Think about it. Anti-ship and anti-air missile batteries, tactical aircraft flying from airfields on land, diesel submarines and fast patrol boats—all of these can exert a measure of influence over the maritime commons. India can capitalize on its interior position vis-à-vis a stronger “exterior” power like China—much as a weaker China counts on its interior position vis-à-vis the United States to advance its cause in East Asia.
Apart from playing up the potential of land-based sea power, Panikkar would look to India’s offshore islands, and in particular to the possibilities for “archipelagic defense,” Indian style. Artfully employed, islands can become nautical sentinels. Drawing on previous work along similar lines, archipelagic defense would have the holders of islands adjoining straits and other narrow seas fortify those islands with mobile anti-ship and anti-air missiles while deploying surface, subsurface, and aerial assets to block passage through these seaways. In effect these forces string a barricade between geographic features—interdicting shipping and overflight while bringing economic and military pressure on adversaries.
While the Indian Ocean is largely vacant of the island chains that comprise East Asia’s offshore landscape, New Delhi is sovereign over the Andaman and Nicobar islands, athwart the western approaches to the Strait of Malacca. The archipelago makes an ideal candidate for archipelagic defense, standing as it does astride sea lanes on which China’s economic well-being depends. If China wants to dictate the terms of access to one body of water or make trouble in India’s backyard, India can repay the favor in kind. Tit, tat.
Compete at low cost to India and high cost to others:
Which leads to the final step in my five-step plan: search out inexpensive ways to compel an adversary to compete at ruinous cost to himself. In his lifetime Corbett saw cheap new technology force battleships, which ruled the waves, to take extravagant measures to protect themselves from submarines and torpedo boats, then seen as pipsqueaks of the sea. In more recent years, improvised explosive devices costing a trivial sum begat the uber-pricey MRAP, an “up-armored” U.S. vehicle built to withstand IED blasts.
That’s cost-effective competition on the part of Iraqi and Afghan militants. India should likewise deploy the logic of “cost imposition” against China, the most formidable competitor it may face. Emplaced along the Andaman and Nicobar islands, truck-launched missiles operating in concert with missile-armed small craft could cordon off the Bay of Bengal to Chinese naval and merchant shipping. Such low-cost measures would free up the Indian Navy battle fleet to prowl the open sea.
That’s not a bad way for a 200-ship navy to compete cost-effectively. 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.
Turnabout is fair play.
James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Indian Naval Strategy in the 21st Century. The views voiced here are his alone.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Strike Eagle