India’s Evolving Maritime Security Strategy and Force Posture

3 March 2016 Balaji Chandramohan, FDI Visiting Fellow Download PDF

Key Points

  • The Indian Navy’s Maritime Security Strategy document 2015 provides a good picture of New Delhi’s overall politico-military thinking.
  • The Maritime Security Strategy document emphasises the importance of India adopting sea-based nuclear deterrence and a carrier task force group as a mobile base.
  • The document gives similar importance to maritime chokepoints and the need to control the Sea Lines of Communication in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • As envisaged in the Maritime Security Strategy document, India might need to add another Fleet to its maritime force structure.
  • The importance of sea control and denial as operational requirements is also highlighted.

Summary

The Indian Navy’s Maritime Security Strategy document 2015 (titled ‘Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy’) is a precursor of India’s evolving maritime strategic thought and its proposed force posture. Together, they form important spokes in the wheel of New Delhi’s politico-military strategy (or Grand Strategy).[1]

Second, the document envisages India adopting a strategy of having a carrier task force as a mobile base, together with sea-based nuclear deterrence. An extension of such an arrangement would involve the Navy’s vision of developing itself as an expeditionary force, which would eventually help India to attain its desired status as a major power in the Indo-Pacific region.

 

Analysis

The maritime security strategy 2015 was made public in January this year, before the International Fleet Review in Visakhapatnam. It signalled both the subtle importance of the document itself and also placed naval strategy as a subset of India’s maritime strategy. In a way, this was a shift from the 2007 strategy document, ‘Freedom to Use the Seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy’. The earlier document focussed predominantly on maritime strategic aspects, including their military dimension, though not explicitly on naval strategy.[2]

That subtle shift is important when we consider that earlier versions of the Indian Navy’s publications focussed on diplomatic aspects of the maritime strategy, including naval diplomacy. The security strategy document, however, has focussed more on the hard power aspects, in an effort to signal a robust posture to both its adversaries and allies.

Maritime Strategic Orientation, Geopolitical Perspective and Force Structure                                 

The Ensuring Secure Seas document stresses the importance of controlling both the Sea Lines of Communication and the chokepoints as a part of India’s maritime strategy. This is despite the fact that, to date, India’s politico-military orientation, especially its maritime policy, has predominantly been focussed on expanding its reach in the Indo-Pacific and Asia-Pacific regions (including the western theatre of the Indian Ocean); that expansion, of course, increasing the importance of the Sea Lines of Communication.

The proposed variation of this policy to give greater importance to the chokepoints and Sea Lines of Communication reflects the innate variety in India’s maritime strategic thinking, between its geo-political perspective and its external geo-strategic orientation. It also affects India’s maritime force posture internally, including the Navy’s co-operation with the other two services; for example, in acquiring external bases as a part of controlling the Sea Lines of Communication. This also involves, of course, diplomatic manoeuvring with countries such as the United States, Australia, France, Japan and Indonesia, each of which has its own maritime military presence in the Indo-Pacific or wider Asia-Pacific regions.

The proposed variation in approach is important, as the politico-military orientation of India’s Grand Strategy seems to encompass the whole of the Asia-Pacific region as a part of its geo-political perspective. The Indo-Pacific region is included as a subset of the proposed maritime geo-strategic orientation, in line with India’s perceived continental commitments.

The idea of having the Indo-Pacific as a part of India’s maritime geo-strategic orientation involves two separate requirements: the need for control of the chokepoints and the necessity of securing command of the sea; together, these would help to achieve the major requirement of keeping the Sea Lines of Communication open.

On that note, we understand that, unlike the Pacific or the Atlantic Oceans, the Indian Ocean is predominantly controlled by maritime powers which have command of the chokepoints. In that context, the Indian maritime security strategy document has identified nine important choke points as a part of India’s maritime security strategy perspective in the Indian Ocean: the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, Bab el-Mandeb, the Mozambique Channel, the Cape of Good Hope, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, Sunda Strait, the Lombok Strait and the Ombai and Wetar Straits. The nine chokepoints are divided into five in the western Indian Ocean and four in the eastern, with the force structure of the Eastern Fleet getting the greater level of attention.

On the other hand, when it comes to Sea Lines of Communication, the greater importance is given to the broader Indo-Pacific region (including both the western and eastern theatres of the Indian Ocean), which reflects the geo-political perspective of identifying the primary and secondary areas of interest in India’s overall maritime strategy.

The dual methodology proposed to both secure the chokepoints and gain command of the sea, is interesting and one of the important variations in India’s maritime strategic orientation. Unlike China’s island chain strategy of having a permanent blue-water presence in the whole of the Asia-Pacific as a part of its maritime disposition, India’s planning seems to envisage having command of the sea in the Indo-Pacific, with a sub-policy of controlling the identified chokepoints. This would enable India to co-operate with other maritime powers in the Asia-Pacific as an overall part of its maritime strategic orientation. One similarity with China’s planning will involve the acquisition or use of overseas naval bases, first in the Indo-Pacific and then expanded to the whole of the Asia-Pacific region.

The above position could also be altered if India eventually upgrades its facilities on the strategically-located Andaman and Nicobar Islands and integrates the forces there as a part of its strategic fleet operations. This would reduce India’s need to expand its navy, by increasing the number of available vessels by roughly 40 per cent, from 137 to about 200. By 2027, re-orientation towards a three-fleet blue-water navy with flexible command will be the way forward.

Making that change as a stop-gap arrangement, before India embarks on a three-fleet navy, would greatly increase the range and scope of its existing naval command infrastructure based in the Andamans and Nicobars, which, at present, is the face of India’s engagement with South-East Asia. It would provide greater scope for increasing India’s maritime engagement, using a flexible command option to reach across South-East Asia to the South-West Pacific and, possibly, beyond.[3] So far, India has no permanent military presence in the Pacific, but this could change in the next five years to at least include the South-West Pacific.

In the South Pacific, India will increase its maritime engagement diplomatically, which may extend to having a military presence in one of the Pacific Island countries, probably in Fiji. This would not contradict India’s subtle mixing of its maritime strategy with its politico-military vision of joining an explicitly maritime alliance with those countries wary of Beijing’s maritime expansion, especially towards the “Second Island Chain” running south from Japan to West Papua. On the other hand, India’s efforts towards maritime expansion in the North Pacific may complicate its continental commitments.

To be sure, the above arrangement would enable the Eastern Fleet to undertake both tasks of sea-denial and sea control, with the power-projection and command of the sea resting with the Andaman and Nicobar command.

Further, to help achieve favourable fleet operations and sustainable command of the sea, India would need to acquire bases, or access to bases, in the western Indian Ocean, such as in the Seychelles. It will also need to convert its present naval outpost in Lakshadweep into a fully-fledged operational base, with capability for power-projection, sea-denial and command of the sea, especially in relation to Pakistan.

Increased pressure on its eastern seaboard, however, will push India towards such an arrangement with other countries in South-East Asia and, perhaps, beyond to the South-West Pacific. Such an arrangement – if it were to eventuate – would include a ring of bases around the Indian Ocean, from the Cape of Good Hope to Mozambique, up to Mombasa and across to the Maldives, Trincomalee and Penang. If India had to further increase its operational reach, it might then extend the eastern and western chokepoints of the Indian Ocean and maybe even reach towards the islands of the South-West Pacific.

In that context, the Indian Navy has started operating its largest naval base in Karwar, which will help to secure command of its western Indian Ocean seaboard and the Indo-Pacific region more generally. The addition of the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and over 30 support ships to that naval base, means that India is concentrating both on expanding its reach in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean and also doing the required work to get command of the sea and the capability for sea-denial and seaborne strikes against Pakistan in the western Indian Ocean.

India’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific region is therefore different to the pivot approach of the US, for instance, but it does envisage co-operation with the pivot strategy in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean, with a view to checking an increase in the ambitions of the Pakistani Navy. Overall, this strategy may involve having a permanent blue-water naval presence in both the western and eastern theatres of the Indian Ocean.

Such a strategy may involve India co-operating with other countries which have military assets in the Indian Ocean, such as Australia, Indonesia, Iran, France and the United Kingdom. This would require more port visits and co-operation on the high seas.

On the other hand, the strategy document stresses the importance of force projection as a part of controlling the Sea Lines of Communication, which we understand will be achieved through the deployment of aircraft carriers. India’s ultimate ambition will be eventually to establish a five-carrier fleet, comprising a mix of large and small carriers, doing full justice to its power-projection capabilities.[4]

For example, India plans to deploy the locally-built aircraft carrier INS Vishal as a part of the power-projection capabilities envisaged in the security strategy document.

Four other basic issues were identified in the document as a part of its force projection policy: Maritime Manoeuvre, Maritime Strike, SLOC interdiction and amphibious operations.

Interestingly, the security strategy document also mentioned the importance of sea control and sea denial as a part of operational requirements. We understand that, predominantly, the sea control and sea denial strategies are variations of the Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett theories of maritime strategy. Further, as envisaged by the document, as a part of seeking to gain sea control, co-ordinated efforts will be made in conjunction with the other services. This reflects, in part, India’s maritime strategic thinking, which requires maritime preponderance for overall military operations,

India’s maritime sea denial is predominantly oriented towards the importance of denying China’s South China Sea Fleet an operational domain in the Indian Ocean. Sea control strategy is oriented towards establishing the Indian Navy’s maritime predominance in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond in conjunction with a range of countries, including Indonesia, Australia, Vietnam and the United States.

Maritime Strategy and Nuclear Deterrence

As India has a credible minimum deterrence and a no-first use policy as the two central principles of its nuclear policy, its maritime imperative, as set out in the maritime security strategy document, is interesting. Here, the greatest importance is given to submarines carrying ballistic missiles (SSBNs) as a part of credible nuclear deterrence against its nuclear-armed rivals, Pakistan and China.

Sea-based nuclear deterrence is one of the important tenets of the 2015 maritime security strategy document and a variation from the 2007 document. INS Arihant (now fully operational) and INS Aridhaman will provide the effective nuclear deterrence for such an arrangement.[5] A further ambitious project will include developing six new fleets of nuclear submarines.

A force level of three to five SSBNs, six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and 20 diesel-electric submarines (SSKs) is required for the Indian Navy to fulfil its mandate of achieving an effective blue-water navy. If the nuclear submarines provide the resources for sea-denial and sea-attack options, then increasing the force of aircraft carriers would further improve India’s capability to achieve command of the sea and control of the chokepoints.

Internally, the ambitious posture of the Indian Navy, with its undersea nuclear deterrence capability, means that it serves as a tool to allow the other two services to re-arrange their existing command structures, including the Strategic Forces Command, in an effort to collectively present a credible level of nuclear deterrence vis-a-vis both Pakistan and China.

Importantly, as highlighted in the security strategy document, the stature of the Indian Navy has risen, especially since the introduction of its nuclear submarine capability. This provides an essential element in the structuring of forces against continental and maritime threats from both Pakistan and China.

In conclusion, the Ensuring Secure Seas maritime security strategy signals an important paradigm in India’s maritime thinking. The central focus is on improving its strategic outreach in the Asia-Pacific region, while also securing its maritime flank in the Indo-Pacific region. This would be done in co-operation with other maritime powers, so sharing collectively in their efforts to keep the Sea Lines of Communication open.

 

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[1] ‘Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy’, Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence (Navy), 2015, pp. 2-8.

[2] ‘Freedom to Use the Seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy’, Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence (Navy), 2007, pp. 9-16.

[3] ‘Indian PM’s Fiji trip aimed at countering China, says expert’, Radio New Zealand International, 11 November 2014.<https://www.radionz.co.nz/international/programmes/datelinepacific/audio/20156830/indian-pm’s-fiji-trip-aimed-at-countering-china-says-expert>.

[4] Shukla, A., ‘India’s navy: Strong on aircraft carriers, short of submarines’, Business Standard, 30 September 2014. <https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/india-s-navy-strong-on-aircraft-carriers-short-of-submarines-114093000006_1.html>.

[5] Joshi, Y. and O’Donnell, F., ‘India’s Submarine Deterrent and Asian Nuclear Proliferation’ Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, Vol. 56, № 4, 2014. <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00396338.2014.941574>.

About the Author

Balaji Chandramohan is Editor of the ‘Asia for World Security Network’ and a correspondent for the Auckland-based newspaper, Indian Newslink. He is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India and the New Zealand Labour Party.
Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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