India, after a sustained struggle for independence from the British, in 1945 inherited the two-state solution. Divided based on religion, the erstwhile colony of the British, was divided as India and Pakistan, with the former set to be a hindu majority nation and the latter being a muslim majority state. The partition also witnessed the creation of West and East Pakistan, with the West being administrative control, but only until December, 1970. When the Awami league of East Pakistan won the national election with a thumping majority. It was clear that East Pakistan would eventually declare independence from West Pakistan.

As the demand for liberation grew on the ground, the Pakistani Army to quell the uprising, deployed thousands of troops to the far Eastern Province. What followed was the religious percussion and genocide of thousands of local Bengali population. Fearing the brutal and inhumane onslaught of the Pakistani Army. Lakhs of oppressed Bengalis crossed into India’s states of West Bengal, Meghalaya, Tripura and Assam. In less than an year, India had witnessed the influx of more than 10 million East Bengali refugees, which threatened to smoother India’s economy and developmental agenda. What began as a covert support to the Mukthi Bahinis by the Indira Gandhi Government for East Pakistan’s liberation, within months became an overt show of power.

Rattled by India’s growing support to the cause of liberation of East Pakistan, the Pakistani military establishment, the defacto Government of Pakistan, on 3 Decemeber 1971, launched Pakistani fighter aircraft, which bombed eight Indian Air Force bases along the Western front. Pakistan with this had committed an act of war, effectively green lighting India to not only intervene in East Pakistan’s liberation struggle but also to send across a message to Rawalpindi. The Air Force responded right away. The Air Force responded right away by launching attacks on multiple Pakistani air bases, destroying multiple aircraft on the ground. While the Army having received orders for war, thousands of kilometres away in the Headquarters of the Indian Navy, the senior leadership met to decide the future course for the force in the fog of war. The then CNS Admiral S M Nanda communicated to his men in clear terms that the Navy, unlike the 1962 and 1965 wars, would play a major role in this war and set in motion a plan that was under conceptualisation for months.

As darkness kissed the Arabian Sea on 4 November 1971, the port of Karachi, one of Pakistan’s major harbour and Headquarters of Pakistan Navy, was lit up with bright light, even though the sunrise was hours away. In a matter of minutes, four Vidyut-class missile boats, deployed off the coast of Karachi, wreaked havoc over Pakistan Navy Headquarters, under the aegis of Operation Trident. Firing multiple Styx surface-to-surface missiles, the 25th Killer missile squadron successfully struck four naval vessels and decimated the Kemari strategic oil storage tanks. In a brazen display of bravery and precise planning, the Navy, under the aegis of Operation Python, yet again struck the Karachi port on 8 December 1971, thus imposing an impregnable naval blockade on Karachi port and thus seizing the Pakistan Navy’s fleet in the port.

The successful naval operations on the western seaboard were replicated on the eastern front by the Navy’s Eastern Naval Command, which utilising its bottleneck capabilities, imposed a total and crippling naval blockade along the Bay of Bengal, effectively striping Pakistani troops stranded in East Pakistani off any essential and ammunition supplies from West Pakistan or any of its allies.

Through the course of the 1971 war and the ensuing victory on the high seas, the Indian Navy, thus, had established a firm place in the country’s military pecking order. In the course of a single war, the Navy had proved that it was a reckoning force and one that could tilt the tipping scales of victory in India’s favour if the naval force was applied strategically across India’s waters. Until then, the Navy had only been viewed as an auxiliary force to the Indian Army and the Air Force, which were at the spearhead of the country’s military strike power.


INS Sahyadri, a stealth frigate of the Indian Navy at port. Courtesy: US Navy

 

Since 1971, India has witnessed a manifold growth in both economically and technologically. Boasting of the fifth largest and one of the fastest growing economies in the world, India has firmly established itself as a true powerhouse of the world. Since India’s seven decades of independence, the country has witnessed a manifold growth in trade and commerce with its neighbours, regional countries and global power houses.

It is the trade and commerce that serves as the central pillar to India’s growth story. Over 90% of India’s international trade by volume and over 70% by value is carried over the seas. Additionally, nearly 80% of the country’s crude oil requirement is imported through the seas. Thus sea-borne trade has attained unmatched vitality in sustaining the economic growth and the broader national development exercise.

In this context, India’s control over the seas and international waters, which are creating a virtual maritime highway for sea-borne trade, becomes vitally important. The responsibility of maintaining India’s overall maritime security, stretching from the coastal waters to the high seas, through which the International Shipping Lanes (ISLs) crisscross, is firmly rested with the Indian Navy.

India being a peninsular country has control over a vast coastline extending for more than 7,500 kilometers, a resource rich Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) spread over 2 million square kilometers and access to continental shelf measuring almost 1.2 million kilometers.

The Indian Navy is tasked with the coastal security, besides taking up missions to ensure maritime security in India’s territorial and international waters, which in turn abets the establishment of a conducive environment for unhindered conduct of shipping, off-shore explorations and other maritime interest activity, all of which collectively contributes vitally towards the economic growth and overall national development of the country.

US Navy USS Antietam (CG 54) and US Indian oiler INS Shakti (A 57) sail shoulder-to-shoulder; Courtesy – U.S. Navy.

The Navy has for decades striving to ensure safe, secured and open waters around India’s coasts, territorial waters and across the country’s maritime interest horizon. For sustaining India’s growth trajectory, it is imperative that the Navy continues to assert control and presence over water stretching from the Persian Gulf to the far Eastern Pacific Ocean.

With the fifth largest and one of the fastest technologically evolving fleet, the Indian Navy has maintained unhindered access to the high seas. As the threat to the conducive maritime environment in the region grows at alarming levels, it is crucial that the Navy is armed for meeting the growing threats. The security-cum-threat calculus of the region reaffirms that the Indian Navy operates in some of the most contested waters in the world.

India sits striding the most thriving Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) crisscrossing through the Indian Ocean, which India rightly considers to be its own backyard. Providing maritime routes to shipping traffic traversing from the oil-rich Persian Gulf region to South Asian economic powerhouses and beyond, the international shipping lanes traversing through the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) play host to almost 35% of the world’s sea-borne oil trade and over 60% of container freight traffic.

As the world’s focus has over the past decade shifted on the Asian counties, which are the foremost centres of economic and technological powers, the region has also witnessed a manifold increase in risk from both state and non-state actors.

The current maritime security environment in the IOR is extremely dynamic, complex and unpredictable. The shift of power to the East, a shaping strategic power map, amidst wresting naval buildup amongst the world’s four strongest naval powers, has meant that the IOR and beyond has witnessed staggering militarisation. Any threat to the maritime environment across the waters threatens to upend India’s maritime feeder lines.

At the spearhead of traditional threats facing India and its interest over the regional waters is being posed by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) – China’s naval wing. Since the onset of the millennium, China’s military capabilities has witnessed a manifold growth. Aided by a resurgent economy, which maintained a steady  two digit year-on-year growth, China has pursued one of the most ambitious military modernisation programs. From arming its Army with the latest tanks and firearms, to equipping its Air Force with some of the latest aircraft, and setting sail state-of-the-art battleships for its Navy, China’s communist leadership has taken a gigantic leap towards attaining multidimensional capabilities.

These programs aided the Chinese military to evolve not a credible force, one that could project its power far and across its operational horizon. At the centre of this modernisation drive was to drastically boost the capabilities of the PLAN, eventually setting course towards enabling it to become a true trans-global military power.

The previous decade has witnessed China investing heavily to further these ambitions. China today operates one of the most technologically advanced naval force, one that can seamlessly operate not only in its territorial waters but also throughout Asian and European waters.

In the last decade, China has invested heavily in shipbuilding, commissioning several hundred projects, ranging from construction of mighty aircraft carriers to decisive SSBN and SSN fleets.This outright boost in the capabilities of the fleet has enabled the Chinese Navy to acquire unrivalled hard power projection capabilities along its area of maritime interests. This naval buildup has a justified reason as China is heavily dependent on maritime routes for its trade and commerce. These shipping lanes of Chinese interest crisscross thought the China Sea, the Indian and Pacific Ocean.

A mandate for China attaining control and supremacy over part of these waters and its territorial waters is justified by the global strategic circles. What is worrying and alarming though is China’s bullish tactics to attain unrivalled and absolute sea control over most of these strategically important SLOCs.

Imposition of its hegemonic views and threatening naval muscle flexing by the PLAN along its territorial waters when dealing with its neighbours over contested waters has led to a high-degree of ambiguity in President Xi’s strategic outlook. Having been involved in often militarised territorial disputes with its neighbours in the South China Sea and having contested outright with the US Navy in the China Seas and Pacific Ocean over the last decade, the PLAN has now begun concentrating its naval might towards drastically boosting its reach and naval footprint in the IOR and beyond in the Western waters.

With about 80% of China’s oil and container traffic converging and transiting through the SLOCs crisscrossing the IOR, Beijing has been strongly stressing on guarding its maritime rights and interests in the IOR. On course to realising blue water capabilities, the Chinese Navy has actively pushed beyond its immediate neighbourhood since 2005. With a bullish approach, Beijing has shown little regard to the established world order and has, in defiance of the stipulated rules under the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), questioned the territorial integrity and sovereignty of several nations in the region. 

 

As China’s far sea aspirations took a steady shape, PLAN, began competing with the US for parallel peer status in the region. Since 2008, China has deployed task forces across the IOR. Initial deployments, which were termed as an independent task force against piracy and armed robbery in the high seas, close to the Gulf of Aden, has steadily transmitted towards becoming a true power projector force in the region. While these marked one of the first forays by China into the IOR, which India considers it to be its own backyard, the deployment rates of PLAN’s naval footprint in the region has drastically increased over the decades. Ever since an average of eight PLAN vessels operate in the northern part of the IOR at any given time. Frontline battle vessels such as guided missile destroyers, frigates and submarines have operated in the IOR.

While India was initially welcoming of China’s foray into the Southern part of the IOR, in regions around the Malacca Straits, Delhi has over time grown extremely receptive of increasing Chinese presence in the IOR. China becoming more militarily capable in the IOR has threatened Indian Navy’s control and supremacy in the waters. While operational tempo of the PLAN continues to increase, Beijing is pushing to increase its naval footprint in the region by establishing support and turnaround bases along the entirety of the IOR. 

In 2013, Beijing unveiled the ‘Maritime Silk Road (MSR)’ initiative coupled with the Belt and Road Initiative that promised China a strong foothold in the IOR. Under the MSR Initiative, China has been pursuing several port development and construction projects with littoral states of the IOR.

Under the contagious ‘Pearl of Strings’, China has acquired construction rights for development of ports in Djibouti, Hambantota and Gwadhar ports. China has also secured berthing rights in Myanmar, Bangladesh and several African countries. These bases besides providing much sought Operational Turn Round (OTR) capabilities to PLAN, have also threatened to encompass India and threaten its operational reach in the area. These naval bases also provide China with reach to strategic choke points, such as the Malacca Straits, Sunda Straits and the Strait of Hormuz, threatening the concept of open seas, and has thus led to recalibrating the maritime security calculus of the region.

As China’s aggression in the region grows, it becomes imperative that the Indian Navy takes the bull by its horns. India’s policy towards China has for long been led by diplomacy, with military power finding little to no space on the high table.

While the Army has at least stood up to China’s incursions along the land borders the Navy has been forced towards attaining a policing role. India has for long sought to conserve its ambiguous foreign and economic relations with China, fearing faultiness in its strong economic ties with Beijing. The recently introduced ‘Indo-China’ informal dialogue between the highest offices, viz-a-viz the PMO and the President of China, stand testimony to India’s efforts. But as witnessed during the tense Doklam stand-off, China’s intentions remain ambiguous.