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India's power projection

Interview: Srinivas Mazumdaru
February 23, 2015

The rise of India as a major trading and resource-consuming power has prompted the South Asian nation to expand its maritime interests beyond its littoral region, says defense analyst Chietigj Bajpaee in a DW interview.

Indien Navy Kriegsschiff INS Ranvijay
Image: Vietnam News Agency/AFP/Getty Images

The Indian government recently approved more than 16 billion USD to build advanced naval warships as well as nuclear-powered submarines. A major spender on defense, India is the world's largest weapons importer. The South Asian nation depends on foreign countries, particularly Russia and the US, for most of its military gear. The reliance on imports reflects the inability of the country's armaments manufacturers to make state-of-art equipment that meets the requirements of the nation's armed forces.

But since taking over in May last year, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has barely hidden his desire to change the state of affairs. In a bid to kickstart the moribund domestic defense industry, the Modi administration has raised the foreign investment cap to 49 percent, and encouraged multinational arms companies to set shop and "Make in India."

The decision to build naval vessels and submarines in India is seen as part of the administration's plan to ramp up the nation's domestic defense industrial base. Furthermore, the move is also viewed as an attempt by India to bolster its naval defenses, as the country's leaders seem increasingly concerned about China's expanding naval presence in the Indian Ocean region.

In this context, DW talks to Chietigj Bajpaee, an expert on Indian military at King's College in London, about India's plans to modernize its naval forces and bring them on par with the Chinese navy. ​

Chietigj Bajpaee
Bajpaee: 'India aims to strengthen the range and endurance of its naval vessels'Image: Privat

DW: What naval equipment is India planning to acquire in near future?

Chietigj Bajpaee: India has ambitious plans for the development of a 160-plus-ship navy, comprising three aircraft carrier battle groups by 2022. More than 40 warships and submarines are on order or under construction at the country's three major shipyards. These include stealth destroyers, anti-submarine corvettes and stealth frigates. These vessels will supplement and in some cases replace the country's older destroyers.

With respect to India's aircraft carriers, in addition to procuring the INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Admiral Gorshkov) from Russia in 2013, India is also constructing the country's first home-made carrier with the INS Vikrant due to be inducted by 2018-19 and plans for the development of the larger INS Vishal as part of the indigenous aircraft carrier-II (IAC-II) project.

The Indian Navy also has a particular focus on enhancing the country's submarine fleet with the construction of Scorpenes from France, the leasing of submarines from Russia, and upgrades to India's Russian and German-made submarines. The development of Arihant-class nuclear-powered submarines has also completed the development of India's nuclear triad.

Supporting the growing fleet of vessels, the navy is also inducting MiG-29K multirole aircraft and Kamov-28 and 31 helicopters to deploy from its aircraft carriers. It has also developed nuclear-capable submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), land-attack cruise missiles, and a submarine-launched supersonic missile that modifies its BrahMos cruise missile.

Indien Navy U-Boot
The Indian government wants the country's navy to have a fleet of nuclear-powered submarinesImage: Vietnam News Agency/AFP/Getty Images

How will these purchases boost the country's maritime defensive and offensive capabilities?

These platforms aim to transform the Indian Navy – the world's fifth-largest – into "a brand new multi-dimensional navy" with "reach and sustainability," according to a statement by a former Indian Chief of Naval Staff. In doing so, India aims to strengthen the range and endurance of its vessels; incorporate stealth features; facilitate network-centric operations and carry a more lethal and longer range of cruise missiles.

Some platforms such as the P8-I Poseidon maritime reconnaissance aircraft are aimed at strengthening the navy's "maritime domain awareness." Others, such as USS Trenton (renamed the INS Jalashwa), a landing platform dock ship acquired from the United States in 2007, has enhanced the country's ability to conduct expeditionary operations and humanitarian missions.

Moreover, the fact that India is one of only three Asian countries and only ten in the world to maintain aircraft carriers illustrates its ambition to project power beyond its immediate sub-region. Similarly, India's interest in moving beyond its predominantly conventional diesel submarine fleet towards building up its nuclear submarine capability also points toward a growing interest in power projection beyond its littoral region.

Many believe the government in New Delhi wants to boost defense spending and modernize its military in order to counter the growing clout of China in the region. What is your take on this?

The "China factor" is only one of several factors driving India's naval modernization. First and foremost is the need to protect India's vast 7,500 kilometer coastline and exclusive economic zone that exceeds two million square-kilometers. In this context, the role of the Indian Navy and Coastguard has traditionally been confined to playing a supporting role to land-based operations and coastal defense and surveillance.

However, the rise of India as a major trading and resource-consuming power has prompted the country to expand its maritime interests beyond its littoral region. The numbers speak for themselves. Some 95 percent of India's total external trade by volume and 75 percent by value are now conducted by sea, including more than 70 percent of its oil imports. In this context, maintaining open sea-lanes and protecting the freedom of navigation has also emerged as catalyst for India's naval modernization.

Bildmontage Marine Aufrüstung Indien und China
'China is one of the factors driving India's naval modernization'

Finally, one cannot deny the presence of an underlying "China factor." The Chinese Navy's revolving ship deployment in support of anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean since 2009 was a wake-up call for India. More recently, there have been growing instances of the Chinese making their presence felt in the Indian Ocean Region, including a report that a Song-class diesel-electric submarine docked at Sri Lanka's Colombo port in September 2014.

Furthermore, in the context of China's increasingly assertive behavior in the East and South China Seas there are also latent concerns in India that China's behavior in East Asia may become a harbinger for its actions in South Asia. In this context, naval discourse in India increasingly places emphasis on sea-control and competitive naval diplomacy while moving away from a traditionally defensive maritime posture.

How does India's naval power compare to China's?

China's naval strength is reflected in its growing defense expenditure, which is more than three times that of India and has gone up at double-digit levels annually over the past two decades. By 2020, the Chinese Navy is expected to have 78 submarines of which 12 will be nuclear; 80 medium and heavily amphibious lift ships; and 94 guided missile boats.

In addition to the launch of China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning in 2009, the country is also in the process of developing two more indigenously-developed carriers (with ambitions for a total of 4-6 carriers).

Beyond its expanding capabilities, China's naval power is also reflected in its rising ambitions. Similar to India, China also maintains a growing dependence on imported resources, which has prompted concerns over a so-called "Malacca Dilemma" referring to strategic vulnerabilities rooted in the country's dependence on resources imported through sea lanes patrolled by potentially adversarial countries.

This has led China's maritime strategy to move beyond its traditional focus on the first and second "island-chains" and rhetoric of reviving the country's "Maritime Silk Road," which refers to the development of ports and transshipment hubs along vital sea-lines of communication. China's deep-sea mining concessions in the southern Indian Ocean also demonstrate the country's long-term strategic interests in the Indian Ocean Region.

While India is not superior to China in the quantity or quality of its naval platforms, the India's Navy has generally outpaced China's in the sphere of maritime confidence-building.

This has been facilitated by the Indian Navy's prominent role in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), including relief operations following the Asian tsunami of 2004 and the cyclone that struck Myanmar (Burma) in 2008. India has also been successful at regional confidence-building in the maritime domain fuelled by the growing frequency of joint naval exercises with regional navies.

What areas should New Delhi focus on in the future to develop its military as a counterweight to the Chinese?

India is seeking to strengthen its anti-submarine capabilities in response to the growing presence of Chinese vessels in waters of the Indian Ocean Region, as evidenced by the launch of the indigenously-built INS Kamorta guided missile destroyer in August 2014.

Interoperability is also a key capability that the Indian Navy will need to develop. This refers to expanding cooperation with other regional navies that maintain concerns about the rise of China's naval ambitions. There is already evidence of this with India and Japan holding their first bilateral naval exercises in June 2012 and India providing training to Vietnam in underwater warfare.

During the recent visit of US President Barack Obama to India in January, both countries also issued a joint statement noting the importance of the peaceful resolution of maritime territorial disputes and ensuring the "freedom of navigation" with specific reference to the South China Sea. This highlights both countries' joint concerns over China's increasingly assertive behavior in the maritime domain.

Indien Narendra Modi INS Kolkata
Modi's government wants to reduce India's reliance on foreign weapons manufacturersImage: Reuters

In this context, India's tri-services Andaman and Nicobar (Southern) command, which was established in 2001, will play an increasingly important role given its strategic location near the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea.

China is likely to resist these efforts. Reports in July 2011 that an Indian Navy vessel, the INS Airavat, received alleged radio contact from the Chinese Navy demanding that the vessel depart disputed waters in the South China Sea after completing a port call in Vietnam illustrate China's opposition to an expanding Indian naval presence in East Asia.

Finally, despite its growing emphasis on power projection, the Indian Navy and Coastguard need to maintain a continued focus on coastal defense given the vulnerabilities that India faces along its poorly demarcated and partially disputed maritime border.

This was made evident by the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 in which Pakistan-based militants infiltrated into India via the country's porous maritime boundaries.

Chietigj Bajpaee is a researcher at the department of war studies, School of Social Science & Public Policy, King's College, London.

The interview was conducted by Srinivas Mazumdaru.

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