India's naval buildup a tryst with destiny


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Feb 16, 2009
India's naval buildup a tryst with destiny
By Saurav Jha

Kolkata, India — India has of late been significantly expanding its naval capabilities beyond the pale of maritime security. Its naval buildup is designed to give it significant leverage over its traditional foes and cement its position as an emergent player on the global stage.
History can mete out hard lessons, and India subjected itself to one of them in the last millennium. It fell victim to colonial enterprises that snuck into the subcontinent through its vast unguarded coastline. However, present-day India seems determined not to repeat the catastrophic errors of the past and is rapidly expanding its naval prowess.

More importantly, the present naval buildup is not driven by the mere desire to prevent a seaborne invasion. Its contours are far wider than mere coastal defense, and this is reflected in the nature of the naval buildup.

India is quietly raising a force with significant blue-water capability, including medium-sized aircraft carriers, multi-role destroyers and frigates, conventional and nuclear attack submarines and amphibious ships, which can facilitate over-the-horizon assaults. It even has a host of modern corvettes that could be classified as frigates in many modest-sized navies.

Like all ambitious navies, the Indian navy is also committed to having a powerful air force of its own, as well as space-based assets for surveillance and targeting, and has rolled out its first ballistic missile nuclear submarine for sea trials.

The buildup is driven by a variety of factors besides defending the shoreline. Over the years, India has become increasingly dependent on foreign oil to sustain its steadily growing economy. By any measure, India imports over 70 percent of its oil requirement. Most trade is seaborne as well, which means protecting sea-lanes assumes greater significance in the strategic planning context.

Then there is also the question of maintaining India’s suzerainty over an exclusive economic zone spanning some 2.02 million square kilometers, besides defending offshore assets such as Bombay High – an offshore oil field, 160 kilometers from the Mumbai coast. These are easily understood economic reasons for building up naval power and focusing on what goes on at sea with no apparent direct bearing on land conflict issues.

Strangely though, some of the most compelling reasons for India’s naval expansion may actually be land related. It is now widely known that India’s naval moves in the summer of 1999 helped end the Kargil conflict with Pakistan. When faced with the prospect of a long drawn-out naval blockade, Pakistan backed off and realized just how easily the Indian navy could gain sea control.

Policymakers in India sat up and took notice as well. They realized that the Indian Navy could prove a decisive factor in resolving a stalemate in the mountains. Defense Minister Jaswant Singh publicly stated in 2001 that the government had made the development of the navy a key priority. That support has continued even though the governing dispensation in New Delhi has changed.

India’s naval moves also play a central role in ongoing military tensions and long-term rivalry with China. India and its island territories sit astride some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, through which most of East Asia’s oil flows. The ability to interdict these supplies gives India a strategic bargaining tool that can be used vis-à-vis its northern neighbor in the event of a conflict over the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh in the Himalayas.

It can be argued that this factor actually sets an upper limit to the number of days a China-initiated border conflict could last, given the size of China’s strategic oil reserves and attendant costs.

Beijing is trying to efface this handicap. It is making forays into the Indian Ocean and increasing it blue-water capability with the addition of large destroyers and nuclear attack boats, and embarking upon the construction of at least two – some reports actually say six – relatively large (60,000 ton) aircraft carriers.

As part of a so-called “string of pearls” strategy – many in India see it as a euphemism for strategic encirclement – China is involved in “port development projects” in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan.

Even as recent reports of Chinese incursions along the Line of Actual Control that separates the two Asian giants makes headlines, India seems to have set in motion a very serious upgradating of its military presence in the Andaman and Nicobar island chain, located very close to the Strait of Malacca, a key gateway to the South China Sea.

In a recent seminar held at Port Blair, former Indian president and missile scientist Abdul Kalam suggested permanently basing naval assets such as carriers and nuclear submarines in the island chain, upgrading air defenses, and setting up a 250-megawatt nuclear reactor. It looks like India is set to future-proof itself against Chinese moves in the Indian Ocean.

One of the key aims of the string of pearls strategy is to give China coveted access to the Persian Gulf. Anticipating this, India is accruing the capability to influence Middle East countries in a more substantive manner. India has signed a number of defense pacts with Gulf States, the most notable being with Qatar and Oman on defense and security issues. According to some analysts, India may have actually extended a nuclear umbrella to these states in return for naval basing rights and anti-terrorism cooperation.

Former U.S. Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan said more than a century ago that the Indian Ocean was an “ocean of destiny,” and whosoever controlled it would dominate Asia. While Mahan has followers in the United States – which is probably why the United States maintains a significant presence at Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean 1600 kilometers south of the southern coast of India – he has found new ones in the Indian military.

Besides deterring India’s troublesome neighbors in the north through strategic persuasion, if not strategic coercion, the Indian Ocean remains the big pond where India is destined to play a major role in achieving regional supremacy.

India's naval buildup a tryst with destiny -

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