Written by C Uday Bhaskar.

In early November an Indian naval stealth frigate, INS Satpura, was refuelled by a US Navy tanker off the Japanese coast as part of a routine exercise that the Indian Navy was engaged in with Japan and the US. The sub-text of this deployment has significant policy relevance for South Block. It draws attention to the challenges and opportunities for India’s emerging naval diplomacy and politico-military orientation.

The fact that the Indian Navy is able to deploy its front-line platforms in an arc from the east coast of Africa and the Persian Gulf to the Sea of Japan is indicative of the impressive footprint that the navy can establish in the maritime domain that is deemed relevant to India. However the reality is that no navy can operate in distant waters without adequate logistic support. In the present case, recourse was taken to a US tanker since our navy did not have the option of sending its own tanker with its warships.

After making costly policy errors, such as impetuously cancelling a German HDW submarine building programme in India during the Rajiv Gandhi years, India is now scrambling to acquire new submarines.

Sturdy ‘sea legs’ are an essential ingredient of a credible naval presence in the maritime domain. Over the last fortnight there has been a flurry of naval activity that included the naval commanders conference in Delhi followed by a conclave of 10 Indian Ocean littoral states in Goa. India’s maritime resolve was highlighted both by defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman and the naval chief.

The new contour of the Indian Navy’s operational philosophy was elucidated by Admiral Sunil Lanba who noted: “We have reached a consensus within the navy to have mission based deployment so that our areas of interest can be kept under permanent surveillance. We started off by having a ship deployed permanently in Andaman Sea and approaches to the Malacca straits. Then we have mission based deployments in the North Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman and Persian Gulf; the Northern part of Bay of Bengal and near Sri Lanka. We are also sending ships to the Lombok and Sunda straits. So the ingress and egress routes of Indian Ocean region are being kept under surveillance such that we have better maritime domain awareness.”

This is an ambitious agenda and will be challenging given the modest budgetary support that the navy receives in relation to the other two services. It remains the Cinderella service by way of budgetary allocation and hovers around the 15% level of the overall defence budget. The induction of major platforms in a sustained and uninterrupted manner — the critical determinant for sturdy sea legs — remains uneven and uncertain, thereby diluting the operational credibility of the navy.

The navy has an enviable track record of designing and building ships in India though it remains dependent on foreign suppliers for sensors and weapons. Given the lead time in design and ship-building, normative planning would suggest that the navy (and the Coast Guard) would have a continuous, adequately funded, acquisition pipe-line with a mix of ships — big and small to ensure the induction of a major platform every 18 months.

Yet in a very disappointing pattern, year after year, the navy surrenders money to the exchequer from the capital account (meant for acquisitions) as unspent. A quick review of the annual defence budget figures over the last five years reveal that the navy has surrendered over Rs 150 billion, even while its inventory gaps are reaching amber light levels.

The submarine story is illustrative and as the navy prepares for its 50th anniversary in December (the first boat INS Kalveri was commissioned in December 1967), the trajectory of the underwater platform offers valuable policy lessons.

After making costly policy errors, such as impetuously cancelling a German HDW submarine building programme in India during the Rajiv Gandhi years, India is now scrambling to acquire new boats. And the irony is that the decision-making lattice is so short-sighted that India has the curious distinction of acquiring submarines without torpedoes — for the original manufacturer has been blacklisted for financial transgressions.

Sitharaman has acknowledged the critical capability shortfalls that the Indian Navy is facing in ship-borne multi-role helicopters, conventional submarines and mine counter measure vessels. Each of them is vital for the operational credibility of the navy and the mine-sweeper gap is indicative of the impoverishment of the procurement process that plagues the military across the board.

Mine-sweepers are small vessels with special hulls and on-board sensors that allow the entry to a port/channel to be cleared of mines — and this is an essential activity whenever the fleet leaves and enters a harbour. For decades the navy has flagged this requirement but the decision-making process is yet to reach a meaningful closure in the matter, and in the interim the fleet remains vulnerable.

This pattern of decision-making at the highest levels — the buck stops with the cabinet committee on security — is a case of the ‘dog-in-the-manger’ affliction, wherein the current ecosystem neither enables Make in India, nor swift acquisition from abroad.

Thus while mission based deployment is to be commended, the Indian Navy will be severely stretched by way of deploying its modest resources if this ambitious tasking is not complemented by astute policy review of the current stasis.

C Uday Bhaskar is a retired Commodore in the Indian Navy and currently serves at the Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. He tweets at @theUdayB. This article was first published on The Hindustan Times and has been reposted with the permission of the author. Image credit: CC by Pacific Fleet/Flickr.

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