Thursday 26 May 2022, 04:23 PM
Indian Navy: Seeking New Horizons
By Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd) | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 12/10/2018 1:21:28 PM
Indian Navy: Seeking New Horizons

Traditionally, Navy Day is celebrated annually, on 4th December, to mark free India’s first naval victory in the 1971 War, and to remind our fellow-citizens of their forgotten maritime heritage.  What makes Navy Day 2018 truly special is the operationalization of India’s first home-built, nuclear propelled, ballistic-missile armed submarine (termed SSBN), INS Arihant. Announced by none less than PM Modi, on 6th November, Arihant’s maiden ‘deterrent patrol’, with nuclear-tipped missiles, not only demonstrated that the submarine (after a reported mishap in 2017) is fully operational, but also proved the crew’s proficiency in operating its nuclear-reactor and other complex systems and establishment of standard operating procedures.  

Although an early step in the evolution of the ‘nuclear triad’, this puts the Indian Navy (IN) in an exclusive club of 5 navies that are, currently, capable of mounting a deterrent SSBN patrol. Apart from its strategic significance, the Arihant is a live example of how PM Modi’s ‘make in India’ dream could have been actualized. Initiated some decades ago, this DRDO-funded project has been managed entirely by IN personnel. It has triggered a country-wide indigenization process by which small and medium industries have collaborated with the navy to deliver high-quality components for the nuclear submarine programme. 

A Navy Made in India

A deep-rooted urge to ‘make in India’ has been embedded in the psyche of India’s naval leadership ever since independence.  The seeds of self-reliance were planted in the early 1960s, when the government was persuaded by NHQ that that the challenge of indigenous warship production had to be taken up. In the face of great skepticism, Mazagon Docks delivered the first licence-built frigate of British design, INS Nilgiri, in 1972. In the half century since, Indian shipyards have launched over a hundred warships; ranging from patrol boats to frigates and destroyers and from hydrographic vessels to nuclear submarines.  

The pinnacle of this admirable endeavour was achieved in 2013, when Cochin Shipyard launched India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC-1). Building an aircraft carrier, as the navy has learnt, is a complex undertaking, and the IAC-1 would have been under construction for 13 years when it eventually goes to sea in 2021-22; not a happy beginning.  

The fate of a bigger ship, the IAC-2, remains in limbo, even as the Chinese PLA Navy’s (PLAN) second new carrier undergoes sea-trials, and reports speak of China’s plans to build 4-6 aircraft carriers.  The reasons, for this indecision, apart from financial stringency, can only be attributed to a lack of expertise in the MoD, to take a major judgment-call of this nature. It would set a healthy precedent if the Government of India were to constitute an expert team to undertake a cost-benefit analysis, of building and operating aircraft-carriers in the strategic environment likely to prevail up to 2050. Notwithstanding this, the IN has put out a ‘request for information’ (RFI) relating to acquisition of 57 new deck-based fighters.

The, 44,5,00 ton, former Soviet aircraft-carrier, INS Vikramaditya, based in Karwar, is now a fully functional ship and regularly undertakes MiG-29K and Kamov-28/31 flying operations by day and night; engaging in fleet-deployments as well as aircrew training. The ship’s first dry-docking and routine maintenance were successfully undertaken by Cochin Shipyard and with this, the ship can be considered as completely assimilated in the IN.

Capability Augmentation

In the past few years, the IN has realized many of its long-cherished objectives, in all three dimensions of maritime capability. Mention has already been made, of INS Arihant, a product of the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) project that is going to deliver a series of SSBNs as well as nuclear attack submarines (SSN) over the next two decades. 

The last decade has seen the IN taking rapid strides in augmentation of its surface warfare capabilities; with a focus on indigenous production.Following the success of three destroyers of the Project-15 (Delhi class), the next generation of (stealthy) destroyers of the Project 15-A (Kolkata Class) was inducted in 2015-16. What places the 7500 ton Kolkatta Class ships, well ahead of their international contemporaries, is  the advanced multi-function radar and a long-range surface-to-air missile (both joint Indo-Israeli ventures) as well as the supersonic, Indo-Russian, BrahMos surface-surface missile that they carry.

These ships are being followed by four destroyers of the Project 15-B (Vishakhapatnam Class), of similar configuration but equipped with more powerful weapons and sensors. As far as frigates are concerned, the three indigenous Project 17 (Shivalik Class) multi-role frigates (India’s first stealth warships) were inducted during 2010-2012, and are going to be followed by four frigates of the improved Project 17-A. The six Russian Project 1135.6 (Talwar Class) frigates having proved successful in IN service, another four of the (improved) Admiral Grigorovich Class have been ordered (two each to be built in Russia and India).

In addition to destroyers and frigates, smaller ships, specialized for anti-submarine warfare (designated as ‘corvettes’) have been designed in-house and will be built in large numbers, indigenously. Three corvettes of Project 28 (Kamorta Class) were inducted during 2014-2017 and a fourth one will follow in 2019.

In the surface ship domain, there are three major lacunae that need to be urgently addressed if the IN is not to find itself handicapped in the discharge of its roles and missions.  Firstly; there has been an egregious delay, on part of the MoD, in the induction of new mine-sweepers.The IN will soon be de-commissioning the last of its 12 minesweepers (now known as, mine counter-measures vessels or MCMV), leaving itself vulnerable to the threat of mines which can bottle-up merchant traffic (and warships) in a harbour. 

Secondly; given the extent of India’s commitments towards its island neighbourhood as well as its own island territories, there is need for a significant amphibious-lift capability; best provided by 2-3 landing platforms dock (LPD) of about 18,000-20,000 tons, which need to be ordered. Finally; given the geographic extent of its area of responsibility IN task forces will need substantial logistic support, in terms of fuel, water, rations and spare parts, while on distant deployment. The navy’s present strength of four tankers/replenishment ships is inadequate and needs to be doubled in the near future.

The Underwater Threat

There has been serious concern, for many years, in the IN, over its dwindling diesel-submarine force; currently down to just 14, some of which are due or undergoing, overhaul/modernization. In comparison, the PLA Navy has 55 and the Pakistan Navy 5 deisel submarines today; by 2023, these figures will rise to 70 and 13 respectively. 

The good news here is that Mazagon Docks has delivered two newly built submarines of the French ‘Scorpene’ class, and four more will follow over the next three years.There is now, and urgent need for the government to place orders for more submarines, (under Project 75-India) and create facilities for their serial production, so that the IN reaches its target strength of 24 subs by 2030, and can keep replacing obsolete ones.  Having operated submarines without a proper rescue facility for over 50 years, the induction, this year, of two deep-submergence vessels (DSRV), for this purpose, would have brought a sense of relief to the IN.   

With PLA Navy submarines, now undertaking frequent patrols in the Indian Ocean, the IN has to be alert to the possibility that some of them may be nuclear-powered SSBNs or SSNs. Anti-submarine warfare, therefore assumes strategic dimensions, and the IN needs to urgently upgrade its airborne ASW capabilities.The induction of eight Boeing P-8 (I) maritime-reconnaissance and ASW aircraft (with four more to follow) has provided a major boost in this area, but in the long run the IN will need 24 or more P-8 (I) aircraft to provide comprehensive ASW coverage. In a related context, IN ships continue to suffer an acute operational handicap in their capability due to obsolescence and non-availability of ship-borne ASW helicopters. 

Emerging Maritime Scenario

In the external sphere, a significant indicator of India’s fast-evolving geo-political environment is the rapid addition of new terms, such as ‘Indo-Pacific’ and ‘Quad’ to the security lexicon.  These terms owe their creation to concerns about growing threats in the maritime domain, emanating from two sources. ‘Non-traditional security threats’, posed by non-military sources such as terrorism, piracy, natural calamities, human and drug smuggling etc; and ‘traditional security threats’, arising from typical issues of international relations. 

China’s economic and military rise, its growing assertiveness and its refusal to comply with the existing rule-based order need to be viewed in the latter category.  Seven decades ago, Indian historian-diplomat, KM Panikkar had presciently observed, “That China intends to embark on a policy of large scale naval expansion is clear enough... with her bases extending as far south as Hainan, China will be in an advantageous position...”  Panikkar’s prophesy came true in 2000, when China started construction of its southern-most naval base at Yulin, on Hainan Island. 

Built at colossal cost, Yulin’s tunnel-complexes house China’s submarine nuclear-deterrent, while its piers will accommodate aircraft-carrier strike-groups.  This is a maritime hub created for the PLAN to exercise sea-control and power-projection, across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, whose waters carry China’s vital trade and energy sea-lanes. China has decided to become a major player, in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).  

Given that China is on target to becoming the world’s No.1 economic and military power by 2049, the PLA Navy is gearing up, not just to guard China’s maritime flank, but also to protect a huge merchant fleet, dominate the seas and project power overseas. Deftly playing its economic and diplomatic cards, China has established a chain of maritime footholds in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and acquired its first overseas military base in Djibouti last year. 

Naval Presence

India, as a significant regional power, with a peninsular configuration and dominant location astride shipping-lanes, has a major role to play in ensuring maritime security in the Indian Ocean. Given its strategic location and its naval capabilities, the earlier notion of an ‘Asia-Pacific region’ has been extended westwards, to create the ‘Indo-Pacific’ paradigm; in order to include India in this new construct. The ‘Quad’ was meant to be a concord of four democracies, USA, India, Japan and Australia, with common concerns and interests in the Indo-Pacific. The grouping, however, earned the displeasure of China, which saw it as an attempt at ‘containment’; leading to a loss of enthusiasm among participants.

In acknowledgment of the importance of sustained ‘naval presence’ in maritime areas of interest, the IN has implemented a new policy of ‘mission based deployments’. This policy envisages the mounting of sustained warship patrols in a number of focal areas, which oversee the entry and exit of shipping traffic into the Indian Ocean; and include the Malacca Strait, Northern Bay of Bengal, North Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and the South Indian Ocean.  Additionally, IN reconnaissance aircraft undertake regular sorties to keep watch over the Indonesian straits and South China Sea. This is a significant commitment, which will place heavy demands on the navy’s human and material resources and require speedy build-up of target force levels.  


The 1971 Bangladesh War marked an important milestone in the navy’s post-independence history. Still smarting from the ignominy of inaction in 1965, the navy’s leadership ensured that it had a pivotal role to play in the conflict.  On Navy Day 2018, the IN can retrospect with considerable satisfaction; having crossed a number of significant markers, signposted by its Maritime Strategy and Maritime Doctrine.

India’s political leadership, however, cannot be credited with a similar ‘maritime vision’. National maritime power goes well beyond a ‘fighting navy’, to include efficient ports and infrastructure, a large merchant fleet, a competent shipbuilding industry and the capability to exploit deep-sea fishery and seabed resources. Lacking most of these, India cannot aspire to become a great maritime nation; a status already attained by China.   

In conclusion, Navy Day is an appropriate occasion to acknowledge the sterling contribution of late Vice Admiral MP Awati (1927-2018), to the rejuvenation of India’s maritime history and revival of its ancient seafaring tradition. By launching young people like Dilip Donde, Abhilash Tomy and Vartika Joshi, with her crew of six gallant women, on voyages of global circumnavigation, VAdm Awati demonstrated that Indian youth, inspired, motivated and properly trained, are the equals of the best sailors worldwide.  It is from the ranks of brave men and women such as these, that India’s new navy is being created; soon to become a significant force in the Indo-Pacific.

Adm. Arun Prakash (Retd)

The author is former Chief of Indian Navy and an eminent defence expert



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