If we have to grow as a regional or global power, we must dominate the seas. We can do that by playing the maritime policeman’s role and by denying access to those inimical to us in our seas of interest—Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and part of Indian Ocean which extends from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Straits.

Views on Indian Strategy: Many feel that India’s Military doctrine is outdated, orthodox and too continentally oriented and neglects the maritime domain. To quote some views. One researcher from Carnegie India feels that The Indian Army’s prevailing doctrine leaves the military with two main choices: do nothing or risk wars it cannot win. The Indian Army needs to rethink its use of force to meet today’s new challenges. Ah ha! Are there any challenges beyond China and Pakistan for India? Another researcher from JNU says India’s obsession with continental strategies has yielded unflattering results — no secure borders or deterrence stability. Therefore, it is high time New Delhi shifted its almost exclusive focus from the continental space to the maritime space, stitching together a maritime grand strategy.  Wow! What is this maritime grand strategy to secure our land borders?  Yet another feels that India’s strategic challenges in the near future will be naval, not continental. Really? The PLA is sitting on our head! He goes on to say that traditionally, the Indian Navy has been the neglected branch of the armed forces. Big words.

Perspectives on Wars and Strategies: Let us put strategy and war fighting in perspective. The strategic and military record of the USA and China are unflattering. Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq are examples of US losses despite being the greatest military on earth. China. Ah China! The superpower aspirants are all set to have the greatest military. Its only notable military victory since 1962, has been sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat in South China Sea.  On the other hand, the orthodox, outdated and poorly equipped Indian Armed Forces, have been on the winning side of all conflicts barring 1962. Pakistan has been defeated through 1947, 1965, 1971 and Kargil at a time and place of its choosing. China has been tapped hard on the beak in 1967, Doklam and Eastern Ladakh. The much flaunted PLA strength is deficit on ground. Chinese multi domain war endeavours have  been countered more than adequately. What more does a country require from its Armed Forces or its polity? Surely it must do something with strategy. Not convinced? Let us discuss further.

Threats India Faces: Every country organises its Armed Forces based on perceived threats. Despite being in an era of multidomain wars, let us recapitulate our threats simplistically. Our land borders of nearly 3500 km with China and over 3000 km with Pakistan are largely disputed and partly occupied illegally. Further, China covets Eastern Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh and Pakistan wants Kashmir. Both are nuclear nations. We have had to defend ourselves repeatedly against their aggression and assertion. They constantly pose individual and collusive threats – conventional and unconventional. These threats come directly and indirectly through other countries and are increasing by the day. Our border areas and states remain/kept unstable. Any weakening on land borders means high likelihood of loss of territorial integrity of the nation and an unacceptable threat to our people. Even a loss of a few km of frigid uninhabited land on Pangong Tso is not acceptable to the nation. Further, the LAC threatens to present us with a LOC situation. How do we ignore that hard reality? Both adversaries possess nuclear arsenals which can target the entire Indian landmass. The strategic threat is buttressed by space based assets. If we did not have a second strike capability, then their first strike is a Damocles  sword over our heads. Asymmetric  threats to India have been multiple, manifold, constant and lethal – cyber-attacks, three warfare strategy, terrorism, digital and info domination, influence ops, cartographic aggression, economic dependency, political subversion and diplomatic hounding. Asymmetry is also built through the ‘String of Pearls’ in our neighbourhood. The air threat is not a stand-alone threat but accompanies a continental, maritime or a strategic threat. The  maritime threat is essentially fourfold. Threat to our mainland, island territories, SLOCs and offshore assets. Of these, our SLOCs can be interfered with to a limited extent and there is some threat to our island territories. Overall the continental land based threat from Pakistan and China is of highest priority  to our national integrity and security.  Hence India must pay more attention to its continental domain. However it does not mean the maritime domain needs to be neglected.

Thoughts on Maritime Domain: If India is to grow as a regional or global power, we must dominate the seas. On that there is no doubt. We can do that by playing the maritime policeman’s role and by denying access to those inimical to us in our seas of interest – Bay of Bengal,  Arabian Sea and part of Indian Ocean which extends from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Straits. If we can do that, we are largely secure. To a large extent we can. In fact beyond that , we are prepared to even defend our assets since 2012 as per our then CNS. The problem arises when we think beyond this. We are then leaving the security of the firm base of the Indian mainland  and the seas we are familiar with to do the ‘Enter the Dragon’ act in the South China Sea. The logic of sticking our neck out into the South China Sea to fight someone else’s battles without adequate resources or a base needs a visit to a psychiatrist. Do not forget that more than half the ASEAN is in China’s pocket and they are very  sensitive to ASEAN centrality. Why would anyone allow us to operate in disputed seas to antagonise China? Even if we did so, what would we achieve with our meagre resources that the USA with its three carrier groups has not been able to achieve? At best we may carry out FONOPs, like the USA does. However, when FONOPs have not deterred China from building and manning islands in the South China Sea, why will it deter China from being aggressive on the LAC? Also, in the present situation,  China has continued to be aggressive across the LAC  despite being engaged in the South China Sea by the USA. In fact it is even planning to attack Taiwan.

Maritime Strategy Outline: So what should our maritime strategy be? India should be the dominant maritime power in its security environment from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Straits. There is no doubt in that. Are we in that league? Partly. However we can definitely do better. Does China threaten us in the IOR?  Not yet. However there is a Sino-Indian competition for dominance of the IOR. China wants to get into the IOR. It  does not have the reach as yet. Despite everything, the bulk of Chinese Navy has not left the South China Sea, East China Sea or Yellow Sea. It has remained within the safety envelope of the Chinese main land. Are the Chinese preparing to enter the IOR. Oh sure.  If they want to be a world power they have to. So we should do something which makes the IOR our fortress. That has two components. One. We  need to get hold of our neighbourhood – Bangladesh, Myanmar, Srilanka, and Maldives. We are slipping there badly.  We need to do more there to deny PLAN from developing bases in these countries. Two. Indian Navy must be enabled to deny the IOR to China or any other adversary when needed. That means capability building. Let us discuss that.

Choices: We have three choices. Increase our surface fleet including a third aircraft carrier. Increase our sub surface fleet. Strengthen our Island territories. In any option, increasing our maritime domain awareness is a given. Any sensible person will opt for a balanced option and I will agree with him. There is a lot of discussion about the third aircraft carrier. As an Indian I would love to have that. However its practicability needs to be thought through. After all it is not a matter of just building a ship but also equipping it. When we do not have enough aircraft for the IAF where will we get them for the third aircraft carrier? I wonder if we can get hold of enough aircraft for even the two aircraft carriers we are shortly going to have. Also,  I wonder if we have fully strengthened our Island territories. Well-developed islands in the IOR can be punitive pivots around which the IN, IAF and IA  can manoeuvre. Further has enough discussion and analysis been carried out to take a call on the right mix between surface and subsurface combatants? I think it needs a joint thought and not a single service thought. The DMA has to pitch in. A national consensus and clarity must emerge with due diligence and thought.

A Continental Thought: There is an old fashioned continental thought of mine for consideration by vastly modern maritime enthusiasts. Our orthodox Army has by now tied down at least four to six PLA divisions with a whole lot of other combat power in Eastern Ladakh. Add other PLA forces which are on alert in the Central and Eastern Sectors. Add Chinese obsession with Taiwan. Add other border requirements. Add requirements to keep the CCP in power. Add the new rubric of QUAD. Suddenly one will find that Chinese force dynamics will change. Factor in the one child policy, conscription, inexperience and untested weapons. My guess is that PLA has been shorted.  Mark my words. Do  an old fashioned  appreciation called ‘Troops to Task’. It will emerge that PLAN has a very long way to go before it becomes expeditionary. A correct joint assessment is on the cards. If the LAC degenerates into a LOC situation, the Chinese apple cart will be fully upset. Whether they like it or not, they will start looking at their own continental vs maritime theories afresh. Unless of course they want to lose Tibet and Xinjiang through asymmetry by sailing into the IOR.

Economic Impact: A major factor in all prescriptions is economic clout. We can think of achieving maritime glory when we have pockets deep enough. When we get to being a 5 Tn USD economy we can start dreaming to look over the horizon. Presently, our condition permits us only to consolidate. Modernisation in contracting budgets will be a difficult option. Force expansion in such conditions is La La land. Very importantly we must maintain balance. Fiscal and Physical. We need to be strong enough to deter China and Pakistan from undertaking any further adventures. That kind of deterrence comes through sustained progress in all five main domains – continental, areal, maritime, strategic and asymmetric. We also need to invest more in our joint ISR capabilities on a national scale. The other way of deterring our adversaries is to get into an alliance or an arrangement like the QUAD to contain China in the Indo Pacific construct. Here exercises like Malabar have great value to develop operational synergy.  Even in this scenario we must take a holistic view. We can never forget that there is an ‘Indo’ part of the Indo Pacific. I have highlighted this amply in my previous article @   https://www.gunnersshot.com/2020/10/quad-evolving-fast-by-lt-gen-p-r.html

Indian Interests and Strategy: At the end of the day we need to cater for Indian interests through Indian strategies in response to Indian threats under Indian conditions obtaining on ground. We have to think through them. Our weakness lies in the inability of our Defence and Security system to work seamlessly, lacking joint structures, inter-ministerial  gaps, inability to equip our armed forces and lack of a strategic political culture. We need to strengthen those within democratic norms without aping autocracies or falling prey to wishful thinking. We need a balanced approach which is best for India.     

Lt Gen P.R. Shankar was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Dept of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. His other articles can be read on his blog www.gunnersshot.com.