The Indian Navy Has a Big Problem: The Subsurface Dilemma

While India's navy is certainly attracting lots of attention in the press, it faces a major challenge that might not be easily solvable. 

The United States’ strategic reorientation towards the Indo-Pacific has been accompanied by a heightened interest in matters maritime. In contrast to the primary theaters of the Cold War, the region’s strategic and economic geography is strongly defined by its wide oceans, narrow choke points and contested waterways. As a result, the naval profiles of Asia’s two great rising powers, India and China, have attracted a hitherto unprecedented level of attention.

Meanwhile, the very nature of maritime competition appears to be undergoing a radical transformation. The proliferation of precision-guided weaponry has resulted in the erection of increasingly formidable land-based reconnaissance-strike complexes, structured around dense constellations of anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) complexes. The growing ability of coastal states to both locate and prosecute mobile targets offshore has raised questions over the survivability of expensive, high-signature surface vessels, and maritime competition is increasingly being driven underwater. While much commentary has been made on the drivers and motivations behind China’s growing submarine fleet, the Indian Navy’s perception of the undersea domain has only infrequently been discussed. How do security managers in New Delhi view issues such as undersea warfare or the future of subsurface competition in the Indian Ocean? What are the Indian Navy’s priorities in terms of subsurface force structure and anti-submarine warfare (ASW)? How close is it to realizing its stated objectives? And what kind of acquisitions could best help the Indian Navy shield its fleet and maritime environs from unwelcome submarine activity?

Since its inception, the Indian Navy has been a carrier-centric force with a service culture heavily geared toward blue-water operations, surface warfare and sea control. India’s 2009 Maritime Doctrine clearly reflects these organizational proclivities, stipulating that “[s]ea control is the central concept around which the [Indian Navy] is structured, and aircraft carriers are decidedly the most substantial contributors to it.” With rare exceptions, Indian Navy chiefs have been surface warfare officers or naval aviators.

Nevertheless, Indian naval planners have long had a strong appreciation of the risks posed by marauding enemy submarines and the advantages to be derived from using subsurface assets for forward-deployed sea denial and choke point–control. The sinking of an Indian frigate, the INS Khukri, by a Pakistani Daphne-class submarine in the war of 1971, features amongst the Indian Navy’s darkest hours, and security managers in Delhi have traditionally harbored a somewhat proprietorial attitude toward the Indian Ocean, fretting over underwater encroachments. Whereas during the Cold War, Indian strategists pointed to the mushrooming of U.S. submarine pens in Diego Garcia, nowadays concerns revolve more around China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean.

India’s Dwindling Conventional Submarine Force:

Since 1999, the Indian Navy has repeatedly stated that it would require at least twenty-four conventional submarines in order to both prevail in a high-intensity conflict with Pakistan and deter extra-regional powers. This force structure has been sanctioned by India’s Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), and was reportedly reiterated in the most recent version of the Indian Navy’s classified Maritime Capability Perspective Plan.