Here's What You Need to Know: India could probably gain a lot through deepened cooperation even while stopping short of needlessly provoking China.
For decades, the Indian Navy has been the dominant regional power in the Indian Ocean, and has even boasted a carrier aviation capability that was nearly unique in Asia.
But as outlined in a report by the Center for New American Security (CNAS), the growth of Chinese military power in the last two decades has dramatically eclipsed India’s own attempts to modernize and expand its forces—particularly in the maritime domain. This is problematic due to New Delhi’s tense relations with Beijing since a 1962 border war.
While the vast majority of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is naturally concentrated on the Pacific Ocean, in recent decades it has struck agreements giving it access to bases and ports in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It has also established a military base in. Together, these form a ‘String of Pearls’ designed to envelope India geographically. The PLA Navy has also increasingly dispatched ships on patrols of the Indian Ocean, including a nuclear-powered attack submarine that could be used to hunt India’s new ballistic missile submarines.
While India still retains numerical superiority in the Indian Ocean today, China is laying the groundwork to rapidly expand its presence in the region if desired.
In the last two decades, the United States has keenly invested in a de facto alliance with India to counterbalance China’s rise. However, as the CNAS report makes clear, budgetary limitations and deep flaws in procurement mean it’s unrealistic to expect New Delhi to tackle the PLAN ship for ship and airplane for airplane.
While a companion article looks at how India can more efficiently secure its land border with China along the Himalayan Line of Actual Control, in this article we’ll look at the CNAS report’s recommendations on how the Indian Navy and Air Force can affordably continue to maintain a dominant posture in the Indian Ocean despite the growing power asymmetry with China.
Invest in More Affordable Submarines Instead of a Third Carrier
The PLA Navy is far larger than India’s, but India can leverage one huge advantage in securing its regional waters: PLAN ships based in China can only efficiently transit into the Indian Ocean via the narrow chokepoints of the Strait of Malacca (adjacent Singapore, Malaysia, and Sumatra) or the Sunda Strait (between Sumatra and Java).
Thus, the CNAS study suggests that India’s Navy should build a large force of twelve to eighteen individually less expensive short-range diesel-electric submarines that could interdict traffic through those straits without being vulnerable to China’s formidable anti-ship missiles. In particular, they recommend adoption of air-independent propulsion submarines, which boast greater stealth and endurance than traditional diesel-electric submarines. New lithium-ion battery submarines may also appeal to India for similar reasons.
Additionally, a smaller force of new Indian nuclear-powered attack submarines capable of sustained, high-speed, long-range operations could sortie into the Pacific Ocean to impose additional risks, delays and costs on PLAN shipping.
To afford accelerated submarine construction, the study recommends cancelling plans to build a third, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to follow India’s second carrier Vikrant, due for commissioning in the 2020s. Though potent weapons for projecting power against weaker adversaries, India’s carriers would struggle to avoid detection and destruction by the heavy anti-ship firepower of the PLA Navy.
Enhance Maritime Domain Awareness
The Indian Navy must also consolidate its ability to track the movements of ships and submarines in nearby waters through procurement of more Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) systems. India’s deployment of P-8I Poseidon maritime patrol planes is a promising start on this mission.
However, the Indian Navy will require additional surveillance assets, including satellites and long-endurance drones—possibly such as the U.S. Navy’s MQ-4C Triton or some domestic Indian equivalent.
Instituting intelligence-sharing with the United States and/or France could also solidify India’s maritime domain awareness.
In the event of conflict, India will also need to investigate capabilities designed to protects its ISR assets from attack—as well as offensive electronic warfare, cyber or space capabilities that can threaten adversary ISR assets seeking to observe the Indian Ocean. As India has a large talent pool in adjacent civilian sectors, the CNAS study asserts India could develop such capabilities readily and affordably.
Arm for Asymmetric War at Sea
Besides diesel-electric submarines, the CNAS argues that India should invest in other relatively affordable anti-ship systems rather than attempt to build large surface combatants meant to go toe-to-toe with the PLAN’s Type 055 destroyers in some (unlikely) twenty-first century Battle of Jutland.
In particular, cheap, expendable and heavily armed stealth drone warships (USVs) such as those the U.S. Navy is already procuring, long-range land-based anti-ship missile such as supersonic Brahmos cruise missile—which could even be fitted onto P-8 maritime patrol planes—could affordably increase India’s anti-ship firepower in ways would be survivable and attritable, unlike fleets of larger, non-expendable warships that would be very indiscrete on radar.
Since Indian prime minister Jawarharlal Nehru founded the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, New Delhi has historically remained averse to close international alliances and their entangling obligations. It’s engagement with the United States is on a limited scale by Washington’s standards compared to other military partnerships, and New Delhi has avoided antagonizing Beijing on issues outside its immediate interests.
However, India could probably gain a lot through deepened cooperation even while stopping short of needlessly provoking China. Simply participating in more military exercises annually with the U.S. and other Asian countries could both increase the proficiency of Indian military formations and their ability interoperate with other countries.
India and the U.S. have yet to fully leverage a 2016 agreement to open military facilities to each other. It would be particularly convenient to “test the waters” of an expanded arrangement by allowing Indian P-8I based in Andaman and Nicobar islands and U.S. Navy P-8s based on the island of Diego Garcia to occasionally “swap” bases, thereby broadening their patrol circuits for mutual benefit.
Due to its island possessions of Reunion and Mayotte, France also has a significant maritime intelligence capability in the Indian Ocean. Paris and New Delhi could thus both mutually benefit from increased intelligence-sharing.
Other relationships could be profitably nurtured include those with Australia, Japan, The Philippines, and even Vietnam. Developing foreign allies in India’s near-abroad could also be essential to boxing out further expansion of the String of Pearls.
Ultimately, the CNAS study concludes that by focusing on defensive strategy and adopting asymmetric capabilities, the Indian Navy can retain dominance of its maritime domain without having to build a large fleet like China’s. Yet such an approach might run counter to the desire for more “expeditionary” firepower that would come from an enlarged carrier force, as well as India’s plans to expand its ballistic missile submarine force.
Of course, in the end it’s up to politicians in New Delhi, not defense analysts in Washington, to determine what approach the Indian Navy will adopt to advance its interests.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.
This article first appeared in January 2020.