A 5-Step Plan for a New Indian Maritime Strategy

"Build maritime forces to deny China something it must have, then trust the logic of deterrence to work its magic—and, one hopes, give rise to a regional order we can all live with."

Whither Indian maritime strategy? New Delhi reportedly wants to fit out a 200-ship navy by 2027, centered on aircraft-carrier task forces, a mix of conventional and nuclear-powered submarines, and missile-toting aircraft and surface combatants. That’s up from 124 by my tally. What will India do with a navy whose numbers mushroom by over 60 percent in a dozen years?

It’s a fair and indeed vital question to ask. India would be far from the first seagoing nation to build ships for shipbuilding’s sake. Now, it’s important to preface any foray into naval matters with a caveat, namely that it’s crucial not to get transfixed by brute numbers of hulls. Big round numbers exert a particularly potent allure—witness America’s bid for a 600-ship U.S. Navy during the 1980s, and its struggle to maintain a 300-ship navy today.

Anyway. Estimating the combat punch of a 200-ship Indian Navy requires observers to ask: which 200 ships is the navy procuring? After all, an unarmed tanker counts the same as a flattop in bean-counting terms. They’re both hulls—even though one of these things avowedly is not like the other.

So don’t be taken in by raw numbers when contemplating naval matters. They can befuddle you, lie to you, or seduce you into false or dangerous conclusions. For instance, a navy composed of 200 light combatants resembling coast-guard cutters would be a fine thing for many purposes, but it would suffer a grim fate in a slugfest against a fleet of 200 guided-missile cruisers. You have to gauge the armament and aggregate battle capacity of each vessel, the mix of ship types, and the fleet’s overall fighting power relative to likely foes. Combat strength, in other words, is a relative thing. You measure yourself not against some abstract standard but against rival pugilists on real-world oceanic battlegrounds.

And then there’s the all-important human element. The finest weapon is no better than its wielder. The state of seamanship, tactical acumen, and élan among mariners helps determine the victor in high-seas combat. In short, a navy’s adequacy derives from a complex mélange of material and human factors. Measuring it demands more than arithmetic.

So much for the preliminaries. What sort of strategy should guide India’s nautical endeavors, assuming it makes good on its shipbuilding ambitions? The Indian Navy published a flurry of strategy or strategy-like documents some years back. The governing directive is its 2007 Maritime Military Strategy. For all its merits, that document was meant for a status quo power inhabiting largely tranquil surroundings. It reads more like a primer on what maritime strategy is, and on what navies do in generic terms, and less like a plan of action for fulfilling goals in a competitive environment.

Few would agree that the Indian Ocean remains quiet today. The Maritime Military Strategy antedated the surge in piracy off Somalia, a seaborne terrorist attack on Mumbai, and China’s encroachment in South Asia. Accordingly, it’s worth setting aside past strategic documents for the sake of discussion and starting from a blank slate. Herewith, my Five-Step Plan for devising Indian maritime strategy:

Plan against not-so-hypothetical antagonists:

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