-products. What all this implies is that in a conflict scenario with Pakistan, maritime conflict is likely to involve a significant degree of trade-interdiction, centred upon the ‘security-of-energy’. The terms ‘Energy Security’ and the ‘Security-of-Energy’ are not mere sematic plays. Energy security is the degree to which the available or assured energy exceeds, meets or runs short of the demand. The ‘security-of-energy’ is the security of the physical flow of the energy from its source, through the means of transportation, to its destination.  India, as a country, will worry about ‘energy security’.  The Indian Navy, as the primary maritime manifestation of the sovereign power of the republic, will worry about the ‘security-of-energy’.

An oft-repeated statement is that as a naval means of affecting affairs upon land in times of armed conflict, successful commodity-denial requires that the duration of conflict be long enough for the adversary’s shore-based hoard of the concerned commodity to run dry.  Conventional Indian military wisdom is that future wars will be short, sharp and swift.  Of course, nothing in history shows this to be so, but that does not seem to deter those who refuse to study history.  (In the aphorism “Don’t worry! The boys will be home before Christmas...”, Christmas of which year is never specified!). 

The other way for navies-in-combat to affect affairs upon the land is by directly applying combat-power to the land.  There are only two ways by which this can be done.  In the first, the navy lands components of the army, along with their military-wherewithal by way of men and combat-material, and the army thereafter delivers the requisite weight of combat-ordnance.  This is most often done by means of amphibious operations, which range from amphibious raids to amphibious assaults, and also include amphibious demonstrations (resulting in deception), and, amphibious withdrawal/extrication operations.  It is instructive to note that in 2001, the United States Marine Corps November 2001 undertook the largest amphibious operation since the Korean War, on two beachheads on Chur Beach at Pansy, on Pakistan’s Makran Coast.  8,000 US Marines, 330 vehicles and over 1,350 tonnes of equipment and logistics were offloaded via a series of amphibious landings, by night.  One beachhead was used by combat-hovercraft (LCACs), while the other was used by Landing Craft [Utility] (LCUs) that carried out hard-beaching.  It is hoped that this is a subject of very detailed study by the Indian security-establishment in general and by requisite echelons of the Indian Army and the Indian Navy in particular.  It ought certainly to be a matter of great concern to their Pakistani counterparts.The second way for a Navy to address the land directly is by landing ordnance from the sea itself. This is called ‘land attack’ and may be done through land-attack missiles launched from submarines, or surface combatants, or from aircraft deployed from an aircraft carrier, often using air-to-air refuelling to achieve long stand-off ranges.

Within the prevailing security scenario, and given the ongoing political and societal roiling in Pakistan, an armed conflict between India and Pakistan is certainly a possibility that looms large.  Both nations are nuclear-weapon capable.  The possibility of a nuclear exchange is a matter of great concern in several circles, especially in the West.  Contributing to these concerns is the USA’s preoccupation with North Korea (DPRK) and its intense competition for global leadership with China. The challenge posed by China, coupled with the odd (to say the least) policies of the USA under President Trump has already caused a significant erosion in the perception of the USA as a superpower with the ability to deter Pakistan from some supremely rash action such as the actual use of a tactical nuclear weapon (TNW).These apprehensions are somewhat unfounded, given that the Pakistan Army is a rational force with adequate control over its nuclear arsenal.  There are, however, several private and national agendas that are being driven by spreading such alarm through ostensibly reasoned arguments, and it is prudent to recognise this.  As a rational entity, Pakistan recognises the extreme folly of inviting massive retaliation from India and will certainly desist from shifting its nuclear weapons (whatever the yield) from being tools of nuclear-deterrence to ones that can actually be used.  In the aftermath of the Balakot airstrikes, both sides acknowledge that there is much space beneath the ‘nuclear overhang’ for conventional conflict without escalation-dynamics necessarily spiralling out of control. The armed forces of both countries are consequently engaged in honing their skills of conventional warfare and keeping this option open at the political level. 

A far greater cause of concern is China’s strategic and operational gameplay in the Indian Ocean, which is designed to provide ‘assurance’ and ‘insurance’ for China’s pursuit of its geoeconomic objectives, but which has the net effect of worsening the security scenario in the Indian Ocean by emboldening Pakistan on the one hand, and constricting the freedom that India desires to pursue its own geoeconomic objectives. Internal (domestic) economic and geographic realities, coupled with the much lesser purchasing power available to Chinese provinces that lie to the west and north of the 15-inch isohyet compared with those that lie in the coastal and peripheral belts east and south of this Isohyet, makes it very difficult for China to transform itself into a domestically-driven economy. Consequently, external trade in general and the seaborne movement of merchandise-goods in particular will continue to drive the Chinese economy for the foreseeable future. As the engine of China’s economic growth demands ever greater resources of raw materials and petroleum-based energy, the bulk of China’s imports of these resources are being drawn from increasingly distant areas that are either accessible only by sea or where seaborne transit offers the most cost-effective movement in terms of volume, time and space.  Much of this trade is either drawn from countries within or on the rim of the Indian Ocean, or, must pass through this ocean. China’s efforts to consolidate not just her Sea Lines of Communication in respect of this merchandise-trade but also the ports that constitute the nodes of this trade, are creating areas of severe concern for India.  India sees itself being strategically surrounded, even if not by design.

This is what is called the ‘String of Pearls’. The unavoidable and ever-increasing off-take from high-capacity sources of oil and gas... the strategic need to avoid placing all its energy-eggs in a single basket... the consequent need to ensure stability-of-supply in each of these diverse sources of oil and minerals.... the need to ensure the security of its oceanic transportation of its energy-imports.... and, the need to find mitigating strategies to reduce its vulnerabilities in the choke points of the Indian Ocean... are the five strategic concerns that generate the ‘String of Pearls’. The ‘String of Pearls’ strategic-construct is not only about maritime infrastructure projects involving the construction of ports and airfields, even though these constitute its most obvious and visible manifestation. It is equally about new, renewed, or, re-invigorated diplomatic-ties between the PRC and nation-states across a very wide geographical swath (including the African littoral and the island-nations of both, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean).  Of immediate concern to India are China’s increasing naval presence in the Indian Ocean and its probable development of a military base in Pakistan (perhaps in the Jiwani-Turbat-Gwadar triangle). 

In the event of an India-Pakistan armed conflict, China is quite unlikely to get involved, but in the case of Sino-Indian one, Pakistan is very likely to jump in, even if uninvited.  Moreover, the provision by China of conventional submarines to Pakistan is likely to adversely impact the India-Pakistan security scenario. Anti-submarine warfare is therefore a thrust area of the Indian Navy.This form of warfare is best prosecuted by helicopters and long-range ASW fixed-wing aircraft such as the P-8 India.While every Indian warship larger than a corvette has a designed-capability of embarking and operating two a10-12 tonne ASW helicopters, the naval helicopter shortage is now so acute as to be crippling.China’s presence and Pakistan’s enhanced submarine holdings require that the Indian Naval shortfalls in respect of multirole helicopters (which are actually optimised for ASW missions) be urgently made-up.  However, even in the present political dispensation, there is a distressing lack of urgency and a consequent lack of funding-support.  The defence and finance bureaucracies continue to behave like sulky children called unwillingly into a gathering of adults whose terminology and lexicon they cannot understand.  That they show no inclination of trying to better their abysmal knowledge is a matter of concern that is at least as great as that caused by a Pakistan-China military nexus.  

The increased Chinese naval presence, especially that represented by Chinese nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) is something that is closely watched by the Indian Navy and, thanks to the robust maritime partnership between the USA and India, as also recent upgrades of the Indian Navy’s surveillance capabilities — ranging from augmented space-based assets to the hugely-capable P-8 India long-range maritime patrol-and-ASW aircraft, the situation is not completely unmanageable.  However, the lack of a proper seabed surveillance system deployed in the narrow straits through which these large SSNs must necessarily pass to get from the Pacific Ocean into the Indian Ocean means that initial detection is rendered far more difficult.  Underwater Domain Awareness is, consequently, a matter of great urgency and any inadequacies in this field are matters of the gravest concern.  If India is to meet the Sino-Pak naval challenge with any degree of adequacy, New Delhi needs to develop mature and meaningful naval partnerships or ‘alignments’, since the word ‘alliance’ remains unacceptable, with Australia and Japan to supplement its ongoing relationship with the USA.  This requires the ‘Quad’ to shed some of its hesitation and to squarely recognise the realities of the security situation prevailing in the maritime space.  Perhaps the greatest concern is the continued tendency for India to allow “I dare not” to prevail over “I will”, like the cat in the adage, which wants to get the fish, but does not want to get its paws wet!

Vice Adm. Pradeep Chauhan (Retd)

(The Author is Director General, National Maritime Foundation)




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