In a romanticised portrayal of India’s extensive maritime history dating back to 3000 BC, when the Indus Valley Civilisation established trade links with Mesopotamia, and highlighting its contemporary combat capabilities, the Indian Navy is celebrating Navy Day on December 4, 2023, against the bucolic backdrop of the Sindhudurg Fort in Maharashtra.
Constructed in 1664 by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the fort possessed a ‘stealth feature,’ making it difficult for invaders to detect as they approached from the Arabian Sea. Nearly 360 years later, the fort will host an elaborate pageantry, showcasing 20 warships, 40 aircraft, including the MiG29K and Light Combat Aircraft (Navy), and assault demonstrations by MARCOS, the marine commandos of the Indian Navy.
Challenges and Aspirations for the Indian Navy
While the Naval Band entertains the public during the spectacle, the top brass may lament the absence of the expected clearance on the eve of Navy Day for the construction of the second indigenous aircraft carrier, IAC-2, which would have been the icing on the cake.
Leading up to Navy Day, speculations arose, particularly in the media, suggesting that the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) would grant the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for the carrier’s construction on November 30. While the AoN is not a definitive step, as many projects fall through post-approval, it signifies a significant stage in the acquisition cycle, paving the way for the tendering process.
The go-ahead sanction on the eve of the Navy Day would have been a significant symbolic gesture, settling a debate that has raged for decades on whether it made sense to have another aircraft carrier. Such debates take the focus away from, and undermine, the modernisation efforts.
Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral R Hari Kumar stated that at any given time, there are six to eight Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean, accompanied by numerous large fishing vessels and research ships conducting surveys in international waters. He reassured, “We remain the resident naval power in the Indian Ocean, keeping an eye on everything.”
Positioning Among Global Marine Forces
Nevertheless, the Indian Navy currently holds the seventh position among the world’s most powerful marine forces. This ranking, though commendable, becomes less so when compared to countries ranking higher than India.
According to a paper from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published in June, about 80 percent of the world’s maritime oil and 9.84 billion tons of cargo traverse the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) annually. In 2020, the Indian Ocean rim reported $6.17 trillion in total trade. China, with a trade volume of $910 billion in 2021, holds the highest trade volume with countries in the region, while India’s trade volume is a mere $158 billion. It is but natural that China has a special interest in the IOR which, in turn, plays an important role in shaping the Indian Navy’s capability development plans.
During a press conference in New Delhi on December 2, Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral R Hari Kumar stated that at any given time, there are six to eight Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean, accompanied by numerous large fishing vessels and research ships conducting surveys in international waters. He reassured, “We remain the resident naval power in the Indian Ocean, keeping an eye on everything.” However, despite the confidence expressed by Admiral Kumar, the challenges faced by the Indian Navy are monumental.
In a March 2023 report, the Standing Committee on Defence highlighted that nearly 120,000 vessels transit through various choke points in multiple shipping lines in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), with around 13,000 vessels present at any given time. The IOR is identified as the “centre of gravity of piracy and trans-national crimes and also (the) locus of 70 percent of the world’s natural disasters.” The Indian Navy, aside from addressing these challenges, plays a crucial role in providing humanitarian assistance during disasters.
Strengthening Maritime Capabilities
To assert that the Indian Navy is fully equipped for these challenges would be disingenuous, but plans are underway to enhance maritime capabilities. The current force level comprises 130 ships and submarines, with an additional 43 under construction, primarily at Indian shipyards. Furthermore, the Indian Navy has the AoN for the indigenous construction of 51 ships and 06 submarines, aiming to reach or surpass the target of having a fleet of 170-175 ships by 2035.
Regarding air power, the Indian Navy presently operates 143 fixed-wing aircraft and 130 helicopters. Plans include acquiring 111 Naval Utility Helicopters and 06 submarines under the Strategic Partnership Model. The naval version of the twin-engine Light Combat Aircraft program has received a boost with the US Congress approving a deal between GE Aerospace and Hindustan Aeronautics to produce GE414 jet engines.
In August, the Indian Navy, planning to operate fighter aircraft off INS Vikrant, chose Rafale fighters after trials. In October 2023, a ‘Letter of Request’ was sent to France to buy 26 Rafale-M fighter jets for the Indian Navy.
Earlier in June 2023, the Defence Acquisition Council had accorded AoN for acquisition of 31 high-altitude, long endurance MQ9-Reaper, or Predator-B, drones, built by the US defence giant, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc, in a deal which will cost India around $3.5 billion. Fifteen of these arguably-the-best-in-the-world drones will be operated by the Indian Navy for Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance (ISR) operations and keep an eye on the Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean.
The Indian Navy is expected to course-correct and pursue the goal of becoming the second or third strongest navy globally in terms of the True Value Rating (TvR). TvR considers factors beyond asset quantity, such as quality, asset mix, and logistics network efficacy
These, and several other acquisitions, lined up by the Indian Navy augur well for the development of India’s maritime capability and help it discharge its onerous responsibilities in the IOR with greater proficiency. It has done well so far, but any let up in following a pragmatic approach to modernisation, which has been its strong point all these years, could rain on its parade.
There have been some disconcerting developments in the recent past -the plan to acquire six submarines under Project 75(I) being a prime example of that. Almost two-and-a-half years after the Request for Proposal was issued under the Strategic Partnership Model, the project has made no progress, thanks largely to unrealistic qualitative requirements set by the Indian Navy, including the need for the vendor to offer a sea-proven Air Independent Propulsion System. It is difficult to fathom how the Indian Navy, known for being pragmatic, got into this imbroglio. There are other concerns too; inadequate budgetary allocation being one of them, but this is not the time to be a party pooper.
Learning from recent challenges, the Indian Navy is expected to course-correct and pursue the goal of becoming the second or third strongest navy globally in terms of the True Value Rating (TvR). TvR considers factors beyond asset quantity, such as quality, asset mix, and logistics network efficacy. The US leads the TvR index with 323.9 points and 243 units, while China, with 422 units, scores 319.8 points. Quality over quantity is the key to building a blue water navy with global outreach but it remains unclear if the modernisation plans of the Indian Navy are based on this approach.
Meanwhile, there could be no better way of celebrating the Navy Day than to announce, in an epoch-making first, the appointment of a woman officer to command a naval warship. It will be a befitting tribute as much to the Indian women as to the Indian Navy.
–The writer is a Ex-Financial Advisor (Acquisition), Ministry of Defence. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda