NO: DELENG / 2017 / 70663
official media partner of national maritime foundation
PARVIN SAWHNEY : Underprepared for a New Role
By SEA AND COAST | 10/02/2017

India appears to have overreached itself in its zeal to be a net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region, which Defence Minister Parrikar is keen on. It does not have the capability yet. Moreover, uncertain external factors can be an impediment to the grand dream.

In his public address at the commissioning of INS Chennai on November 21, Minister for Defence Manohar Parrikar stated that the Indian Navy will be the “net security provider in the adjoining seas”. Asked to explain what he meant by ‘adjoining seas’, he said, “the Indian Ocean”. Over the next few days, senior Naval officers I met with either expressed an inability to explain the term or conceded that it was both fuzzy and unachievable.

‘Net security provider’ is an American phrase, which was perhaps first used in the Indian context by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates at the 2009 Shangri-la Dialogue. In its militarised avatar, the phrase was used by US Pacific Commander, Admiral Harry Harris, in a one-on-one interview with me in February 2015. Asked what role he visualised for the Navy, the US top commander replied that he saw “India as the pivot in the Indian Ocean”. This explains the US’s zeal to sell its military equipment to India and seek joint patrols in the Indian Ocean Region — to achieve interoperability or the ability to combat together.

This has been vindicated by the recently passed Section 1292 of the 2017 National Defense Authorisation Act by the US Congress. Explaining the Act, Ben Schwartz of the US Department of Defence said, “We want the Indian military to be capable of managing the growing security threats in the Indian Ocean region. And we want many of those capabilities to come from American industry and US India industrial partnerships.”

Meanwhile, buoyed by the vision of being ‘the net security provider’, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used the phrase publicly and his Defence Minister AK Antony used it while addressing the Naval commanders’ conference in 2011. Picking up the political signals, the Indian Navy, in its 2015 maritime strategy, committed itself to being the “provider of net security in the region”. Interestingly, the maritime strategy cited the address by the Prime Minister and the Defence Ministry, rather than any directive from the Government to Naval Headquarters.

The challenge with being a net security provider is that the roles envisaged under it are simply humongous: From deterring conflict and coercion, conducting Maritime Military Operations (MMO) and shaping the maritime environment favourably, to protecting India’s vast coastline (including coastal and offshore assets), to protecting Sea Lanes of Communications and developing required force levels. The MMO by itself includes non-traditional threats such as piracy, smuggling, drug-trafficking, terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, illegal immigration and fisheries protection, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, noncombatant evacuation operations, maritime interdiction operations, UN peace support operations and search and rescue operations. Meanwhile, the issue of the Navy being robust, is questionable on at least three counts. First, the coastal and offshore security role of the Navy, which it had to accept after the 26/11 terrorist attack, is eating into its blue water role.

With the Western Naval Commander-in-Chief designated as the C-in-C Coastal Defence and the Director General Coast Guard as the Commander, Coastal Command, and with the State Governments and their marine police either unwilling or simply incompetent to take responsibilities, the Navy has the ultimate responsibility without due authority to keep India’s vast coastline secure. The matter is compounded by the fact that neither the Navy nor the Coast Guard has any authority to coordinate various departments and agencies (working under 16 different ministries) involved.

Second, regarding capabilities for the blue water role, India simply does not have the requisite defence-industrial base to build and support its military platforms, most of which have been procured from abroad. Given the severe operational and maintenance handicaps, the Navy has difficulty in pursuing its Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP) and the Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP), which envisages 200 warships by 2027, with 60 per cent being blue water ships.

This problem has been accentuated by the need to support the Modi Government’s ‘Act East Think West’ doctrine. This involves two aspects: Pro-active Naval diplomacy and equipment support to friendly littoral states in the Indian Ocean Region. For example, Parrikar offered to assist Dhaka build its military infrastructure and capabilities. This would be a replay of what India did in Afghanistan. Soviet Union-era Mi-25 attack helicopters were gifted without product support. Instead, India gave money to Russia to maintain them. It could be the same with Bangladesh. Considering the Navy itself has difficulty in maintaining its existing fleet (Admiral Joshi resigned over this issue), the Government is busy over-extending its military role.

The third and the most importance issue concerns the growing presence of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the IOR. Since 2008, when PLAN surface ships started the anti-piracy role in the Gulf of Aden, its forays into India’s backyard have increased alarmingly. Under the cover of the 21st century Maritime Silk Road, which incidentally follows the commercial Sea Lanes of Communication in the IOR, PLAN surface ships and submarines have been making regular visits to littoral states once considered India’s area of influence. From logistics support bases in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the Maldives to probable military bases in Djibouti and Gwadar (which is the nerve-centre of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, the flagship of China’s One Belt One Road project), PLAN is all over the IOR.

This is not all. PLAN warships in comparison to Indian warships have demonstrated far greater endurance and agility. For example, as against one Indian warship in the Gulf of Aden in anti-piracy role, the PLAN has three, which have traversed all the way across the western Pacific and the IOR to operate there.

Add to this, the expected presence of Russian ships in the IOR. Given the fast changing geo-politics, where Russia has joined the Chinese-supported Asian security architecture (with Pakistan as its unflinching partner), Russia has approached Pakistan to use the Gwadar port for trade.

Where does this leave India and its navy? India has invested heavily in the US’ support to be the ‘net security provider’ in the IOR. This policy also has dangerous military implication for the other theatre — the land border disputes with China and Pakistan where India will have to face consequences by itself. Moreover, there is uncertainty on what the Donald Trump Administration will do regarding its relations with Russia and China. Amidst all this, India appears to have overreached itself.

(The writer is co-author, with Ghazala Wahab, of the coming book, ‘Dragon on our Doorstep’)