Till two decades ago, India ruled the waters of the Indian Ocean with its powerful Navy, becoming the first Asian nation to operate both an aircraft carrier and a nuclear-powered submarine. That was then. Now, the country is facing its worst challenge in the same turbulent waters.
Slowly, steadily and stealthily, India is being encircled by its enemies—China and Pakistan in tacit understanding—in the maritime domain.
The Indian Navy lies weakened by its fleet growing into obsolescence and its frontline warships and submarines falling prey to avoidable accidents like the explosions that destroyed top notch INS Sindhurakshak kilo class submarine on August 14.
It is the same Navy that in 1971 trounced Pakistan in one-on-one maritime battles in the Indian Ocean region, striking Chittagong, Cox’s Bazaar on the East by the Sea Hawk combat planes on board INS Vikrant aircraft carrier and Karachi on the West with P-15 Termit anti-ship missiles.
This undeterred naval action from the Indian Navy during the peak of the 1971 war came despite the US under Richard Nixon tilting in favour of Pakistan and sending its aircraft carrier from the 7th Fleet to the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India.
But, since the HDW submarine procurement row, the Indian Navy prowess has been hit, badly at that, by the Indian political leadership’s indecision on augmenting the ageing fleet of warships and submarines.
The result is the Navy is left with just 20 major surface combatants such as INS Vikramaditya and INS Viraat aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates, while its submarine fleet is down to just 13 vessels.
The much-touted plans to have 24 submarines as replacement for the ageing fleet of Indian Navy submarines by 2030 is already delayed by a decade and the required submarine fleet strength is not likely till 2040 at this rate.
In such a scenario, comes the Indian Navy’s tussle with the Chinese for supremacy in the Indian Ocean region. The first taste of things to come was reported in 2008, the year Chinese warships ventured into the Indian Ocean region for the first time on the pretext of joining the anti-pirate crusade in the Gulf of Aden.
Chinese media screamed in January 2009 that the two Chinese Destroyers sailing to Gulf of Aden in late 2008, two years ahead of schedule, were snooped upon by an Indian submarine, which was forced to surface by the Chinese warships with a threat to torpedo it.
The Indians denied the incident, but the message was clear: The great Indian Ocean game had crossed the half-way mark.
India has maintained that the Indian Ocean region is its responsibility. But Beijing is challenging that.
But Indian Ocean region has always had too many powers, be it the Americans, the British or the French, operating here from their own or leased territories and bases, considering that 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade, primarily oil, pass through these sea lanes.
“The rapid growth of both Indian and Chinese economies has led to increasing reliance on energy and raw materials transported by sea. This has focused sharp attention on the criticality, for both economies, of uninterrupted use of the sea-lanes for trade and energy transportation. Thus, while the PLA Navy makes forays into the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy has newfound commitments in the South China Sea,” says former Indian Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash on the dynamics at play.
China has steadfastly cultivated nations and neighbours of India under its policy that is loosely described as String of Pearls and India has been slow in countering it with its own presence in South China Sea, the Gulf and Africa.
The US in June 2013 reaffirmed the Obama Administration’s 2011 policy of rebalancing of its maritime forces to the Asia-Pacific region, highlighting how critical the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean region are today.
If there was to be a maritime showdown in the Indian Ocean anytime now, Indian Navy would have to face the combined strength of the Chinese and the Pakistani navies. And in such a scenario, Indian Navy may find itself in a crunch, due to inherent weaknesses in its fleet.