India’s Naval Modernisation Programme: Specifics, Rationale and Implications

16 May 2011 FDI Team

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Key Points

India’s naval modernisation programme is an ambitious plan, which:

  • Reflects India’s growing international profile
  • Aims to enhance India’s economic and energy security  
  • Includes the acquisition of an indigenously-built nuclear submarine and three aircraft carriers
  • Would lead to a significant expansion of India’s maritime area of operations
  • Could encourage China and Pakistan in particular to counter what they view as an emerging threat to their own regional interests
  • Could lead to a regional naval build-up


Evolution of the Indian Navy: 1947-1991

As a former British colony, India inherited a navy with British traditions when it attained independence in August 1947.  After partition and the creation of the two new independent states of Pakistan and East Pakistan (now known as Bangladesh), a small element of the Indian Navy also split to form the Pakistan Navy. The budget allocated to the Indian Navy was limited and its role and expansion remained constrained. From 1964 onwards, however, there was a renewed emphasis on modernising and expanding the navy, which included the acquisition of a submarine capability. 

The announcement of the 1964-69 Defence Plan represented the beginning of a new stage of development for the Indian Navy using Soviet-made ships and technology. These

enhancements proved vitally important in the 13-day long Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, which saw the Indian Navy play a major role in contributing to India’s victory by blockading East Pakistan and sinking Pakistani ships.

India further developed its navy in the years following the war, with the acquisition of six Pondicherry-class minesweepers between 1978 and 1980 and five Rajput-class destroyers from the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. India made further attempts to develop its navy by upgrading facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which were increasingly seen as an area of growing geostrategic importance. A major turning point in the Indian Navy’s evolution occurred with the purchase of the aircraft carrier INSViraat (formerly the HMS Hermes) from United Kingdom in 1986, which dramatically increased India’s ability to project force in the Indian Ocean. Two years later, India leased a nuclear-powered submarine, the INSChakra, from the Soviet Union, which enabled the Indian Navy to familiarise itself with such technology, setting the stage for the indigenous creation of nuclear submarines in the twenty-first century.

The Modernisation Programme: Specifics, Rationale and Implications 

The extensive modernisation of India’s navy represents its desire to become not only a major regional player, but a major global one as well. Throughout most of the twentieth century, India’s naval priorities were essentially focussed on containing Pakistan and securing the maritime approaches to Indian territorial waters. This kept India’s naval outlook confined to its own waters. The expansion of India’s economy since the late-1990s, along with its growing domestic interests and desire to be a regional power has, however, led it to expand its outlook to the wider Indian Ocean region. 

Since 2002, India has undertaken a major naval modernisation programme, with the overall aim of upgrading its military in a 15-year timeframe. The US$40 billion that the Indian Government plans to spend between 2008 and 2013 forms part of this modernisation programme. Numerically, the plan intends to make the Indian Navy the third-largest fleet in the world. It currently stands as the fifth-largest, with 171 vessels and around 250 aircraft. In January 2011, India’s Defence Ministry released the Defence Procurement Procedure 2011 (DPP-2011), which contains separate guidelines for government-owned and privately-owned shipyards to promote competition and increase the efficiency of indigenously-built ships. 

The centrepiece of the Indian Navy’s modernisation scheme revolves around the acquisition of aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines. Presently, India has allocated funds for the acquisition of three aircraft carriers. The first, INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Russian Navy’s Admiral Gorshkov), has been in the process of retrofitting in Russia since 2008. After considerable delays, it is expected to be delivered in 2012. The Vikramaditya will carry 16 MiG-29K aircraft. India’s other two aircraft carriers are locally built. The first, INS Vikrant, is due to enter service by 2014. The second carrier is due in 2017 and is expected to carry 29 MiG-29K aircraft. These aircraft carriers would essentially make India a true blue-water navy and consolidate its force projection capability over a far greater portion of the Indian Ocean. 

In 2009 India launched the INS Arihant; its first indigenously-built nuclear submarine, with the intention of commissioning it in late-2011. This will give India a nuclear triad (land and

sea-based ballistic missiles and bombers carrying nuclear-tipped bombs/missiles), a capability currently only possessed by the United States, China and Russia. The Arihant will carry Shaurya missiles, which are capable of carrying a one-tonne nuclear warhead with a range of 750 kilometres and designed specifically for submarines. The vessel will also contain 12 Sagirika missiles, which have a range of up to 1,900 km. Five indigenously-built nuclear-powered submarines are planned for the next decade at a total cost of US$2.9 billion. The allocation of US$11 billion for six diesel-electric submarines featuring improved land-attack capabilities has also recently been approved. 

While aircraft carriers and submarines dominate the naval modernisation programme, there are other elements. In 2010 India signed a contract with the Pipavav Shipyard to build five patrol vessels. It has also built three multi-role, stealth-featured Shivalik-class frigates, with the first of these, INS Shivalik, being commissioned in April 2010. Three Russian-built Talwar-class frigates have also been acquired, with the first, INS Teg, to be commissioned later in 2011 and the remainder due to start service in 2012. These will double the number of Talwar-class frigates, with the INS Talwar, Trishul and Tabar having already been commissioned in the last decade. 

In addition to such measures, which are consistent with India’s expanding Indian Ocean profile, India has sought to establish either bases or listening stations in many of the Indian Ocean islands. Among the most significant of these was the establishment of a listening post in northern Madagascar in 2007, giving India a naval position near southern Africa and the sea lines of communication from that area. India has also sent a naval patrol vessel, along with a Dornier-228 maritime reconnaissance aircraft to the Seychelles, reportedly to control piracy in the region. The Indian Navy has also regularly assisted Mauritius in conducting hydrographic surveys, thus ensuring a near-constant naval presence in that country. India has acquired berthing rights in Oman, following joint military exercises in 2006 and a subsequent defence agreement between the two countries. Such initiatives have allowed India to obtain a naval influence in the western Indian Ocean from the Middle East to south-eastern Africa. 

India’s economic and energy security also stands to benefit from its regional engagement. India’s demand for oil has risen sharply over the last decade as its economy continues to grow rapidly. Between January and October 2010, India imported US$82.1 billion worth of oil, the majority of which was sourced from the Middle East. India, like China, has also invested heavily in Sudan’s hydrocarbon industry and has established an Exim Bank of India credit facility worth US$640 million for the development of Ethiopia’s sugar cane/bio-fuel industry. Overall trade between India and Kenya increased to US$1.5 billion in 2009-10, making that country India’s sixth-largest trading partner. India also agreed to give Mozambique US$500 million of credit in 2010 and both nations have stated a goal of increasing two-way trade to $1 billion by 2013. 

Many of India’s newfound economic, energy and strategic interests are thus well entrenched in Indian Ocean states. A revamped navy will help India to strengthen these interests well into the future. 

Response from Neighbouring Countries

While the West may welcome India’s naval expansion and modernisation as a counterweight to China’s growing influence, India’s main rivals China and Pakistan have responded with growing unease and have reacted by enhancing their own naval capabilities.

While China has used its expanding political and economic clout to gain influence in the Indian Ocean region, there are indications that it is also responding to India’s overtures by fast tracking the development of its own blue-water naval aspirations. Given the strategic competition that exists between India and China, the development of blue-water capabilities could put the two nations at greater odds with each other in the future. 

Just as for India, the need to ensure continued access to energy reserves and mineral deposits, maritime trade and new markets is key to China’s desire to secure influence in the Indian Ocean region. China, like India, remains heavily dependent on access to oil, natural gas and mineral deposits in Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East to enable its economy to prosper. The prospect of serious naval rivalry in the Indian Ocean, if left unchecked, could indeed become a reality in the years ahead. As the third-largest body of water in the world, the Indian Ocean has much less operating space than the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and risks becoming increasingly crowded.

China has responded to India’s growing naval capabilities by enhancing its relations with countries along India’s borders, such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma and Sri Lanka. In 2008, China overtook Japan to become the largest national donor to Sri Lanka. China has also become a principal arms supplier to Sri Lanka after the US stopped selling arms to Colombo in 2007. China has built a deep-water port in Burma at Kyaukpyu on the Bay of Bengal coast and has assisted in the construction of a naval base in Sittwe, also on Burma’s Bay of Bengal. In 2007, China donated an aid package worth US$10.5 million to Bangladesh and has assisted it in building an anti-ship missile launch pad near the Chittagong Port, which was completed in 2008. In March 2011, the Chinese Government announced a US$19 million military aid package for Nepal, largely in the form of medical equipment, logistics and engineering equipment. Such initiatives indicate that China intends to rival India for strategic influence in what New Delhi sees as its backyard. For New Delhi, that makes India’s naval modernisation programme crucial to ensuring control of its sea lines of communication. 

India’s naval modernisation plan could also trigger a response from its traditional arch-rival, Pakistan. India already enjoys strategic leverage over Pakistan through its relations with Afghanistan and presence at Tajikistan’s Ayni Air Base. Pakistan’s small coastline and comparatively inferior naval force makes it easier for India to blockade it. Such a situation would increase any sense of insecurity in Pakistan’s government and armed forces. Pakistan has undertaken a modernisation of its own navy in response to India’s plans. In March 2011, Pakistan's Defence Ministry asked the Cabinet to approve the purchase of conventional Chinese submarines. Pakistan has also undertaken a plan to build four F-22P class frigates with the help of China; the first entered service in 2009. Given the traditional rivalry between Pakistan and India, the modernisation of both their navies has the potential to further inflame tensions in the region.

Such a situation also has the potential to create a naval build-up by other countries in the area, particularly Malaysia and Singapore. These nations already view China’s expansion of influence into Asia with a degree of wariness, due to Beijing’s influence in the South China Sea. Singapore boasts the most advanced navy in south-east Asia, and has invested in further naval expansion over the last decade, as can be seen through its acquisitions of submarines, destroyers and unmanned systems. Malaysia also boasts a strong navy and has already undertaken plans to expand its squadron of submarines, frigates, and Multi-Purpose Support Ships by 2020.Indonesia, too, is also undergoing naval expansion, by recently beginning the design of vessels for anti-submarine warfare. Indonesia will also start the construction of submarines in 2014. Another regional nation to undertake naval expansion is Thailand, which announced plans to purchase an amphibious frigate and up to twenty helicopters. It has also technologically upgraded four of its frigates with the help of Chinese experts. 

Given the delays that have occurred with many of India’s previous naval initiatives it is unlikely that the latest projects will be acquired in their stated timeframes. It is, however, increasingly clear that, while India’s naval aspirations will lead to its growth and enhanced technological sophistication, offering greater options to extend its influence throughout the Indian Ocean, these ambitions have been viewed with growing suspicion by China and Pakistan. There is growing evidence to suggest that both China and Pakistan have also embarked on modernisation programmes at least in part to counterbalance the perceived threat posed by a larger and more powerful Indian Navy. At this stage, China’s naval presence and aspirations in the Indian Ocean appear to be minimal but, should it feel threatened by India’s advances, it is possible that the situation could rapidly change to the detriment of the region. 



Bruno de Paiva

Future Directions International Research Intern 




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