India @ 75: The growing influence of India’s naval power in the Indo-Pacific

As part of its Maritime Doctrine, India focuses on the use of naval power across the spectrum of conflict which includes peacetime operations, hostilities and war.

India @ 75: The growing influence of India’s naval power in the Indo-Pacific
The Naval war machinery is kept in a battle-ready state to maintain a credible defence posture and capability to safeguard the national aim and interests.

By Milind Kulshreshtha

Indian Navy is a prominent naval power in the Indian subcontinent and continues to maintain its dominance in the region, and beyond. As part of its Maritime Doctrine, India focuses on the use of naval power across the spectrum of conflict which includes peacetime operations, hostilities and war. To keep its entire 7516 km coastline and EEZ involving 13 coastal States and Union Territories safe, Navy proficiently keeps a 24/7 vigil against hindrances like sea piracy etc. with optimum deployment of hundreds of operational seagoing assets like ships, submarines and aircrafts. The Naval war machinery is kept in a battle-ready state to maintain a credible defence posture and capability to safeguard the national aim and interests. A peninsular India today is primarily dependent upon the secure and well-established sea lines of communication (SLOCs) for accomplishing its international trade and the Indian Navy keeps these sea routes open for a smooth sailing.

Naval Indigenisation Initiatives

Indian Navy is unique as it designs its own warships, submarines and aircraft carriers, all tailor-made to deliver a highly capable war-fighting platform developed to fight a three dimensional war at sea, be it air, surface or subsurface. The installation and operations of these varied weapons and sensors onboard limited space of a sea going vessel is a design evolution which the Naval Design Bureau have mastered gradually and today, India has its own designed and indigenously built Aircraft Carrier launched for sea trials.

To maintain an effective war-fighting fleet, the purchase of expensive assets like warships, submarines and aircrafts form a part of the Government’s Defence Capital budget. However, keeping these operational platforms in a fighting fit condition for operations in a harsh sea environment is an edifice successfully created by the Indian Navy through a well-trained crew and warship centric operational focus. The extensive ship repair network of Dockyards and Ship Repair Units on the eastern and western seaboards are fully capable of repairing an aircraft carrier to a submarine, be it Indian or from a friendly nation.

Indian Navy has been the proponent of indigenisation for more than five decades with the acquisition of major shipyards like MDL, GRSE and Goa Shipyard (GSL). The keel for the first of the Leander Class warships (Nilgiri) was laid in the 1960s era. In the mid 80s-90s, two submarines under license from HDW, Germany were constructed at MDL, and were followed by six more modern submarines constructed in collaboration with French companies in recent times. Also, the ongoing nuclear submarine programme is of national prestige and BARC supplied indigenous nuclear power plant may be considered as first of the steps towards an indigenous nuclear powered submarine fleet in coming decades.

Keeping in mind the due importance of the Naval Aviation arm, India has been operating Aircraft Carriers with the commissioning of the first ex-UK Hercules carrier in the 1960s. Since then, two aircraft carriers have been inducted, one of which i.e. INS Vikramaditya (ex-Gorshkov) continues to be in service as the sole carrier with the Navy. Meanwhile, the first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-1) Vikrant is presently undergoing sea trials for commissioning. This carrier project shall be the cornerstone for modern naval aviation tactics in the Indo-Pacific, with follow-on aircraft carriers indigenously built. India has the ability to construct nuclear powered aircraft carriers, a capability already under an advanced deployment stage as part of the Indian Navy’s nuclear submarine project. The warship production and submarine building programmes have also assisted in the growth of thousands of local engineering industries. This highlights the need for a strong bond between the Navy and the defence industry, including MSMEs. A robust footprint of private defence industries is the only way ahead to build and maintain a strong fleet to counter potential larger adversaries like China.

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Changing dimensions of naval skirmishes

The ongoing Ukraine war has highlighted the vagaries of unconventional warfare. Throughout this war, drones with an electro-optic/infrared (EO/IR) payload aboard assisted the much subdued Ukrainian forces to effectively conduct ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance) for force protection, offensive planning, battle damage assessment and use as kamikaze weapons. Meanwhile, Russia effectively used the sea control and sea denial tactics against Ukraine to support its land and air offensives. However, the sinking of the mighty guided missile cruiser Moskva during one of these patrolling missions has been a poser, with the attack methodology still shrouded in the fog of war.  As per the modern naval warfare tactics, Moskva in the role of a flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was one of the most well protected assets (in the hostile waters near Ukraine), with a suitable Air Defence screen, ASW screen and other fleet ships positioned to safeguard the warship. However, the guided missile cruiser faced a mortal blow onboard and sank along with some of Russia’s quintessential prestige.

On the other hand, in the geopolitics of the South China Sea, an altogether new doctrine of naval warfare has come to the fore with non-military Chinese ships armed just with water cannons and grappling hooks have been busy establishing a Chinese dominance. This Chinese civilian fleet routinely patrols around disputed Scarborough shoals that China disputes with the Philippines, or in waters off southern Vietnam oil exploration blocks which have been leased out by Hanoi. Furthermore, China is extending its influence beyond its shores and has been successful in making true its ambitions of operating a blue water navy. India being a sea-power in the Indian subcontinent too has been facing the growing influence of Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

In the context of asymmetric warfare, a submarine is a critical platform. With adversaries possessing stealth design and nuclear power, the submarine countermeasures shall remain as one of the primary focus areas for the Indian Navy. These ASW measures shall create deterrence to the Chinese submarines lurking around in the Indo-Pacific waters for espionage and ASW data collection. Here, the naval air arm shall also play a critical role with aircrafts like P-8Is and multi role helicopters (MRH). The warships detect underwater submarines using onboard sonars (fixed hull or towed array sonars). On the other hand, the ASW aircrafts like P-8I and helicopters (with dunking sonar) operate outside the ocean environment to effectively detect a hostile submarine. The aircraft’s agility and speed assists in efficient ASW pickups. As an evolutionary process, the Unmanned systems like drones too are exploited as ASW tools for launching and recovering various acoustic sensors in the oceans.

Technological advancements

Naval technology upgrade is an ever-evolving task at hand for the Navy. Navy’s R&D organisations have been involved in integration of varied weapons and sensors procured as per Operational requirements onboard indigenous platforms. The Navy is at the forefront of Defence technology with development of niche technologies like Ship’s Data-links, Software Defined Radio and in-house Combat Management Systems. The experts in this field are well aware that such technologies can take decades to design and develop, before being considered fit for deployment on board a warship. As if these challenges were not enough, new threats in terms of Artificial Intelligence, cyber security, space-based surveillance and hypersonic missiles are already in possession of our adversaries. Futuristic technologies like the risks from Quantum computation and Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) technology are a reality today and necessary counter measures are to be rapidly deployed by the Indian forces.

The unmanned systems in naval operations are in prominence globally over the last two decades. This portfolio includes unmanned underwater rovers and unmanned ships, which are already under consideration for induction by the Indian Navy too. The Naval UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) or NUAS and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) are part of the future unmanned systems planned to be deployed by India.

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For India, China is the most potent emerging threat in the Indo-Pacific and all measures to prevent China from its malevolent behaviour are required to be in place. The rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific is already under test in various forms and features. China definitely is showcasing a greater regional aggression in the Indo-Pacific and India is not much beyond its reach. The Galwan skirmish was a show of new aggressive China out to establish its world dominance.  The Indian Navy needs an effective presence and posture to prevent or counter any of such challenges coming in the way while establishing its dominance in the Indian subcontinent. To be successful in the near future, it’s critical that the Indian Navy stays ahead of technology in every possible way and indigenously build the best warships, submarines and aircraft carriers as the way forward.

The author is a Strategic Analyst with an expertise in technologies related to C4I solutions and Multiplatform Multi-sensor Data Fusion (MPMSDF).

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