Since India’s independence, the significance of a robust navy has been recognised, but this has not been translated into practise. India is a peninsula that juts out into the Indian Ocean and has a 7,000-kilometer coastline. It is located on the main marine routes of communication, with the Arabian Sea to the west and the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea to the east.
It is at the heart of the Indo-new Pacific’s strategic ocean domain, commanding the maritime lanes that connect the Indian and Pacific Oceans. However, this geographic advantage can only be maintained and improved upon by maintaining a powerful Navy in comparison to other major powers’ naval forces deployed in the Indian Ocean.
Due to the increased military threat from China, there is a renewed attention on India’s land borders. In terms of overall policy, India must hold the line on its contested land boundaries while expanding its presence in the marine realm, where it has a geographic advantage that it lacks on its land frontiers. China is aiming to encircle us on land in order to halt, or at the very least slow, India’s expansion into a domain that favours the latter. Our response should be to increase our Navy spending since we have an advantage over China, but it is dwindling.
The Indian Navy envisaged a fleet of 200 ships by 2027, including three aircraft carriers, a few years ago. With only one aircraft carrier in service, it currently has a strength of 137 vessels. By that time, the figure had been lowered down to 170. China has a fleet of 355 ships. Its navy has added as many ships as India’s overall naval strength in the recent decade. It already outnumbers the US Navy.
While the Chinese navy is now focused on the western Pacific Ocean, its goal is to deploy a navy that will have a global presence. The maintenance of a robust naval presence in the Indian Ocean is an important part of this worldwide strategy.
China has also developed naval port facilities in a number of Indian Ocean locales to that end. Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota and Colombo in Sri Lanka are among them. On Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal coast, it is building a deep-water port at Kyaukphyu. Despite the fact that these are marketed as business facilities, they might readily be used for military purposes. It has created a military post in Djibouti, Africa, which includes naval facilities.
In 2015, I came found an intriguing 16-character Chinese naval goal statement: ‘Select locations precisely, deploy covertly, prioritise cooperative actions, and penetrate gradually.’
When we look at China’s naval developments during the last few years, we can see how seriously and meticulously this general command is being carried out.
The Indian Navy has seen an increase in funding over the last few years, but it has never come close to matching the Army and Air Force’s allocations. The Navy has received a maximum share of annual defence budgets ranging from 14 percent to 17 percent. This ratio should climb to at least 30% by 2030, according to the National Security Advisory Board, which I had the honour of chairing from 2013 to 2015.
This now appears to be unlikely. There is a belief that unless we make a significant change in our national security strategy, our Navy will lose even its current, albeit modest, advantage in a decade. China will surround us on land and at sea, putting us in a bind.
While India still has a strong naval strength, its entire maritime capabilities is woefully inadequate. Shipbuilding has been completely neglected. The Navy is nearly entirely served by the few remaining shipyards. China has the world’s largest shipbuilding industry, accounting for 40% of global output. In terms of worldwide output, Indian shipyards account for only 0.045 percent. Only 10% of ships with the Indian flag have been built in Indian shipyards.
China is home to some of the world’s largest ports. Shanghai’s port is the world’s largest, handling 514 million tonnes of general cargo and 43.3 million container units each year.
The Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust at Nhava Sheva, India’s largest port, handles only 68.5 million tonnes of general cargo and 5.5 million units of container freight per year. The disparity is stark. It’s also worth noting that, despite years of effort, 25 percent of India’s containerized ocean-going cargo must be trans-shipped through the international ports of Colombo (48 percent), Singapore (22 percent), and Malaysia’s Port of Klang (10 percent ). India may be a naval power, but it is surely not a marine power.
Both in terms of rivals and allies and partners, India must be a credible power. It should coordinate its marine development and naval growth strategies. It should, for example, develop a shipbuilding industry that can meet both civilian and military needs.
To construct a modern shipbuilding sector in India, it should take advantage of its strong and cordial relations with Japan and South Korea, which each control 25% of global shipbuilding and possess cutting-edge technologies. This should be a top priority for the Prime Minister’s atmanirbharta mission, and it should be aided by the incentives offered by the PLI plan.
It should be proclaimed that the Navy would receive 30% of defence budget allocations by 2030, and that the target of a 200-ship fleet will be met by then, if not by 2027. The Navy is unique among the armed forces in possessing a well-respected Design Bureau. This should be given more weight in fleet planning and technological advancements.
The United States has volunteered to work with India on the design and building of an aircraft carrier. As a contribution to capacity building, this offer should be regarded seriously.
In the Indian Ocean, India cannot afford to lose its competitive advantage. Its worth as a Quad partner would be boosted if it could keep this advantage.