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The Indian Navy’s strategic outreach and how India can tackle global maritime challenges

indian navy, navy
indian navy, navy

By Commodore Anil Jai Singh

One of the principal attributes of a maritime nation is its ability to project power well beyond its own shores. History has shown that maritime supremacy is the key to global power. For almost 500 years of the last millennium, large parts of the world were colonised by small European nations mainly through their domination of the oceans. At the peak of its power, the sun never set on the British Empire , such was its reach and geographical spread. In the second half of the 20th century, Pax Britannica gave way to Pax Americana and over the last 70-odd years the USA, the undisputed numero uno has been projecting power through its powerful navy. The former Soviet Union tried in vain to achieve military and technological parity for 45 years (also through its sizable navy) which ultimately led to its dramatic collapse in 1991.

The 21st century has been defined by China s Mahanian approach to global superpower status through maritime power. It is leaving no stone unturned in its effort to build a powerful navy and associated maritime security capability. Its assertive stance in the Indo-Pacific region is part of a larger strategic design aimed at shaping the globe through domination of the maritime domain in all its facets. This further underlines the importance of a strong navy to further a country s foreign policy objectives, pursue and protect its global interests and exercise influence in its area of interest to deter and to dominate.

India too is an emerging power and the largest in the Indian Ocean in terms of its size and capability. Its peninsular conformation notwithstanding, India is essentially a maritime nation. It has a 7516 km long coastline dotted with 13 major and over 200 minor ports, nine coastal states and four coastal UTs with a large coastal community dependent on the sea for its livelihood. Two strategically located island chains, the Andaman and Nicobar chain on the east and the Lakshadweep group on the west provide India strategic leverage.

It has an Exclusive Economic Zone covering a sea area of over two million sq kms which may increase to over 3 million sq kms which will be almost at par with the area of India s landmass. Its economic sustenance is dependent on the sea (over 90% of its trade by volume and over 74% by value is seaborne) and over 80% of India s energy requirements are met from seawards, whether imported or indigenous. India s maritime credentials, its status as the leading Indian Ocean power and its mandate as the net security provider in the region place on it a responsibility that extends much beyond its own maritime boundaries. The Indian Navy, as the principal instrument of India s maritime power is therefore responsible not only for the protection of India s territorial integrity but also its widespread economic interests which stretch across the globe. This also includes the protection of the lives and interests of the large Indian diaspora which not only contributes significantly to India s foreign exchange reserves but also projects India s soft power across the world. In the larger context, this responsibility also extends to safeguarding and securing the maritime interests of the entire region and the safety of trade that transits through the Indian Ocean on over 100,000 ships annually.

In the last few years, there has been an exponential increase in the nature and extent of India s engagement with the world. The strategic dimension of this is largely underpinned by defence cooperation. From a maritime security perspective, this assumes great significance. The distinct shift in the nature of the maritime threat from a traditional state-on-state conflict paradigm to an asymmetric sub conventional scenario jeopardises not only national security but equally, the maritime domain in general and this region in particular.

The Indian Ocean, though smaller than the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is unique in that it provides the maritime connectivity between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. It is bounded by a landmass in its north and is accessed through a series of choke points which have the potential to threaten the movement of global trade and energy flows. The Indian Ocean littoral also presents numerous security challenges with political volatility, internal strife, terrorism, economic instability, governance deficits, religious fundamentalism and illegal activities like piracy, illegal fishing, human trafficking etc dotting many parts of this largely disaggregated region. Climate change is an existential threat with the spectre of inundation threatening many small island states. The increasing frequency of natural and man-made disasters which causes great human suffering is an added vulnerability.

As the net security provider in the region, it is imperative for India to take the lead in addressing these challenges. Since it is not possible for a single navy to address regional or global security challenges on its own, it is essential to develop a cooperative security framework in the region to ensure collective security through distributed responsibility. Instituting capacity and capability enhancement and confidence building measures in the region through bilateral arrangements or multilateral frameworks is integral to this. Multilateral organisations like IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) and IONS (Indian Ocean Naval Symposium) can be effective platforms to outline the security architecture for addressing operational challenges.

Also read: India faces threat of terrorists through sea-route as well, warns Indian Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba

Logistic Support and Interoperability

Structured as a balanced blue water force with full spectrum capability, the Indian Navy has been operating at an unprecedented tempo in the last few years towards ensuring that India s commitment to regional security in the maritime domain is commensurate with its status in the region. For any navy to project power and enhance its operational reach, logistic support to its platforms is essential. The importance of this was underlined during India s participation during the anti-piracy operations off the Somalian coast which began in 2008. The initial limitation of logistic support to the deployed ships was progressively addressed as India s enhanced engagement with other countries in the region led to port facilities being made available to Indian ships. Similarly, logistic agreements with other navies operating in the region provided mutual support and greatly alleviated the operational constraints in cost, time and availability of platforms.

This cooperation has now been institutionalised through a series of formal and informal bilateral logistic agreements with countries across the Indo-Pacific, the principal ones being the USA, France, Japan, Russia, Singapore etc. These include replenishment, port visits etc. This has enabled the operationalisation of the Indian Navy s multi mission deployment strategy. A dozen or so IN ships are now constantly deployed across the Indo-Pacific region. This provides improved security in the region besides enhancing information sharing and interoperability with other navies through mutual interaction at sea and in harbour.

Maritime Domain Awareness

The diverse nature of the evolving maritime security challenge requires good Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). As this threat increasingly transcends traditional borders, ensuring the transparency of the maritime domain becomes essential. In the Indian context, this would include the entire Indian Ocean and increasingly the larger Indo-Pacific as well. The key to effective surveillance of a wide area is the early detection of a developing situation with adequate reaction time to weigh all available options and prepare an appropriate response. This can be achieved through many means including the use of satellites, long and medium range maritime reconnaissance aircraft, ships and submarines at sea, merchant ships, UAVs, fishing fleets etc, all of which require a physical presence.

Hence the importance of developing a cooperative engagement strategy with other countries in the region to ensure that adequate assets are collectively available. The effectiveness of MDA is also dependent on the extent to which larger countries can assist the smaller ones in capacity and capability building towards the larger aim of mitigating the vulnerability that may exist. This can be done through training of personnel from friendly foreign countries, provisioning of equipment on favourable terms, exchange of ship visits, bilateral and multilateral exercises etc. Providing Search and Rescue assistance at sea and timely Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) also contributes to building a mutually safe and secure regional maritime environment besides generating tremendous goodwill and a benign presence. India has also established various specific MDA measures in addition to the deployment and interoperability initiatives mentioned above. There are formal White Shipping Agreements with 21 countries already in place and more are expected to join.

These are non-military information sharing mechanisms and are a valuable source of information towards overall MDA. As part of its capacity building initiatives in the region, India has also established a Coastal Radar Surveillance Network in friendly countries extending from its southern shores to Mauritius. Maritime patrol aircraft are often deployed to assist these countries in their own surveillance efforts thus enhancing better surveillance of the region. The IN has also established an Information Fusion Centre near the national capital in late 2018 which will work towards capability building in the region and also improve the coordination of incident response and disaster relief. As it evolves it will perhaps become part of a larger multinational construct and exchange information with other similar Fusion Centres. A number of countries have expressed interest in positioning liaison officers at this centre. Similarly, India has agreed to position a naval officer with the US Central Command in Bahrain to enhance India s capability to monitor the western Indian Ocean.

The Government s SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region) initiative combined with the port development led SAGARMALA initiative also provides great potential for enhancing our maritime connectivity with the region and developing the necessary architecture for enhancing regional maritime security. This will require a comprehensive all-of-government approach led by the political establishment. For its part the Indian Navy is well poised to perform not only its predominant role as the guardian of India s global maritime interests but also contribute significantly to India s engagement with the world.

(The author is Vice President of the Indian Maritime Foundation. Views expressed are personal.)