The Indian Navy, the maritime branch of the Indian Armed Forces is the sixth largest navy in the world. As a blue-water navy, it operates principally in the Persian Gulf Region, the Horn of Africa, the Strait of Malacca, and routinely conducts anti-piracy operations and partners with other navies in the region. It also conducts routine two to three month-long deployments in the South and East China seas as well as the western Mediterranean Sea simultaneously.
The primary objective of the Indian Navy is to safeguard the nation’s maritime borders, and in conjunction with other Armed Forces of the union, act to deter or defeat any threats or aggression against the territory, people or maritime interests of India, both in war and peace. Through joint exercises, goodwill visits and humanitarian missions, including disaster relief, the Indian Navy promotes bilateral relations between nations.
As of September 2022, the operational fleet consists of 2 active aircraft carriers and 1 amphibious transport dock, 8 landing ship tanks, 11 destroyers, 13 frigates, 1 ballistic missile submarine, 16 conventionally-powered attack submarines, 24 corvettes, one mine countermeasure vessel, 4 fleet tankers and numerous other auxiliary vessels, small patrol boats and sophisticated ships taking the total number to 150 od ships and submarines, besides 300 aircrafts. It is considered a multi-regional power projection blue-water navy with 67,252 active and 75,000 reserve personnel in service.
Naval history of India
Historically, the naval traditions in India goes back to 6,000 years to the days of the Indus Valley civilisation. A Kutch mariner’s log book from 19th century recorded that the first tidal dock in India was built at Lothal around 2300 BC during the Indus Valley Civilisation, near the present day harbour of Mangrol on the Gujarat coast. The first use of a mariner’s compass, called as Matsya Yantra, was recorded in 4 or 5 AD.
Alexander the Great, during his conquest over India, built a harbour at Patala. His army retreated to Mesopotamia on the ships built at Sindh. Between 5 – 10 AD, further the Kalinga Empire conquered Western Java, Sumatra and Malaya by deploying the navy. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands served as an important halt point for trade ships en route to these nations as well as China.
Commenting on the quality of the Indian made ships, Marco Polo is reported to have remarked in 1292, about their construction, thus: “… built of fir timber, having a sheath of boards laid over the planking in every part, caulked with oakum and fastened with iron nails. The bottoms were smeared with a preparation of quicklime and hemp, pounded together and mixed with oil from a certain tree which is a better material than pith”.
During 14th and 15th centuries, Indian shipbuilding skills and their maritime ability reached its zenith and was sophisticated enough to produce ships with a capacity to carry over hundred men. Ships also had compartments included in their design, so that even if one compartment was damaged, the ship would remain afloat. Indians developed such ships even before Europeans were aware of the idea.
However, by the end of thirteenth century Indian naval power had started to decline, and had reached its low by the time the Portuguese entered India. In the later 17th century Indian naval power observed remarkable revival. The alliance of the Moghuls and the Sidis of Janjira was marked as a major power on the west coast. On the southern front, the 1st Sovereign of the Maratha Empire, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, started creating his own fleet. Notable admirals like Sidhoji Gujar and Kanhoji Angre commanded his fleet. The Maratha Navy under the leadership of Angre kept the English, Dutch and Portuguese away from the Konkan coast.
Origins of the Indian Navy
The origins of the present-day Indian Navy date back to 1612, when an English vessel under the command of Captain Best encountered the Portuguese. The incident forced the British to start maintaining a sea fleet near Surat, Gujarat. East India Company formed a naval arm, and the first squadron of fighting ships reached the Gujarat coast on 5 September 1612. Their objective was to protect British merchant shipping off the Gulf of Cambay and up the Narmada and Tapti rivers. As the East India Company continued to expand its rule and influence over different parts of India, the responsibility of Company’s Marine increased too.
Over time, the British predominantly operated from Bombay, and in 1686, the Company’s naval arm was renamed the Bombay Marine. At times the Bombay Marine engaged Dutch, French, Maratha, and Sidi vessels. Much later, it was also involved in the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824. In 1834, the Bombay Marine became Her Majesty’s Indian Navy. The Navy saw action in the First Opium War of 1840 and in the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852. The Marine participated in World War I with a fleet of patrol vessels, troop carriers, and minesweepers. In 1928, D. N. Mukherji became the first Indian to be granted a commission, to the rank of an Engineer Sub-lieutenant. Also in 1928, the RIM was accorded combatant status, which entitled it to be considered a true fighting force and to fly the White Ensign of the Royal Navy. In 1934, the Marine was upgraded to a full naval force, thus becoming the Royal Indian Navy (RIN), and was presented the King’s colours in recognition of its services to the British Crown.
During the early stages of World War II, the tiny Royal Indian Navy consisted of five sloops, one survey vessel, one depot ship, one patrol vessel and numerous assorted small craft; personnel strength was at only 114 officers and 1,732 sailors. Immediately after the World War II, the navy underwent a rapid, large-scale demobilisation of vessels and personnel.
Indian Navy after 1947
Following independence and the partition of India on 15 August 1947, the Indian share of the Navy consisted of 32 vessels along with 11,000 personnel. With the departure in 1962 of the last British officer on secondment to the Navy, Commodore David Kirke, the Chief of Naval Aviation, the Indian Navy finally became an entirely Indian service.
The first engagement in action of the Indian Navy was against the Portuguese Navy during the liberation of Goa in 1961. Operation Vijay followed years of escalating tension due to Portuguese refusal to relinquish its colonies in India.
At the outbreak of Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, the Navy had one aircraft carrier, two cruisers, 19 destroyers and frigates, and one tanker. During the war, the Pakistani Navy attacked the Indian coastal city of Dwarka, although there were no military resources in the area. While this attack was insignificant, India deployed naval resources to patrol the coast and deter further bombardment. Following these wars in the 1960s, India resolved to strengthen the profile and capabilities of its Armed Forces.
The dramatic change in the Indian Navy’s capabilities and stance was emphatically demonstrated during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. Under the command of Admiral SM Nanda, the navy successfully enforced a naval blockade of West and East Pakistan. Pakistan’s lone long-range submarine PNS Ghazi was sunk following an attack by the destroyer INS Rajput off the coast of Visakhapatnam in the midnight of 3–4 December 1971. On 4 December, the Indian Navy successfully executed Operation Trident, a devastating attack on the Pakistan Naval Headquarters of Karachi that sank a minesweeper; a destroyer and an ammunition supply ship. The attack also irreparably damaged another destroyer and oil storage tanks at the Karachi port. To commemorate this, 4 December is celebrated as the Navy Day.
In the Bay of Bengal, the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant was deployed to successfully enforce the naval blockade on East Pakistan. Sea Hawk and the Alizé aircraft from INS Vikrant sank numerous gunboats and Pakistani merchant marine ships. The Indian naval blockade of Pakistan choked off the supply of reinforcements to the Pakistani forces, which proved to be decisive in the overwhelming defeat of Pakistan.
Since playing a decisive role in the victory, the navy has been a deterrent force maintaining peace for India in a region of turmoil. In 1983, the Indian Navy planned for Operation Lal Dora to support the government of Mauritius against a feared coup. In 1986, in Operation Flowers are Blooming, the Indian Navy averted an attempted coup in the Seychelles. In 1988, India launched Operation Cactus, to successfully thwart a coup d’état in the Maldives. During the 1999 Kargil War, the Western and Eastern fleets were deployed in the Northern Arabian Sea, as part of Operation Talwar. They safeguarded India’s maritime assets from a potential Pakistani naval attack, as also deterred Pakistan from attempting to block India’s sea-trade routes.
Indian Navy in the 21st century
In the 21st century, the Indian Navy has played an important role in maintaining peace on the maritime front, in spite of the state of foment in its neighbourhood. It has been deployed for humanitarian relief in times of natural disasters and crises across the globe, as well as to keep India’s maritime trade routes free and open.
The Indian Navy was a part of the joint forces exercises, Operation Parakram, during the 2001 – 2002 India – Pakistan standoff. In October, the same year, the Indian Navy took over operations to secure the Strait of Malacca, to relieve US Navy resources for Operation Enduring Freedom.
The navy also plays an important role in providing humanitarian relief in times of natural disasters, including floods, cyclones and tsunamis. In the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the Indian Navy launched massive disaster relief operations to help affected Indian states as well as Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Over 27 ships, dozens of helicopters, at least six fixed-wing aircraft and over 5000 personnel of the navy were deployed in relief operations.
During the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, the Indian Navy launched Operation Sukoon and evacuated 2,280 persons from 20 to 29 July 2006 including 436 Sri Lankans, 69 Nepalese and 7 Lebanese nationals from war-torn Lebanon. In 2006, Indian naval doctors served for 102 days on board USNS Mercy to conduct medical camps in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia and East Timor. In 2007, Indian Navy supported relief operations for the survivors of Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh. In 2008, Indian Naval vessels were the first to launch international relief operations for victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. In 2008, the navy deployed INS Tabar and INS Mysore in the Gulf of Aden to combat piracy from Somalian pirates. Tabar prevented numerous piracy attempts, and escorted hundreds of ships safely through the pirate-infested waters. The navy also undertook anti-piracy patrols near the Seychelles, upon that country’s request.
In February 2011, the Indian Navy launched Operation Safe Homecoming and rescued Indian nationals from war torn Libya. Between January – March, the navy launched Operation Island Watch to deter piracy attempts by Somali pirates off the Lakshadweep archipelago. This operation has had numerous successes in preventing pirate attacks. During the 2015 crisis in Yemen, the Indian Navy was part of Operation Raahat and rescued 3074 individuals of which 1291 were foreign nationals.
Navy’s Munitions Edge
The Indian Navy uses a mix of indigenously developed and foreign made missile and armaments systems. These include submarine-launched ballistic missiles, ship-launched ballistic missiles, cruise and anti-ship missiles, air-to-air missiles, surface-to-air missiles, torpedoes, air-to-air guns, main guns and anti-submarine rocket launchers.
In the recent years BrahMos has been one of the most advanced missile system adapted by the Indian Navy. It has been jointly developed by India’s DRDO and Russian NPO Mashinostroyeniya. BrahMos is the world’s fastest anti-ship cruise missile in operation.
India has also fitted its Boeing P-8I reconnaissance aircraft with all-weather, active-radar-homing, over-the-horizon AGM-84L Harpoon Block II missiles and MK 54 All-Up-Round Lightweight Torpedoes. Indian warships’ primary air-defence shield is provided by Barak 1 surface-to-air missile while an advanced version Barak 8 is in development in collaboration with Israel. India’s next-generation Scorpène-class submarines will be armed with Exocet anti-ship missile system. Among indigenous missiles, ship-launched version of Prithvi-II is called Dhanush, which has a range of 350 kilometres.
The K-15 Sagarika (Oceanic) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), which has a range of at least 700 km forms part of India’s nuclear triad and is extensively tested to be integrated with the Arihant class of nuclear submarines. A longer-range submarine launched ballistic missile called K-4 is under induction process, to be followed by K-5 SLBM.
Use and acquisition of the latest armaments puts the Indian Navy as a leading well armed fighting force, but still many more additions are required to put it on the same pedestal as that of the US or the European navies.
Electronic warfare and systems management
Sangraha is a joint electronic warfare programme between DRDO and the Indian Navy. The programme is intended to develop a family of electronic warfare suites, for use on different naval platforms capable of detecting, intercepting, and classifying pulsed, carrier wave, pulse repetition frequency agile, frequency agile and chirp radars.
The Indian Navy also relies on information technology to face the challenges of the 21st century. The Indian Navy is implementing a new strategy to move from a platform centric force to a network centric force by linking all shore-based installations and ships via a high-speed data networks and satellites. This will help in increased operational awareness. The network is referred to as the Navy Enterprise Wide Network (NEWN). The Indian Navy has also provided training to all its personnel in Information Technology (IT) at the Naval Institute of Computer Applications (NICA) located in Mumbai. Information technology is also used to provide better training, like the usage of simulators and for better management of the force.
Future of the Indian Navy
The Indian Navy has been in a state of perpetual modernisation. India’s long marine borders and vast expanses of sea make its navy demanding for more and more state of the art ships, submarines and matching ammunition.
As the Indian Ocean serves as a bridge between the Pacific and Mediterranean. It becomes imperative for it to secure the shipping and telecommunication lanes in the area, besides increasing its own deterrent capability.
In order to deliver on these fronts and also to counter any threat from China, India last year joined the QUAD with United States, Australia and Japan. This enables it to join forces with other regional and global powers to counter any Chinese threat.
Additionally under the Atmanirbhar and Make in India programmes of the PM Modi, the Indian Navy and its various facilities are focussing more and more on increasing the self-reliant mode in equipping the navy with Indian made ships and armaments. So far its achievements speak for themselves.
Holistically if the Indian Navy can speed up its submarine programs, improve mine-counter measures capability and shape up its carrier force and air wing – the service can stay competitive with China and operate better with the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force, Republic of Korea Navy and the Royal Australian Navy.
-The writer is a senior political, defence and foreign affairs commentator based in New Delhi. Earlier he was associated with the Khaleej Times-Dubai and BBC World Service. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda