The Broad Mind | Nurturing India’s Maritime Military Resurgence

Commodore RPS Ravi, VSM (Retd) calls for a coherent strategy to protect India’s growing maritime interests.

The British, when they ruled India, were circumspect in giving Indians any significant role in maritime matters. It is because, Britain being a maritime power, ruled over many parts of the world through the effective use of its navy. It had realized the importance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and considered the Indian Ocean as its own “private lake”. Not many of our countrymen care to remember that we were subjugated by the British because we neglected naval power, even though at one time in history (the Cholas, Pandyas, and Vijaynagar kingdoms), we were a significant maritime power. Indeed, many won’t remember that at one point in history the RIN (the precursor of the Indian Navy) was the ‘senior’ service (having been raised before the Army and the Air Force). But then, the British decided to write off the Navy rather than pass on the ‘power’ to the Indians whom they considered “never having a maritime bent of mind”.

This statement was not altogether true since at one time India was a maritime power though we did not have maritime military ambitions. India had a substantial share of global trade and spread religion and culture through its maritime prowess. However, the British cunning in denying us any say in maritime matters resulted in our being content with our “sea blindness”. This is despite the fact that post independence we took several steps to acquire a three-dimensional, blue water navy.

Indian history, therefore, is replete with our leaders’ lack of strategic vision. In this, perhaps the area most lacking is maritime military strategic sense. As a result, it is often left to the naval strategic planners to do what the national leadership should have been doing. When I joined the Indian Navy, I was surprised to know that the GoI had not laid down any Roles and Missions for the Indian Navy. It was left to the Indian Navy to evolve these on its own. It is only recently that the Navy published its Doctrine and Maritime Strategy; assuming that the GoI’s silence on the same is to be read as acceptance in principle (AIP). Similarly, four years back, the Navy came up with MCPP or Maritime Capability Perspective Plan to seek the government’s AIP to resize the Navy against not just current and emerging threats but in keeping with the maritime capability that the nation desires to keep pace with India’s buoyant economy, assisted by 94 percent of its trade moving over the seas. The area of responsibility of the Indian Navy that was limited to the primary area of northern Indian Ocean comprising Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal got extended from the Mediterranean to China Sea. Indian Navy, in keeping with this extended responsibility, was the first one to rescue its people during the Lebanon crisis of Jul 2006 (Op Sukoon). The Indian Navy also realised that the hub-and-spokes mode of its operations (originating from an Indian port such as Mumbai and returning to the same) would have to be modified; it thus sought and obtained OTR (Operational Turn Round) facilities at a dozen ports in Africa, East and West Asia.

Globalisation is a primarily a maritime phenomenon. It is because 90 percent of the global trade moves over the seas. Navies have various roles to play. Whilst their primary role is during War, there are a number of peace-time roles such as Deterrence (especially nuclear), Securing SLOCs (Sea Lanes of Communications), HADR (Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief), SAR (Search & Rescue), and furthering diplomatic objectives. After the sad years of 1980s when our sea-blindness was more pronounced than in any other recent decade, the Indian Navy planned to become a true four-dimensional navy capable of multifarious roles. MCPP enabled it to build these capabilities. The ATV project culminated in the commissioning of Arihant last year, which is undergoing trials since then. That would complete the nuclear capability triad that India had envisaged.

All these are on course. However, incidents in the past have kept us from realising the full potential of our maritime military capabilities. I shall refer to three of these to bring out the damage caused by our knee-jerk reactions.

The first one is our response to 26/11 attack on Mumbai in 2008 that not only resulted in 166 deaths but also held India’s financial capital to ransom for more than two days. Even as Pakistan government denied any involvement in the attack, Pakistan Naval Chief, in a much publicised television interview, took the Indian Navy to task for not having done enough to ward off such threats from the sea. Our government, polity and our media too conveniently chose to forget that navies are not the primary instruments to guard against such incidents.

By the promulgation of Maritime Zones of India Act 1976, we had declared varying jurisdiction over waters around the coast. The primary one is that up to 12 nautical miles around our coastline is our declared territorial sea. This means that the sovereignty of India and the reach of its internal laws extend over this. You don’t require the navies to enforce these; just as, if there is a terrorist executed cycle bomb explosion in, say, Jaipur, you don’t call the mechanised infantry to guard the city (own territory) against it. However, the GoI, in its wisdom, chose to make the Indian Navy responsible for the Coastal Security in India; making it the only leading Navy in the world to be so encumbered. Hence, post 26/11, the Indian Navy got involved in such tasks as making a census of fishermen, boats and jetties in the nine coastal states. The situation was the same post 1993 Mumbai attacks when Dawood Ibrahim & co. shifted all the arsenal for the blasts via the sea. The India Navy was mired to get involved in coastal patrolling called Operation Swan along the Saurashtra and Maharashtra coasts; which it has only recently handed over to the Marine Police, Customs and the Coast Guard whose responsibility it should have been in the first place.

Navies in advanced countries are tasked to further the objectives of the foreign policy and shape the environment in which they function (such is explicitly mentioned in the Maritime Strategy of India, a document now in public domain). It is because the navies operate almost invariably in international waters. Powerful countries like the United States have aligned various arms of the government to further the nation’s interests. Even China has realised this and taken steps to do so. Not in India though. Various arms of Indian government staunchly preserve their turf. In February 2008, therefore, even when the Indian Navy came up with the highly successful Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) so as to involve naval hierarchies of IOR littoral nations in track II diplomacy, our own MEA ignored and boycotted it and let it be known through a number of articles by retired diplomats and others that the navy should stick to military issues leaving the diplomacy entirely to foreign service. We have this Nehruvian aversion towards involving the armed forces in any decision making; but, we have no aversion about getting them mired in such issues that the other arms of the government are responsible for but fail to deliver.

And finally, we woke up to the scourge of piracy. Earlier piracy was restricted to Malacca Straits. In the year 2002, India had escorted high value USN ships through these straits. This fell short of patrolling so as to respect the sentiments of the littoral states of the Straits. However, later, when piracy became quite virulent off Somalia Indian Navy was asked to “protect Indian interests” there. As it happened in the past, there was no clear cut government directive. Therefore, it was not understood how these interests could be best protected:

• Whether by protecting the cargo heading to and from Indian ports? In this case in 1998, Indian bottoms carried about 34 percent of this cargo but their share of carrying India’s exports and imports fell to merely 13 percent in 2007 (the neglect of our shipping sector by our government has resulted in this; but that is another story). If this cargo is to be protected, 87 percent of which is carried in foreign bottoms, how far out from Indian coast is this to be protected? Naturally, this is a mammoth task for as navy charged with responsibility of coastal security.
• Whether by protecting Indian bottoms? This is a relatively smaller number of about 900 ships. Once again we need to decide up to what range from the coast these need to be protected. It is not a war time situation requiring such stringent measures as convoys and escorts. It only calls for distant protection provided by the Indian Navy in SLOCs of our interest with the provision of on-call assistance. As I understand the Indian Navy has already promulgated SOPs to ships under pirate attacks and I believe these measures have brought some respite already.
• Whether by protecting Indians onboard? This again is a mammoth task considering that Indians may not be just passengers on board but also as crews even on foreign ships. The enormity of the task can be made out from the fact that it took the Indian government more than six months to seriously consider the release of Indian sailors on board MV Asphalt Venture, which was hijacked by the Somali pirates. Even after the ransom money was paid these sailors were not released in retaliation to Indian Navy’s very successful operations against the pirates that had resulted in the capture of more than 120 of them since the operations started in 2008.

Let me, therefore, end by mentioning just a few things. One, for news at sea, especially related to maritime terrorism, Indian media is almost totally dependent upon the foreign media and joins in the chorus of denigrating the Indian Navy without even realising the constraints under which our Navy works. Secondly, the nation needs to realise that the rapid strides that it is making economically increase the vulnerability of its maritime interests and energy sources. These need to be protected by a congruence of diplomatic, political, maritime, military, commercial, economic, and strategic means and measures rather than each one protecting its turf. And lastly, the government should realise that knee jerk reactions, as opposed to a well thought of strategy, would have their adverse fallouts elsewhere.

Commodore Ravi blogs at

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.