No Pendulum Shifts for the Indian Navy Please!

Vijay Sakhuja

After assuming office late last year, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, the Indian Navy chief made his maiden visit to UAE. At Abu Dhabi, he described West Asia as part of India's ‘strategic neighborhood’ and highlighted the importance of a regional security forum comprising of Persian Gulf littoral states modeled on the lines of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) where India has an observer status. The Admiral also called for greater bilateral naval engagements between Indian and UAE maritime forces.

These engagements would naturally evolve into joint naval exercises to maintain order at sea including sea lane protection and over period of time, as the relationship matures, the exercises would graduate to more complex naval operations. However, these will depend of the type of platforms that UAE has and willing to field. Given that Indian navy has a sophisticated training infrastructure and in the past several hundred foreign naval personnel have been trained at Indian naval establishments, the Navy chief also offered training courses to UAE personnel.

There appears to be an impression that India’s Look East policy has overshadowed the West and maritime security developments in the West are in the blind zone of Indian naval diplomacy radar. Thus, the Indian navy must look towards the West, particularly in the context of maritime counter terrorism targeted against Al Qaeda and affiliates in Somalia.

Indian Navy has been actively engaged in joint naval maneuvers aimed at preserving order at sea and imparting training to several navies of Persian Gulf states including Iran, Iraq and Oman. Interestingly, an informal visit by Iran's naval cadet training ships to Kochi in 2006 became an issue of concern for some members of the US Congress during the debate on changes to US laws to facilitate the Indo-US nuclear energy cooperation. India has a very pronounced strategy of building close relations with Persian Gulf countries and several Persian Gulf heads of state have been guest of honour to New Delhi including the 2006 Indian Republic Day celebrations. Military cooperation with Persian Gulf states thus is an important aspect of bilateral relations and these interactions have resulted in defense MoU that envisage military exchanges, training and joint exercises and also provide for military related hardware.

It will be fair to argue that Indian Navy has consistently looked towards its West, East as also South and provided focused attention to developments on both the western and eastern seaboards including Sri Lanka in its immediate South. This is best substantiated by the 1965 and 1971 Indo Pakistan wars, 1987 Operation Pawan against the LTTE, 1988 Operation Cactus in Maldives, capture of pirate vessel Alondra Rainbow in 1999, naval deployment in the Arabian sea during the 2002 India-Pakistan military stand off and surveillance assistance and coastal security during the African Union Summit held in Maputo, Mozambique in July 2003.

On the humanitarian front involving relief and rescue and evacuation, the Indian Navy provided relief during the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami to Maldives in the West, Sri Lanka in the South and Indonesia in the East. Further, in 2006 as part of ‘Operation Sukoon’, the Indian Navy evacuated Indian nationals from Lebanon in the far West.

With regard to the South, the Indian and the Sri Lankan navy have developed a sophisticated arrangement of coordinated sea and air patrol and intelligence exchange based on hot lines to counter the LTTE. What is perhaps significant is that the coordinated efforts have yielded capture of large cache of arms and ammunitions and facilitated in scuttling the LTTE weapon supply chains.

The above are some of the examples that Indian Navy has been engaged in supporting both combat as also non-combat operations. Interestingly, Indian Navy has deployed its special forces in the Kashmir valley. On another note, the Indian Navy adventure team has been successful in scaling Mt. Everest and ski to the South Pole. Suffice to say, the Indian navy has endeavored to prevent any blind zones and looked towards all directions to make its presence felt.

Conventional naval wisdom suggests that navies do not shift focus and operations entirely on the basis of a single-factor threat perception. Besides, the resources (ships, submarines and aircraft including allies and friendly ports), available at hand would determine the area of operations. Experts argue that it is a strategic folly to shift the centre of gravity of maritime operations on a single threat instead suggests that it is strategic pragmatism to selectively keep an eye on other regions with sustained monitoring and surveillance. In the case of India, 24X7 monitoring and surveillance becomes all the more important because geographically the Indian Peninsula juts into the Indian Ocean and is strategically located to monitor maritime activity in the region. The political and naval leaderships have consistently stated that India’s maritime interests stretch from the Red Sea, Cape of Good Hope in the west to South China Sea in the East, the latter has gained significance due to the new Indian energy Silk Route from Sakhalin in East Russia.

Although South Block in New Delhi may have defined the strategic sea space for the Indian navy, it must be remembered that this vast sea area of millions of squares of kilometers is not easy to be kept under constant monitoring and surveillance. No navy including the superpower US Navy could tackle all threats at all times and this realization has dawned on the US naval leadership too who have propounded the concept of a ‘1000 ship navy’ that is based on the concept that aims to build a network of navies built on ‘partnership’ who will work together to create a force capable of ‘standing watch over all the seas’.

Finally, it is important to realize that ‘navies and their operational doctrines don’t have pendulum shifts, it is difficult to conceive such, since the graph of threats and challenges always vary’ and in the case of the Indian Navy, prudence demands that operations on both the western and eastern seaboards be ‘carefully chosen’ and composition of the two fleets to be ‘carefully balanced’ in terms of platforms and roles.

Author Note
Dr. Vijay Sakhuja is Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Institute of South East Asian Studies, Singapore.