Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Safeguarding India’s Maritime Interests


Nitin Gokhale 
(Visiting Fellow, VIF)

In July, days before he retired, the then Navy Chief Admiral Nirmal Verma commissioned a Naval Air Station at Campbell Bay on Great Nicobar Island, christening it INS ‘Baaz’ thereby signalling India's intentions to keep a close watch on the new developments unfolding in East and South East Asia On 3rd December, 24 hours before celebrating Navy Day, Admiral Verma's successor, Admiral DK Joshi announced that the Indian Navy is practicing to operate in the South China Sea to protect its economic assets.

Speaking to reporters in New Delhi Admiral Joshi told reporters that "Where our country's interests are involved, we will protect them and we will intervene."

The Eastern Naval Command - which looks at India's eastern sea board and is likely to play a key role when the Navy is deployed in South China Sea- is also being strengthened.

That the Indian Navy was strengthening its Eastern Fleet and was looking to expand its cooperation with key countries in East and South East Asia like Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Indonesia, is well known but no Navy chief or for that matter any senior government official in recent memory had spelt out India's plans to counter China in the South China Sea, in such a clear manner.

The declaration that Indian Naval ships could be deployed in the South China Sea if need be comes days after Chinese state media announced that the southern Hainan province, which administers the South China Sea, approved laws giving its police the right to search vessels that pass through the waters. Also Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and India protested a map on a new Chinese passport that depicts disputed areas as belonging to China. The Philippines also issued a statement saying it wants Beijing to "clarify its reported plans to interdict ships that enter what it considers its territory in the South China Sea."

Admiral D K Joshi said India's Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) has 4 oil exploration blocks off the coast of Vietnam. "If required we will intervene to protect (them)," he said and added that it is the navy's duty to protect India's sovereign assets. India, the Admiral said, had two basic concerns- "freedom of navigation in international waters and protection of our internal assets."

It is in this context that INS Baaz, the southernmost air station of the Indian armed forces, becomes an important springboard for India's forays further east.

In July, Admiral Nirmal Verma had said: "The archipelago, separated as it is by more than 650 nm from our mainland, offers a vital geostrategic advantage to India. Not only do they provide the Nation with a commanding presence in the Bay of Bengal, the Islands also serve as our window into East and South East Asia”. He had added: They also sit astride some of the busiest shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, most carrying strategic cargo for East Asian economies”.

Emphasizing upon the strategic location of INS Baaz Admiral Verma had reminded those gathered that INS Baaz, overlooks the Strait of Malacca, while also dominating the 6 degree channel”.

Since July this year India has clearly signalled its intention to its increased involvement East of Mallaca Straits by deploying frontline warships as part of India's 'Look East' Policy. The four Indian Navy ships, Rana, Shivalik, Karmukh and Shakti, under the command of Rear Admiral P Ajit Kumar, Flag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet were on an operational deployment to the South China Sea and North West Pacific. Earlier in the deployment, the first bi-lateral maritime exercise between India and Japan 'JIMEX 12' (Japan India Maritime Exercise) was conducted, coinciding with the commemoration of 60 years of diplomatic relations between India and Japan.

The Navy's long-term Maritime Capabilities Perspective Plan in fact has identified a mix of two major roles for the force: One, the traditional blue water operational capability and two, a plan to effectively counter threats closer to the coast.

According to the report of the Standing Committee on Defence, tabled in Parliament in the last week of April, the Navy's short-term plan has the following objectives:
  • Augment airborne maritime surveillance, strike, Anti-Submarine Warfare and air defence capability through induction of shore-based aircraft, integral helos, carrier based aircraft, space based AIS and UAVs, along with suitable weapons and sensors.
  • Develop ASW (anti-submarine warfare) capability through induction of suitable platforms, weapons and sensors.
  • Build adequate standoff capability for sea lift and Expeditionary Operations to achieve desired power projection force levels, influence events ashore and undertake Military Operations Other Than War.
  • Induct assets and develop suitable infrastructure to augment forces available for Low Intensity Maritime Operations (LIMO), protection of off- shore assets and Coastal Security framework.
  • Induct force multipliers like satellite based global communications, reconnaissance and network enabled platforms to achieve Battle-Space dominance capability and perform network centric operations.
  • Induct state-of-the-art equipment and specialised platforms for Special Forces to enhance niche capabilities to conduct Maritime Intervention Operations and other envisaged roles.
  • Develop support infrastructure in island territories to support the planned force levels as well as support infrastructure for ships/submarines/aircrafts at ports and airbases.
Given the extensive plans presented to the Parliament, it is evident now that the Indian Navy is in the middle of its most ambitious expansion plan in the past three decades. Senior officers point out that the Indian Navy's perspective-planning in terms of 'force-levels' is now driven by a conceptual shift from 'numbers' of platforms - that is, from the old 'bean-counting' philosophy - to one that concentrates on 'capabilities'.

According to its near-term plans, the Indian Navy has plans to become a three Battle Carrier Groups force by 2020. But given the delay and cost overruns in both the aircraft carrier building programmes, the Navy may find itself operating the 1960s vintage INS Viraat.

While it's most prestigious acquisition-Russian Aircraft Carrier Admiral Gorshkov, to be renamed INS Vikramaditya - is unlikely to be inducted into the fleet until late 2013, one more carrier being built indigenously is way behind its original schedule.

Currently India operates a lone Aircraft Carrier, INS Viraat, a British-built 1960s vintage ship that is on an extended lease of life thanks to the Navy's innovative engineers and planners.

Vikramaditya, once--when-- inducted, will give India the much needed edge in its maritime capabilities since it will come with the latest MiG-29 K series of aircraft. Indian Naval Aviators are already hard at work training themselves on the planes but away from the ship.

Defence Minister AK Antony in fact told the Naval Commanders conference earlier this year: "India's strategic location in the Indian Ocean and the professional capability of our Navy bestows upon us a natural ability to play a leading role in ensuring peace and stability in the Indian Ocean Region."

Little wonder than the US wants India and especially the Indian Navy to play a major role in its quest to form new and lasting regional alliances in Asia. By clearly signalling India's intention to boldly deploy in South China Sea, India may have added a new dimension to the emerging maritime rivalry in Asia. How will Beijing react?

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