India’s Naval Strategy

4 October 2016 Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • India’s economy is growing strongly once again after a hiatus of a few years.
  • That growth depends on the securitisation of its energy imports, which is transported along maritime routes.
  • It also requires to protect its trade, most of which is also conducted by sea.
  • This calls for a strong navy and India is currently in the process of modernising its naval forces.
  • The navy is not content, however, to play a defensive role and appears to seek to project Indian influence beyond the immediate region.


India’s economy, the world’s fourth-largest, is growing at a fairly rapid rate. One source has it that the country’s growth rate in the final quarter of the 2015-2016 fiscal year was 7.9 per cent and 7.6 per cent for the entire fiscal year. According to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade the World Bank estimates that India’s GDP will grow “at 7.8 per cent in 2016 and 7.9 per cent in 2017 and 2018, making it the fastest growing major economy.” Its economy, a population that numbers around 1.2 billion people, a growing middle class and a modernising military combine to make India a significant Asian power.

One outcome of its growing economy is an increasing dependence upon its maritime trade and sea lanes of communication (SLOCs). India feels it needs to securitise these SLOCs in order to protect its trade and economy. This leads, in turn, to a requirement to create a navy with the capacity to fulfil this function. Navies, however, are not only the highly-visible purveyors of a country’s foreign policy; more so than armies and air forces, navies also influence foreign policy, as Booth observed.

India’s maritime trade grew at twice the global growth rate of 3.3 per cent over the last decade. Its maritime container trade grew at 6.5 per cent, which is higher than the world average of 5.4 per cent over the 2005–2015 financial years. Cargo traffic at Indian ports doubled to around one billion tonnes per annum over the same period and is expected to reach 1.7 billion tonnes per annum by 2022. The country invested around US$2.6 billion in ports and shipping between 2011 and 2014. India is dependent, however, on the vast amounts of energy products it imports to keep its economy moving. A fall in domestic oil production for the fourth year running, coupled with an increase of around 11 per cent in domestic consumption, saw the country have to increase its oil imports. The International Energy Agency estimates, moreover, that India required around 4.1 million barrels of oil per day in the second quarter of 2015, overtaking Japan to become the third-largest consumer of oil. The transportation of these energy imports needs to be securitised in order to keep its economy growing.

These factors have led in part to the growth and modernisation of the Indian Navy. A modernised navy, however, is not necessarily or automatically a capable one in the absence of a planned maritime strategy. This paper will examine, therefore, the strategy of the Indian Navy.


India’s geographical location permits it to dominate the Indian Ocean. As one Chinese scholar, Zhang Ming, observes, “The Indian subcontinent is akin to a massive triangle reaching into the heart of the Indian Ocean, benefitting any from there who seek to control the Indian Ocean.” India, nevertheless, has until recently been more focussed on the security of its land-borders. This perception of a continental threat stems from the several invasions it endured historically, from Alexander the Great’s forays up to its borders to the Muslim invasions, which culminated in the establishment of the Mughal dynasty in Delhi. It was, nevertheless, the Indian Ocean that provided the means for India’s greatest invasion, that of the Western European countries and the colonisation of India by Great Britain. While India was able to more or less assimilate its land-based invaders it, ironically, had less of an effect on those who invaded it from the sea.

Indian leaders have, nevertheless, recognised the importance of the Indian Ocean and, consequently, India’s need to securitise it. Speaking in March 1958, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, remarked that “History has shown that whichever power controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s sea-borne trade at its mercy and, in the second, India’s very independence.” The Indian Navy, these fine words notwithstanding, endured until very recently one of the most skewed army-to-navy budget ratios in the world: the Indian Navy received about 15 per cent of the defence budget while the army’s share was around 60 per cent.

While that situation has not changed, the ratios are not quite as stark. In 2015, Prime Minister Modi announced a defence budget of approximately US$40.4 billion, an increase of around 7.7 per cent over the previous financial year. The Indian Navy was allocated around US$6.1 billion of that amount or just over 15 per cent. It is to be noted, however, that under the Modi Administration’s “make in India” scheme, several naval platforms, including surface ships and submarines are manufactured in India, which provides substantial cost savings. As one report noted, India aspires to a two hundred-ship navy by 2027, up from the current 140 or so it now fields. The report, which dates from July 2015, states that there are currently 48 ships under construction in India, with four or five being added every year. In 2015 the lead ship, the INS Vishakapatnam, of the Project 15B class was launched. These destroyers, which are configured for stealth and carry Indian-manufactured Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles and the Indo-Israeli Barak-8 surface-air missiles, would not be out of place in any modern navy.

It is, however, the plan (which has been sanctioned) to build six nuclear-powered attack submarines in the next twenty years that creates the most interest. India received a Project 971 Shchuka-B (NATO name Akula II) class nuclear attack submarine, the INS Chakra, which was inducted into the navy in April 2012 on a ten-year lease and is currently in talks with Moscow to lease a second. The leased submarines will provide the Indian Navy with the training and experience required to operate the six nuclear submarines when they are progressively commissioned. India also has fourteen conventional submarines and entered into an agreement with France in 1999 to build six Scorpene submarines in India with the option of building six more. India’s first indigenously-built ballistic missile nuclear submarine (SSBN), the INS Arihant, has reportedly completed its sea and weapons trials and is ready to be inducted. A second, more powerful and better armed SSBN, the INS Aridhaman, is being built in the eastern city of Vishakapatnam, with two more SSBNs sanctioned to be constructed. Similarly, two aircraft carriers are being built in the southern city of Kochi.

In short, India’s naval modernisation is moving quite rapidly and it is not improbable that the desired two hundred ship navy will exist by 2027.

Several forces coalesced to prompt this modernisation and construction effort as a means of developing its maritime security capacity. The first of these, as alluded to previously, is globalisation. With its emphasis on international trade and the attendant need to move goods in bulk by the cheapest means of transportation, the oceans, a modern and capable navy has become a necessity in order to securitise that trade. The Indian Navy is today a world removed from its previous state. During the so-called “Tanker War” period of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, for instance, India lost the most tankers in the Persian Gulf. The Indian Navy did not deploy when Indian tankers were attacked, leave alone take action to protect them. While government policy may have been responsible to some extent for this lack of action, the fact that long-range ships were so scarce as to make any retaliatory action impossible provides a better reason. Indian naval ships today routinely visit ports in East Asia and elsewhere around the globe, making the country, for the first time in its modern history, a blue-water, naval power.

A second motivator for an enhanced-capability navy was the terror attacks that were launched from the sea in 1993 and again in 2008. Those attacks engendered a deep sense of insecurity in India and led to calls for a more secure coastline. They also demonstrated the sheer ease with which a group of terrorists could infiltrate the country. If a relatively unsophisticated group of people could break through India’s maritime security cordon, the reasoning ran, could a better prepared and planned attack by larger forces not inflict more severe attacks on strategic targets or, worse, on an unsuspecting populace? This possibility required a better trained, prepared and capable navy.

India’s adversarial relationship with China is the third and, arguably, most potent motivator for its naval development. Beijing has increased its presence in the Indian Ocean, from port visits by its ships to, notably, submarine visits to Sri Lanka at the Chinese-run Colombo International Container Terminal in September 2014 and later Gwadar in Pakistan. India is concerned that China could repeat the aggression it has shown in the South China Sea in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi also perceives China as a potential threat to its regional influence if it were to further support, for instance, Pakistan as a proxy to slow India’s economic and/or military rise.

As Indian strategists see it, any Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) diminishes India’s security. These concerns have been compounded over the last twenty years, Garver observes, with five categories of Chinese activity in the IOR. These are (1) covert and overt assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear and missile development, assistance to its military development and enhancement of its military-industrial capability, (2) initiation of defence relations and intelligence-sharing with Nepal, (3) military and deep economic co-operation with Myanmar including development of its transport and maritime infrastructure, (4) growing Peoples Liberation Army Navy activity in the IOR including ship visits and the creation of electronic monitoring facilities, and (5) the cultivation of ties with Bangladesh and the normalisation of ties with Bhutan.

The Indian Ocean, as the Indian Navy’s 2004 Maritime Doctrine notes, is in a singular way Indian. In this it echoes the statement of Indian strategist, K. M. Panikkar,

“… to other countries the Indian Ocean is only one of the important oceanic areas, to India it is a vital sea. Her lifelines are concentrated in that area, her freedom is dependent on the freedom of that coastal surface. No industrial development, no commercial growth, no stable political structure is possible for her unless her shores are protected.”

The Indian Navy, as Vijay Sakhuja notes, does not see itself as primarily a defensive force, therefore. Its specific undertakings include exercising sea control in designated areas of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal and at the entry/exit points of the IOR; in case of war to carry the conflict to the enemy’s territory, to strangulate its trade/oil arteries, to destroy its war waging potential and naval assets and to ensure a decisive victory; to provide power projection force; and to work in conjunction with the two other services to preserve, protect and promote India’s national interests.

India has emphasised its goal to be the dominant power in the north-eastern Indian Ocean and more so towards the western approach to the Malaccan Strait since the 1990s. This, according to Brewster, is part of a broader strategy of projecting power into the main entry and exit choke points of the Indian Ocean. These points include the Mozambique Channel, the Strait of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb around the Arabian Peninsula and the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok Straits in the east. These choke points, recognised as being vital to the control of the Indian Ocean, apparently guide India’s regional maritime strategy. This may also be gauged from the Indian Navy’s doctrinal document, Freedom to Use the Seas, which states:

By virtue of geography, we are … in a position to greatly influence the movement/security of shipping along the [sea lines of communication] in the [IOR] provided we have the maritime power to do so. Control of the choke points could be useful as a bargaining chip in the international power game, where the currency of military power remains a stark reality.

As a previous FDI SAP noted,

Over the last two decades, India has constructed a new base for the Eastern Fleet south of Vishakhapatnam and sophisticated naval and air force facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These islands constitute a seven hundred mile chain at the western approaches to the Malaccan Strait and provide the perfect basis for projecting power into it. The Eastern Fleet apart, the aircraft stationed at this base have an operational radius sufficient to project power into the Malaccan Strait and into extensive areas of the South China Sea. Additionally, Indian Special Forces conduct regular training operations from the Andaman Islands base. The islands have received much attention in Beijing, with one Chinese analyst describing them as a “metal chain” which could lock the western end of the Malaccan Strait. The militarisation of India’s east coast and the approaches to the Strait of Malacca are a clearer indication of India’s intention to be the predominant power in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.

India recognises, however, that it cannot act unilaterally against China for the foreseeable future. To this end it has developed its maritime relationships with like-minded, regional democracies that also see China in similar terms. It has extended its reach into the South China Sea through regular naval visits, unilateral exercises, and bilateral exercises with regional states. In 2000, Indian warships visited ports in Vietnam, China, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan. In 2004 the Indian Navy deployed ships to the South China Sea on “presence cum surveillance” missions on three occasions, and in 2005 the aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, and a task force visited Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Perhaps as a sign of China’s concern, in September 2011 an Indian Navy ship, sailing from Nha Trang port in Vietnam to Haiphong, was challenged by an unidentified radio call in which the announcer identified himself as the “Chinese Navy”. China, not surprisingly, objects to India’s increased presence in its backyard. It has also developed close naval relations with the United States, Japan and Australia.

In conclusion, we note that India has begun to emphasise its naval development for three main reasons: to protect its energy SLOCs, to increase its political influence and as a response to Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean. It is telling, however, that the Indian Navy no longer confines itself to the Indian Ocean. By venturing into the South China Sea India is implying that it will not be restricted or restrained in any way. A fairly aggressive naval strategy is merely one manifestation of this stance.

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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