In 1963, T.N. Kaul, India’s ambassador in Moscow, asked Russian Defence Minister Marshal Rodion Malinovsky what sort of defence preparedness India needed. The Indian Navy’s official history ‘Transition to Triumph’ records the Russian minister’s response: He replied that “what India needed was a strong, mobile Army, Navy and Air Force, well equipped with the latest weapons, instead of a prestigious, overhauled, old British aircraft carrier (which he called the fifth leg of a dog and an easy target), India should go in for a submarine fleet to guard her long coastline.”
Malinovsky wasn’t the first geopolitical expert who scratched his head in disbelief at a poor country acquiring a large and expensive carrier while neglecting its defence against hostile neighbours. Six years earlier, when World War II hero Marshal Georgy Zhukov had visited India, he had disapproved of the Indian Navy’s decision to acquire an aircraft carrier, saying that India was only doing it in order to make Britain happy.
Both Malinovsky and Zhukov had made pivotal contributions to Russia’s defence, especially in the Battle of Stalingrad, and as such, they were masters of warfare. However, on both occasions, India’s political and military leadership disregarded the advice of the battle-hardened commanders.
Unfortunately for India, Malinovsky and Zhukov proved to be uncannily prescient. When Pakistan attacked in 1965, India’s sole aircraft carrier INS Vikrant played no role during the 22-day conflict. In fact, the navy was asked to stay out of the war due to fears that the Indonesian Navy would make a grab for the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Indonesia had been openly pro-Pakistan and had demanded that the Indian Ocean be renamed the Indonesian Ocean.
In the next war, in 1971, small missile boats originally meant for coastal defence conducted the first strikes on Pakistan. These missile boats conducted two raids, destroying Karachi harbour and setting off massive fires that could be spotted from the orbiting American Spacelab.
While the missile boats were wreaking havoc on Karachi, INS Vikrant was anchored in a secret harbour in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. It was only after Pakistani submarine PNS Ghazi – which was tasked with sinking Vikrant – was sunk off Visakhapatnam, that the Indian Navy deployed the carrier in an offensive role.
In 2015, in the Syrian conflict, four Russian missile boats, with a displacement of a mere 1,000 tons each, rained down cruise missiles down the throats of ISIS and US-backed terror groups. Flying at treetop level over a distance of 2,600 km through Iran and Iraq, and avoiding populated areas, the missiles slammed into terrorist hideouts without warning. The precision strikes left the US and its allies shocked and rattled. Many observers could not begin to fathom how these tiny ships could be this devastating.
The success of Russia’s Caspian Flotilla will undoubtedly cause changes in military doctrine worldwide and in the way warships are built, armed and deployed. A number of navies of the world have placed fresh orders for fast missile boats. Small missile boats, which had not figured in the calculations of most militaries till now, are suddenly the new game changers.
The Indian Navy also has plans to expand its amphibious capability with the acquisition of four new Landing Platform Dock (LPD) or Land Helicopter Dock (LHD)-type vessels. According to an RFI released in August 2021, the new ships must deliver and sustain a fully combined arms task force and be equipped with a heavy array of sensors and armaments for self-defence. Foreign designs are sought for construction in Indian shipyards.
“They are sparsely populated and are not well-defended, making them vulnerable. We need the capability to put across a brigade-level force in the Andamans at short notice, to be able to defend it or to recover if we lose it alongside corresponding airborne and [special forces]. These platforms can also be used [humanitarian aid and disaster relief] to carry cargo to distant areas and for medical support,” Commodore (retired) Sujeet Samaddar, the Founder and Secretary of the Society for Aerospace Maritime and Defence Studies said, in an interview with US Naval Institute News.
Lessons for the Indian Navy
The efficacy of smaller warships holds great importance to India, which is on a 30-year fleet renewal programme. By 2050, the Indian Navy aims to have a 200-ship fleet capable of strategic strikes, tactical strikes, power projection and global presence missions. The air wing will include 500 aircraft. Also, for the first time since independence, India has a government that wants the Navy to expand its influence from Africa to the western Pacific.
In step with such ambitions, there is a significant ramping up of blue-water capacity. The majority of the planned fleet will comprise offensive combat platforms like aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes and submarines. However, a balanced fleet structure is critical if the navy wants to perform a wide range of missions. In the backdrop of this naval renaissance, the government and the navy brass should bear in mind three key points:
The efficacy of smaller warships holds great importance to India, which is on a 30-year fleet renewal programme. By 2050, the Indian Navy aims to have a 200-ship fleet capable of strategic strikes, tactical strikes, power projection and global presence missions
One, the focus of India’s naval build-up should be aimed at deterring China from establishing a foothold in the Indian Ocean. Large capital ships such as aircraft carriers and missile destroyers and nuclear-powered and armed submarines should be aimed at tackling the dragon on the high seas.
Two, against Pakistan, small ships will pay better dividends. Nimble warships that can sneak in and deliver salvos of land attack missiles against coastal targets will shut down the country’s sea-borne trade in a matter of hours (as happened in the 1971 War). The Pakistan Navy will be effectively bottled up in its own harbour. Deploying large ships is fraught with considerable risk as Pakistan now has anti-ship missiles, including the shore-based Zarb.
Three, considering the billions of dollars being spent on naval expansion, it must fetch good returns. That is, it should transform India’s warship construction sector into an export industry.
While the global market for large ships is limited, there is a strong demand for offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), missile boats and small frigates in the Indian Ocean region and South East Asia. According to a senior navy official, there is a strategy in place, with the government looking at supporting the maritime infrastructure of friendly foreign countries. “Most navies in our littoral look for sub-20 metre boats for harbour patrol, 50-60 metre boats for their territorial waters and 80-110 metre boats for their EEZ surveillance. Goa Shipyards Ltd and Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers, Kolkata, have set up production lines so that these ships can be produced and offered at competitive prices and in a fixed, time-bound manner to these friendly nations.”
Among the vessels is the 1,300-tonne OPV named “Barracuda”. Costing around $58 million, they have been exported to Mauritius and Sri Lanka.
Now compare the cost of a Barracuda to a Talwar class stealth frigate made in Russia. While the Talwars cost $1 billion each, the OPV costs a fraction of that. To be sure, there is no comparison between the two vessels and the Talwars are meant for strategic missions. But quantity has a quality all its own. Many small warships can overwhelm the enemy’s defences.
Plus, without much additional expense, smaller crafts can be turned into force multipliers. For instance, Goa Shipyards Ltd, which manufactures the Barracuda, submitted a proposal to the Indian Navy that all future OPVs should be developed with anti-ship missiles on board, allowing the vessel to undertake more offensive missions. A company official stated that the price of the vessel goes up only by 10 per cent when it is fitted with a missile. The implication is that India can have dozens of such small warships with displacements between 1,500 and 2,500 tons. Armed with the supersonic BrahMos missile, they could launch swarm attacks against enemy assets – both maritime and shore-based.
Big vs Small
While the world is moving to smaller ships, for growing powers like India, there is an enduring fascination for iconic warships such as aircraft carriers. And why not – the carrier is the single most important component of sea control, ensuring a constant and enduring presence that can toy with the enemy’s mind and unhinge his decision-making powers. For example, the Pakistan Navy’s obsession with sinking INS Vikrant cost them their most modern and longest-ranged submarine.
There is no doubt that India, which is now the world’s fifth-largest economy, requires more carriers. In the report ‘China’s Maritime Rights and Navy’, Senior Captain Li Jie, an analyst at the Naval Research Institute, the Chinese navy’s strategic think tank, declared: “No great power that has become a strong power has achieved this without developing carriers.”
Carriers are an essential element of sea control. According to India’s maritime doctrine, “Sea control is the central concept around which the Indian Navy is structured, and aircraft carriers are decidedly the most substantial contributors to it. This is because they possess ordnance delivery capability of a very high order, often greater than the balance fleet units in the Task Force. This is by means of their substantial integral air power, which provides integral, ubiquitous and enhanced combat power, with extended reach and rapid response capability.”
Funds permitting, India should have three carriers – one for each seaboard, with a third on standby. However, the reality of defence projects is that when funds become scarce, the Navy can end up cannibalising itself. A second large carrier – for which the government has given the green light – could end up drowning other essential programmes in its wake. According to Vice Admiral D.M. Deshpande, Director General of Naval Projects, being a “very big-ticket item” the second carrier could come at the expense of other projects and weapons.
If the Navy is prepared to sacrifice other platforms to divert funds to the second carrier, where does it propose to get money for the support vessels? For, an aircraft carrier doesn’t travel alone. It usually operates with – and is at the centre of – a composite task force, including multi-purpose destroyers, frigates, submarines and logistics ships. The carrier task force is self-contained and balanced, capable of undertaking the entire range of operational tasks.
The Navy wouldn’t want a reprise of 1971 in which – after it was finally brought out of the harbour – INS Vikrant was escorted by only four light frigates (one of which lacked sonar) and a lone submarine to provide anti-submarine protection. In his book ‘No Way But Surrender’, Vice Admiral N. Krishnan writes: “Even assuming that no operational defects developed, it would still be necessary to withdraw ships from the area of operations for fuelling. The basic problem was that if reasonable anti-submarine protection had to be provided to Vikrant and the escort ships had to be in close company for this purpose, then how were 18,000 square miles to be kept under surveillance?”
The Navy had deployed the entire complement of INS Vikrant’s aircraft in offensive operations against East Pakistan, leaving none for the carrier’s defence. It was a calculated risk that paid off. Had Pakistan possessed another long-range submarine, the story may have been different.
Band Aid strategy does not work
The problem with navies is that the admirals always want the most massive warships that money can buy. Such large vessels look great in international fleet reviews and impress the public. Some of this attraction for big ships comes from the US. Because of its location – far from the Eurasian landmass where most of the conflicts take place – the US Navy is largely forward deployed. So instead of sailing to the potential battlefield – which could take days – the US fleets are permanently stationed in various theatres. This means US warships need to be oversized for them to carry large quantities of fuel and provisions for their intercontinental patrols. For this reason, the US does not own or produce diesel-electric submarines anymore. These subs with their limited range are impractical for the US Navy.
India, on the other hand, is unlikely to have a forward-deployed navy. It may occasionally conduct a global patrol to show the flag in distant ports, but even that could be years from now.
Navies are not created overnight – on average, for every two-three ships inducted, one from the existing lot retires due to age. It takes decades to form an ideal mix of surface and sub-surface combatants. The Indian Navy should get its force structure right, and any skew towards overly large vessels must be corrected. It is said that a mistake in strategy cannot be undone in the same war. For India, this is especially critical because it is hemmed in from the west, north and northeast by implacable adversaries, and therefore, the only strategic space the country has to manoeuvre is in the oceans.
As former Indian Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash said, “The problems of India’s national/maritime security are of such magnitude, that they require the deep application of mind and undivided attention of the political leadership, so that long-term solutions evolve instead of ‘Band-Aid’ fixes.”
–The writer is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by leading think tanks, and quoted extensively in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare and economic development. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda