The Indian Navy underlined its growing prowess at the International Fleet Review (IFR) 2016 early this month. Though it was largely a ceremonial inspection of naval warships by the head of the Indian State, it provided an opportunity for the Navy to showcase its might and rapidly expanding capabilities.
It was in 2001 that an event of such a scale was first held in India, and since then the Navy has only grown bigger with a fleet comprising 75 frontline ships and submarines besides 24 ships from across the world.
This year saw the participation of naval contingents from around 50 nations, including Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, France, Indonesia, Iran, the Maldives, the UK and the US.
Flagging the threat of sea-borne terror and piracy as two key challenges and underlining the need to respect navigational freedom against the backdrop of the South China Sea dispute, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India will be hosting the first-ever Global Maritime Summit in April.
He made it clear that the Indian Ocean remains his government’s priority given the country’s 1,200 island territories, and its huge Exclusive Economic Zone of 2.4 million sq km and the region serving “as a strategic bridge with the nations in our immediate and extended maritime neighbourhood”.
Underlining the need for a “modern and multi-dimensional navy, Modi stressed that India would continue to actively pursue and promote its geopolitical, strategic and economic interests on the seas, in particular the the Indian Ocean.
The Indian Navy has emerged as an indispensable tool of diplomacy in recent years, making it an imperative for Indian policymakers and naval thinkers to consider anew the role of naval forces.
Despite a general understanding among Indian political elites that it was the littoral dominance by European powers that led to their colonial ascendancy in India, the focus on land frontiers led to the dominance of the Indian Army in the national security discourse.
Until the end of the Cold War, the maritime dimension of India’s security did not figure adequately in national consciousness.
Indian policymakers did not perceive the advantage of building up maritime sinews as the country remained concerned with the north and north-western frontiers after Partition, rather than the seas.
Yet despite the Navy’s marginalisation, it was largely successful in maintaining a credible force.
Today, the Indian Navy’s original local sea-control and shore-defence orientation, which largely focused on preserving the integrity of Indian waters from regional threats, have given way to a more ambitious posture.
India’s naval policy is geared towards ensuring the freedom of navigation for shipping and safety of sea lines of communication as well as to safeguard its interests in contiguous waters, Exclusive Economic Zone and island territories.
The Navy would eventually like to emerge as a world-class blue-water force, equipped to meet regional challenges and to safeguard India’s maritime interests.
Indian naval expansion is being undertaken with an eye on China, and INS Arihant and INS Vikrant notwithstanding, India has nautical miles to go before it can catch up with its powerful neighbour, which has made some significant advances in waters surrounding India.
The launch of an aircraft carrier is seen as critical for the Navy as it remains anxious to maintain its presence in the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.
Indian naval planners have long argued that if it is to maintain continuous operational readiness in the Indian Ocean, protect sea lanes of communication in the Persian Gulf and monitor Chinese activities in the Bay of Bengal, it needs a minimum of three aircraft carriers and a fleet of five nuclear submarines.
There are some suggestions that the Indian Navy could be close to realising the dream of operating three carriers by the end of the decade, but that may be rather optimistic.
Other serious challenges remain, as exemplified by the enduring problems of safety and reliability which the Navy has been grappling with for decades.
The Navy has a poor accident record with several mishaps in recent years. Even as its surface fleet expansion has been progressing well, the submarine fleet is not only ageing but also depleting fast with the induction of new submarines not on track.
Despite some recent successes, India’s indigenous defence production has been marred by serious technical and organisational problems, leading to significant delays in the development of key defence technologies and platforms.
The Indian Navy, much like the other two services, has found it difficult to translate its conceptual commitment to self-reliance and indigenisation into actionable policy, resulting in a perpetuation of reliance on external sources.
Yet, India’s reliance on its Navy is only likely to increase in the coming years as naval build-up continues apace in the Indo-Pacific region. With India’s economic rise, New Delhi is trying to make the Navy integral to its national grand strategy.