The new Chief of Naval Staff Admiral D. K. Joshi takes command at a time of extraordinary expansion for the Indian Navy.

He has also gone on to say that the Indian Navy — the fifth largest in the world — is ready to protect the country’s economic interests in the South China Sea, particularly the oil blocks off the coast of Vietnam being explored by ONGC.

The Indian Army and the Indian Air force are accustomed to fast growth, but the Navy, after a brief spurt in the mid-80s, suddenly came to a halt. It, however, appears to be back in full steam mode.

However, the Navy’s place within strategic thinking in India, a country with a predominantly landlocked mindset, is uncertain.

The Royal navy legacy

According to the Defence Ministry, the Navy has added as many as fifteen ships over the last three years. This includes a leased nuclear submarine from Russia, the Akulla II class.

It will soon take delivery of the much-delayed Russian aircraft carrier retrofitted for Indian use, the INS Vikramaditya. Other ships include three “stealth” frigates of the Shivalik class, resupply tankers and fast attack boats.

The plan is to add five more ships every year for the next five years. The Navy has received a major boost in its surveillance capability with the acquisition of the US-made P8i aircraft, armed with Harpoon missiles. These aircraft will replace an aging fleet of Tu142 and IL38 aircraft of the 80s.

The aircraft carrier group and the nuclear submarine are capabilities, that could, over time, restore Indian maritime primacy in the Indian Ocean waters. The imperial Navy that India inherited from the British controlled seas from Aden to Singapore.

That sea control included an outreach capability over the three critical “chokepoints”— Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf, the straits south of Sri Lanka and the Malacca straits in the Singapore littoral.

More bases

Besides these impressive strides in hardware, the Indian Navy has also developed two critical bases, at an estimated cost of $3 billion. On the Western Seaboard, the INS Dweeprakshak on the Lakshadweep Island will handle surveillance and base larger war ships. With this base, India has will acquire a robust sea control capability.

On the Eastern Sea Board similarly, India has opened a new base, the naval air station, Baaz. This base will be under the tri-command in the Campbell bay, Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Significantly, it is nearer to the Malacca strait than to India.

The two bases are complemented by India’s longest runway at the INS Rajali in Tamil Nadu that will base the P81 spy aircraft. The Navy has also gone digital with all ships in the process of being linked to a command and control apparatus.

Strategic Centrestage

With its ability to remain underwater without refuelling for long periods, the nuclear submarine is the ‘Alpha’ asset. It is virtually impossible to detect and can have several nuclear weapons aboard depending on the configuration. What is more, the nuclear submarine can be far, really far, out at sea.

The Navy is unique in its ability to project power beyond the constraints of national boundaries. After twelve nautical miles, the world is your oyster. Neither the Army nor the Air Force enjoy a similar advantage. For India, the submarine combined with the aircraft carrier battle group provides a critical edge. It is a pity that the Indian mindset is landlocked. The strategic planners need a complete reorientation from brown and white lands of Rajasthan and the Himalayas to the endless oceans. The Navy, to be truly a strategic force, will require two critical changes in India’s way of war.

First, India will have to move away from prioritising the million-plus army and allocate bandwidth and funds for the Navy in strategy.

Time overruns

Second, the Defence Ministry and the Navy with the myriad defence public sector undertakings that they control, need to get their act together. Although Indian-made warships cost a quarter of similar class ships in the West and Japan, the time overruns are very high. The Navy has a staggering delayed delivery schedule. This constrains the force with only about six submarines at any given point at sea. The Indian Navy needs robust oversight and a bold decision — allowing private players in warship building. Some of this is already happening. The hull of Arihant, India’s own nuclear submarine due for sea trials this year, was built by L&T, a private firm.

Such participation can accelerate if India allows majority investment by foreign players in shipbuilding and taps the potential of defence offsets.

Partnership is the way forward. India’s state-owned shipyards are in a growth dilemma — choked with orders they cannot fulfil for lack of technology and funds.

The ocean is too large to be anybody’s playground. Technology, with cruise missiles and potential anti-aircraft carrier missile defence, has shrunk geography.

India shares with democratic countries the maritime advantage — all of them have robust navies. Working with the democracies of the US, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and Australia will be to its advantage.

This will need diplomatic innovation and a strategic re-jig. Without it, floating assets, even hefty ones, will count for little.

Lastly, the Defence Ministry will need to control leaks on its mother ship. With a nuclear submarine, potentially armed with nuclear weapons out at sea, another such leak could lead to an unthinkable catastrophe. Securing ships is the vital challenge for the Indian Navy in the years ahead.

(The author is an independent journalist.)