Indian Navy’s Strategy for Indo-Pacific

Statements by Indian political leadership and foreign policy establishment on Indo-Pacific are illustrative of how New Delhi views the Indo-Pacific. Prime Minister Modi’s seminal keynote address at the Shangri-la Dialogue in 2018 is frequently recalled as the benchmark of New Delhi’s approach to Indo-Pacific. This speech lays out India’s ‘vision’ for the Indo-Pacific, and includes a number of keywords such as “open, stable, secure and prosperous”. These are at the heart of India’s understanding of the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, India believes that Indo-Pacific should be ‘inclusive’ and as a corollary it is not an ‘exclusive club’ of few selected members and therefore not be ‘directed against any country’.

Indo-Pacific is also seen as a ‘concept’. Speaking at the Valdai Discussion Club, a Moscow-based think tank and discussion forum on the topic ‘India’s perspective on the Indo- Pacific’, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said that “Indo-Pacific is a concept that has grown out of the era of convergence” and that the “changing world has thrown up new concepts and approaches.

Likewise, the strategic community has proffered critiques and different perspectives on the Indo-Pacific and built a robust narrative for India. It has urged New Delhi to play a proactive role in the region and conceptualize a naval strategy for the Indo-Pacific.

There are at least three issues which merit elaboration with regard to the Indian Navy and the Indo-Pacific. First is the about strategy. The Indian Navy has been euphoric about the Indo- Pacific and included this new geographic space in Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy. It has acknowledged Indo-Pacific as a strategic space for a variety of interests and operations; however, it has retained Indian Ocean as the primary area of interest, and the secondary areas of interest include South and East China Seas, Western Pacific Ocean, and their littoral regions. The latter spaces would gain primacy in case the events and incidents in those areas impinge on Indian interests.

Given the primacy of the Indian Ocean (approximately 74 million sq km) in Indian naval thinking, the strategy envisages sustained and long-range airborne surveillance and reconnaissance in the area. Realizing that this is too large an area to be monitored, the Indian Navy has conceptualized Mission Based Deployments (MBD). These are creatively designed for “maximising time at sea with defined outcomes”. This also ensures more than a dozen Indian Navy warships are deployed for three month duration in the Indian Ocean at any time in different swaths of the sea areas i.e. Straits of Malacca, north Bay of Bengal, Andaman & Nicobar group of islands, north Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, waters around Maldives and Sri Lanka, and South Indian Ocean including off Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar.

Second is about capability. The Indian Navy boasts of a fairly large force of submarines, aircraft carriers, warships, manned and unmanned aircraft, and space based assets. Currently it has over 130 ships and submarines and nearly 200 aircraft and the Maritime Capability Perspective Plan envisages a force level of 200 ships and 500 aircraft including three aircraft carriers by 2050. The Indian Navy also has a dedicated geostationary satellite Rukmini, with a footprint of 2,000 nautical miles, and is integrated into the MDB. It offers a variety of services for communication, surveillance, networking and data transfer. Apparently, it can network about 60 ships and 75 aircraft seamlessly and can monitor maritime/naval activities from Straits of Malacca Straits in the east and the Hormuz Strait to the west.

Third is about the naval competition in the Indo-Pacific region and the challenge posed by the PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean. It has been a recurring theme in Indian Navy strategic thinking and tactical plans, and is often recalled by the Indian Navy leadership. For instance, Admiral Karambir Singh, the current navy chief has cautioned that the “ongoing crisis in the Straits of Hormuz, confrontations in the South China Sea and increasing use of naval platforms for political signaling are unmistakable fallouts of the great power competition in the maritime domain,” His predecessor, Admiral Sunil Lanba too had warned that the Chinese Navy is “here [Indian Ocean] to stay” and that “it is a challenge; we keep a close eye on their presence and deployments”.

In fact the PLA Navy has constrained the Indian Navy by its regular presence in the Indian Ocean as also by gaining long term access arrangements for its warships and submarines in ports in Djibouti, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Furthermore, China has announced plan to position nearly 10,000 marines in the Indian Ocean region to safeguard its shipping lanes as also protect investments in the infrastructure projects under the Belt Road Initiative.

Under the circumstances, the impressive assortment of combat platforms and space based assets of the Indian navy are constrained to venture into the secondary area of interest thus curtails its ability to respond to events/incidents/emergencies in the entire Indo-Pacific region.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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