India: Maritime Power Emerging

Posted in India | 27-Jan-08 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava

India's navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta: "Our primary maritime military interest is to secure national security"
India's navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta: "Our primary maritime military interest is to secure national security"
India is in the process of implementing a massive defense modernization exercise estimated to cost the country US $50 billion. Among the key elements is the US $10 billion purchase of fighter jets and a robust missile attack and defense program. An often-ignored aspect is India’s sea power where there is considerable progress as well.

There is an ongoing competition between India and China to control the waters of the Indian Ocean. India’s defense ministry has been under tremendous pressure from the navy to ramp up India’s sea power, given the challenges in the region.

With significant delays now expected in India in acquiring sea aircraft carriers, namely the Admiral Gorskov from Russia and the two that are being indigenously developed, other options are being aggressively probed.

The one unwritten aim is to send a tough message and check the influence of China in the seas through the new strategic friendship between India and the US, with other countries holding similar inclinations roped in for good measure.

The Chief of the Indian navy, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, states in the document “Freedom to use the seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy” in May 2007:
Our primary maritime military interest is to ensure national security, provide insulation from external interference, so that the vital tasks of fostering economic growth and undertaking developmental activities can take place in a secure environment.”

Malabar Exercise

The recent massive “Malabar” (reference to a swathe of sea along India’s southeastern coast) naval exercise held in September 2007 at the Bay of Bengal is a case in point. Navies of the United States, Australia, Japan, Singapore and India participated.

The five nations sent out 34 ships, destroyers, frigates and submarines, including super carriers such as the USS Nimitz and the USS Kittyhawk, US nuclear submarine USS Chicago and India’s only aircraft carrier the INS Viraat.

India also fielded maritime Jaguar and Sea Harrier fighters, Tu-142 surveillance planes, Delhi and Kashin-class destroyers, Godavari and Brahmaputra-class guided missile frigates, and a German-built submarine.

The six-day joint military exercise took place between the port city of Vishakhapatnam on India’s eastern coast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The islands are home to India’s tri-command and enables India to keep an eye on Chinese military activities in Myanmar’s Coco Islands.

The exercise spilled into the Malacca Strait, an 800 km strip between Malaysia and Sumatra, responsible for the safe transport of 60% of the world’s maritime energy.

The Malabar exercise has grown in scale and complexity over the years from a bilateral Indo-US engagement and evoked much interest in China, Russia and Sri Lanka.

Beijing issued a demarche (a formal diplomatic communication from a country seeking information from another) to India, Australia, US and Japan during an ASEAN Regional Forum Meeting in Manila against the said exercises.

Unlike a worried China, Sri Lanka welcomed the exercise for promoting the safety of trade and commerce in maritime zones.

India and the United States

Exercise Malabar 2007: "The five nations - Australia, India, Japan, Singapore and United States - sent out 34 ships -…
Exercise Malabar 2007: "The five nations - Australia, India, Japan, Singapore and United States - sent out 34 ships - incl. aircraft carriers and one USS nuclear submarine".
Indeed, New Delhi is keen to take its involvement with the US to new levels. Following the success of Malabar, India is due to participate in multinational war games in the United States, described as the world's most difficult aerial drill using live ammunition.

The exercise, codenamed ``Red Flag,’’ will be staged with participants from NATO member states and other US military allies. The Indian Air Force has been given clearance by the Indian cabinet to take part in the six-week event, near Las Vegas. ``We have bid to take part in the (US) exercises, which are the most sought after by air forces the world over,’’ Indian Air Force Chief Fali Homi Major said.

Given the current high in Indo-US relations, permission is likely to be granted to India by Washington. The US is also keen to keep New Delhi happy due to the defense contracts to be signed by India, including the US $10 billion 126 fighter jet deal.

Fearing protests from crucial coalition partners and left wing parties, defense Minister A K Antony said: ``There's nothing new in holding or participating in such exercises as it gives an opportunity to the country's forces to get acquainted with advanced technology, weapons systems and platforms.’’

India and the US have held over 50 joint military exercises in the last 6-7 years to deepen ``functional interoperability’’ between armed forces.

India has also been holding exercises with the navies of Britain, France, Russia, Singapore and Vietnam. In May 2008, a tri-nation event involving participation by Brazil, South Africa and India is likely to take place.

Recently, India has also inked a unique five-year pact to permit Singapore’s armed forces to hold regular exercises on Indian airspace and territory. It also allows Singapore to permanently store military equipment in India.

Singapore has similar agreements with the US, France, Australia, Thailand and Taiwan, as land is scarce in the small city-state.

India will, however, need to handle the growing defense relationship with care.

Following the de-railed Indo-US nuclear deal, controversy is beginning to dog defense relations between the two countries, as well.

Recently, the Indian navy was severely censured by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), an independent financial watchdog set up under the aegis of the Indian constitution, for the purchase of the 36-year-old warship USS Trenton ( re-christened INS Jalashwa ) with a gross tonnage of 16,900 tons for USD %0 million.

Even though the value of the deal is small, it does not set a healthy precedent, given the very nascent stage of Indo-US defense relations. The CAG works independently of executive and its findings are damning.

Trenton is the first ever warship for the Indian navy from USA and the second biggest that India now possesses after aircraft carrier INS Viraat.

India thus joined a select group of nations operating a Landing Platform Dock(LPD) enabling transport of troops and machinery over greater distances.

According to the CAG the warship was purchased without undertaking its proper physical assessment, but only a “visual inspection” and with “over-reliance” on information provided by the US Navy.

However, the US ship, as it turns out, seems to be not good enough.

“The decision for the acquisition of the warship does not appear to be prudent” since Trenton has already outlived major part of its service life before being commissioned into the Indian Navy”, the CAG report days.

Indeed, the controversy over the warship does not augur well for incipient Indo-US defense relations, given many jingoistic voices against “imperialistic USA” in India.

The anti-American left parties have asked the government to order an inquiry into the purchase. “ The government should order an enquiry and come out with a statement in parliament. It should assure the country that such dubious defense purchases will not be resorted to in the future,” the left parties said in a statement.

New Delhi is, however, keen to diversify the stable of countries from which it buys arms and want to move away from over-dependence on traditional supplier Russia which has increased its defense hardware exports to China.

Indian officials say that Washington is looking to supply a quarter of India’s military hardware over the next decade.

US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, visited India in February 2008 and made it apparent that given India’s status as USA’s strategic partner in the Asian region, Washington was looking to expand military-to-military relationships independent and irrespective of the fate of the stuck civilian nuclear agreement.

Stung by the Indian political opposition to the nuclear pact, Gates said that the US was not looking for “quick results” or “big leaps forward”, but a steady expansion of the relationship, at a pace comfortable to both the countries.

U.S. President George W.Bush and India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: "India is keen to take its involvement with the US…
U.S. President George W.Bush and India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: "India is keen to take its involvement with the US to new levels."
Both, Robert Gates and the Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony expressed satisfaction in Indo-US defense ties since the beginning of the 2005 Defense Framework Agreement that blueprints progress in the next 10 years.

Indeed, unlike in the nuclear pact, there has been progress on the defense front, though USA is still far behind India’s defense purchases from Russia or Israel.

Robert Gates expressed happiness at India’s decision to purchase six C- 130J Hercules military transport aircrafts from US Lockheed Martin and said “ the deal marks a major policy change in India’s armament procurement”.

In February 2008, the deal was culminated when New Delhi signed a letter of offer and acceptance for India’s biggest ever aircraft deal with USA.

According to Defense Minister Antony, the purchase is valued nearly USD 1 billion and delivery of aircrafts is to be completed by December 201.

Defense experts say the Hercules deal opens possibilities of an Indo-US joint missile defense system, which will be a significant engagement should it work out.

Robert Gates said talks were at an early stage involving joint analysis of India’s needs.

India has been focusing on indigenous development of its missile shield to guard against perceived threats from Pakistan.

This has closed a potential multi-billion market to American manufactures such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.

Officials say another US biggie Boeing’s P-8i long-range maritime reconnaissance ( LRMR) aircraft are the frontrunners for the Indian Navy’s order for eight maritime patrol aircrafts.

The USD 2 billion” direct foreign military sale’ contract should be inked shortly. A high level delegation from Boeing is due to visit India by the end of this month.

India’s sate owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited ( HAL ) is upbeat about export opportunities following a deal with Boeing in December 2007, for the development of sub-systems for Boeing fighter planes.

Both Lockheed Martin and Boeing are principal bidders in the estimated USD 11 billion deal for India’s procurement of 126 medium fighter jet aircrafts.

UD defense firms are also eyeing the 312 light helicopters tender worth USD 1 billion floated by India.

Sea Arms

Powering the seas is an important aspect of India’s USD 50 billion defense modernization exercise.

Recently, New Delhi announced that the country has developed a submarine-launched supersonic missile, a modification of the BrahMos cruise missile, a capability limited so far to advanced nations such as the US, France, Russia and a few more.

Defense minister A K Antony said trials of the underwater missiles were awaiting the necessary platform that would be identified by the navy soon. Ship and land-launched versions of the BrahMos are being inducted in the Navy and Army while the air versions are being currently developed.

State-controlled Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) is also undertaking a joint development project with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for a surface-to-air missile using it from land and ship, Antony said.

India is also due to receive its first leased nuclear submarine, capable of firing such missiles, from Russia in about a year.

After gaining reasonable competence in air- and land-based nuclear delivery platforms via ballistic missiles such as Prithvi and Agni, India has been looking at an undersea platform to launch nuclear weapons. Such efforts should bear fruition in June 2008.

The submarine is a 12,000-ton Akula-II class nuclear-powered attack submarine, which was commissioned following a USD650 million secret pact signed by the previous BJP-led government with Russia three and a half year back during defense minister Sergei Ivanov’s visit.

Reports say that New Delhi has recently begun quiet discussions with Moscow for a second advanced Akula-class nuclear submarine. The Indian navy’s nuclear experience is limited to INS Chakra, a Charlie-class nuclear submarine leased from Russia from 1988-91.

Given the huge volume of oil movement between the Persian Gulf and the Malacca Straits towards North Asia, the Indian navy is looking to possess a long-range nuclear platform on the eastern and western seaboards, with adequate strike capability. After testing nuclear weapons in 1998, the acquisition of a nuclear submarine has been labeled by some as the most crucial addition to India’s strategic capability. The nuclear submarine power will be strengthened by the indigenous Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) in 2009, a nuclear-backed ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) project, begun in the 1970s and currently under construction at a secret dry dock in Visakhapatnam.

Last year, the construction of the highly advanced Scorpene submarine began at the upgraded Mazgon Dock (Mumbai) under a USD 3.5 billion deal for six such French submarines. As the Scorpene deal involves the transfer of technology, it is a win-win deal offering new technology to India and a possible foothold to French firms in the big Indian market.

Warships to sail

"There is ongoing tussle between India and China to control the waters of the Indian Ocean"
"There is ongoing tussle between India and China to control the waters of the Indian Ocean"
The Indian navy is gearing to bring in 40 new warships over the next 3-5 years. The government plans to invest over RS 500 billion (over Usd 12 billion) over the next 10 years on warships.

Given government encouragement to the private sector to play a role in defense, India’s largest engineering and construction firm Larsen & Toubro Ltd (L&T) has announced plans to build defense warships and paramilitary vessels at its proposed shipyard-cup-port facility at Kattupalli, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

L&T will invest around RS 30 billion in the project expected to generate 10,000 jobs. The facility would be India’s biggest, building very large tankers capable of carrying 300,000-350,000 tons of crude oil and Suezmax vessels that can pass through the Suez Canal, with 120,000 tons capacity to transport dry bulk cargoes such as coal, iron ore and steel. The shipbuilding by L&T is to begin by the end of 2009 and the first delivery is expected in 2010-11.

L&T has been keen to bid for Projects 75 and 76 of the Indian navy that entail the production of 24 underwater vessels valued at $14-16 billion to meet challenges across the Indian Ocean.

Ramping up the arsenal is being backed by more strategic moves.

India has already established a new listening post that reportedly began operations in early July 2007 in northern Madagascar, a large island off Africa’s east coast. The monitoring station is designed to gather intelligence on foreign navies operating in the region by linking up with similar facilities in Mumbai and Kochi, located on India’s west coast and are the headquarters of the Indian navy’s Western and Southern Commands respectively. The station is India’s first in the Southern Indian Ocean and is significant due to the increasing oil traffic across the Cape of Good Hope and the Mozambique Channel route.

India is also looking to set another monitoring facility at an island it has leased from Mauritius that is situated to the east of Madagascar.

China Focus

Observers do say that delays in the construction and procurement of aircraft carriers will hamper India’s sea capabilities. The way matters are moving this issue is likely to be sorted only in another 5 years, with cost overruns and absence of material hampering progress.

Nevertheless, India clearly has its eyes on the seas, keeping China in focus. The China focus of India’s defense preparedness is also highlighted by India significantly raising the range of its Agni ballistic missiles via the Agni III plus and Agni IV that can target areas deep inside China.

China is already beefing up bilateral ties with Pakistan, via involvement in projects such as the Gwadar Port, Sri Lanka and Myanmar to deepen its hold over the interlinked complex energy-security picture currently being aggressively played out in the area.

India has also been wary about the new military affinity between China and Russia. One reason that India is looking to obtain weapons supplies from Israel, France and the US is because it does not want to possess the same arms that Russia has been supplying to China.

Sino-Russian military exercises have been growing in magnitude in recent times. New Delhi has also been observing with some alarm the synergies the two countries have developed in sealing hydrocarbon resources in Myanmar.

Thus, despite the crackdown on democratic protestors by the military junta in Myanmar, New Delhi has signed new oil and gas exploration deals with Yangon. Petroleum minister Murli Deora’s recent visit to Myanmar ironically overlapped with the military action.

China’s naval developments also keep in focus the potential conflict over Taiwan.

Over the long term, Chinese naval officers speak of developing three oceangoing fleets, to patrol the areas of Japan and Korea, western Pacific, Strait of Malacca and the Indian Ocean.

India does not want to be left behind.


"The Indian navy is gearing to bring in 40 new warships over the next 3-5 years - incl. three aircraft…
"The Indian navy is gearing to bring in 40 new warships over the next 3-5 years - incl. three aircraft carriers."
Regardless of the state of the present situation, it is unlikely that India and China are actually going to engage in any kind of a war in the near future. Going by recent happenings, relations between India and China have shown good momentum.

The bilateral trade target of US $40 billion that was set for 2010 has already been achieved three years ahead and will need to be reviewed for a higher achievement.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has embarked on his maiden visit to China on January 13, 2008); the two countries, that fought a war in 1962, recently conducted their first-ever joint military exercises; bilateral trade targets have been met much earlier than earmarked for achievement.

Prior to his 3-day visit to China, when he met his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao and call on President Hu Jintao, Manmohan said: ``I have made it clear to the Chinese leadership that India is not part of any so-called contain China effort. China is our largest neighbor and in many ways, engagement with China is an imperative necessity.’’

Given the leverage of vast gas resources, Russia, at the instance of President Vladimir Putin has also been pushing for a new axis of influence involving the three countries, in order to check US strategy to play India against China in the region.

Moscow has also been unhappy about India’s growing defense ties with the US, which Washington is very keen to push, given that the civilian nuclear deal is derailed.

However, India is unlikely to take chances with its deep suspicions about China and its close association with Pakistan.

Thus, India has been closely looking at specific defense efforts and advanced programs that try to address the China challenge, given the topography, further location and the vast sea areas.


Despite some headway in India’s overall modernization efforts, the process is still very slow and mired in corruption and allegations of scandal. If India wants to keep China as the benchmark, there is a long way to go.

Ultimately, a sustainable defense framework can be formed only by encouraging domestic industry to levels that they can deliver. An import-led defense building exercise leads to a vicious cycle of dependence on spare parts, maintenance and future upgrades, apart from outflow of foreign exchange.

India’s state-run defense units have failed to be dynamic enough to meet the challenge of indigenous development of arsenal.

The key is to allow the private sector to develop expertise so that India can ultimately emerge as a hub of defense manufacturing for Southeast Asian countries in particular. Many firms such as Godrej, Wirpo, L&T, Mahindra & Mahindra, among others are making efforts to build expertise in the defense field.

The government has been trying to encourage them, but more needs to be done.