The past few months have seen the best of times and the worst of times for the Indian Navy. Events have focused the attention of India’s famously landward-facing inhabitants on surrounding waters. But uneven responses to seaborne threats have shown that the sea services have some way to go — both in material and human terms — to become an effective arm of Indian foreign policy.
This opens up opportunities for China to position itself as a custodian of maritime security in South Asia — to the consternation of Indian commentators who fear that Beijing’s aspirations on the “day after Taiwan” would involve a naval buildup in India’s backyard, where shipments of oil, gas and raw materials bound for East Asia must pass. For the first time, Chinese warships are patrolling international waters off Somalia as part of multinational efforts to combat piracy.
New Delhi frets that this may be Beijing’s way of laying the diplomatic groundwork for a permanent naval presence. By combating piracy, the Chinese navy can serve the interests of all countries that depend on African energy supplies. At modest cost, then, China can portray itself as a responsible stakeholder in the regional order, in keeping with its much-trumpeted “peaceful rise.”
India sees itself as the foremost power in the Indian Ocean and has no intention of yielding its position to outsiders. So New Delhi’s effort to build capable maritime forces has larger geopolitical import.
Sea-service leaders need to upgrade hardware while building a service culture that makes Indian mariners proficient users of high-tech ships, submarines and aircraft. Alas, it often takes a calamity to discredit old ways of doing business, compelling change in big organizations. This is not a criticism of India. Indeed, Pearl Harbor is probably the best historical precedent for a navy remaking itself under the press of circumstances.
It took the destruction of US Pacific Fleet battleships in 1941 to force the US Navy to reorient its strategy toward submarines and aircraft carriers. That was all the Pacific Fleet had left after the Japanese attack, so the navy made do. Fleet submarines raided Japanese merchant shipping, choking off much-needed imports like oil and rubber. Carriers surged across the central Pacific toward the Japanese home islands, demolishing the Imperial Japanese Navy along the way.
The US Navy found virtue in necessity, discarding old methods for new, devastatingly effective ones. It’s possible that the recent spate of piracy incidents off Somalia represents the Indian Navy’s Pearl Harbor — a trauma that forces the service to reinvent itself for new realities. If so, these events will have a salutary effect on Indian foreign policy.
What challenges confront the Indian Navy? Consider the material dimension. The Indian defense industry remains underdeveloped, leaving New Delhi dependent on naval arms purchases from abroad, primarily from Russia. Dependency on foreign suppliers has yielded mixed results at best. For example, negotiations between New Delhi and Moscow over the sale of the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov and its air wing have degenerated into a bad joke.
The two governments inked a US$1.5 billion contract for the Gorshkov back in 2004. Moscow balked last year after Russian engineers opened it up and — surprise! — discovered that the 1980s-era warship was in deplorable shape. Russia demanded an extra US$2 billion for the refit. The Gorshkov debacle is only one symptom of the growing pains besetting Indian sea power.
Next, lackluster performance in counterpiracy efforts has exposed frailties in the human dimension, the most critical element of naval affairs. Corsairs perpetrated some 100 raids on commercial shipping off the Horn of Africa last year, touching off a public furor in India. The government of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh deployed men-of-war to the Gulf of Aden as a countermeasure.
Indians cheered last November when an Indian warship sent a pirate “mother ship” — a large ship able to resupply short-range boats used by pirates — to the bottom. The celebration quieted abruptly when a Thai fishing company complained that the “mother ship” was in fact the Thai trawler Ekawat Nava 5. International Maritime Bureau spokesmen chided New Delhi for acting on scanty information.
Do these embarrassments add up to a Pearl Harbor for the Indian maritime services? Probably not. But Indian mariners understand that their shortcomings allow Beijing to indulge in one-upsmanship at India’s expense. The prospect of a Chinese naval constable walking India’s beat in Indian Ocean waters should concentrate minds in New Delhi — prompting much-needed change along the waterfront.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone.
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