“We are not expeditionary forces that have to deploy around the globe. We have to guard and fight only along our borders and, of course, dominate the Indian Ocean Region. I think the Navy needs more submarines rather than aircraft carriers, which themselves require their own individual armadas for protection.” - General Bipin Rawat, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)
The economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic has forced the Indian armed forces to grapple with imminent budget cuts, the pressure to reorganise, and the push to buy locally-built equipment. Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat has set the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons with his comments calling for a renewed focus on land warfare, the cancellation of the navy’s planned third aircraft carrier, and the deployment of naval assets to India’s land borders.
The CDS’ comments have not gone down well with some sections of India’s strategic community — in particular, those that put stock in neo-Mahanian ideas. Their designs call for a large, powerful navy to form the bedrock of India’s geopolitical heft; allowing it to dominate its immediate neighbourhood, secure the nation’s oceanic trade routes, and finally, outmanoeuvre the Chinese in their own backyard.
Such a navy is almost always cast in the mould of the US Navy or the Royal Navy: centred around carrier-based air power and supported by a large fleet of surface and sub-surface vessels.
Within this mental model, the army is often viewed as a ‘defensive’ force — its striking power blunted by nuclear weapons in the west and unfavourable geography in the east.
Consequently, the CDS is being seen as perpetuating a defensive and risk-averse mindset, instead of the bold and ambitious one that India deserves.
However, highfalutin vision makes for poor strategy, especially when it neglects the country’s geographical position, threat exposure and resource constraints. The armed forces ought to be organised and equipped to advance national objectives and meet strategic needs, and not set up to pursue ‘capability’ as an end in itself.
Powerful navies and vast ocean-going armadas conjure up images of great power and reach. But they have never existed in a vacuum. The colonial powers of the past and modern nation-states like the US built them for two main reasons.
One is to protect territorial holdings or economic interests at great distances from the homeland.
Two is to prosecute military campaigns in far-flung locations. Neither appears to be an imperative for India — not at present, and not for the foreseeable future.
Instead, the country faces two powerful enemies along its land borders; and in its 70-year history, has faced four significant invasions across those borders (1948, 1962, 1965 and 1999).
The single offensive campaign it undertook — the war to liberate Bangladesh — also happened to be a land campaign.
In addition, India also has had to defend against smaller incursions and near-constant attempts to infiltrate irregular combatants across contested land borders.
A strong and manpower-heavy land force, backed up by airpower focused on the strike mission, has been necessary to halt and/or contain these offensives.
Conversely, the navy has seen action only twice, the first time in 1965 and then again in 1971.
In both instances, naval hostilities were mere sideshows to the war being waged on land. In both wars, the crown jewel of India’s naval strength — the aircraft carrier — had an unimpressive combat record.
In 1965, the INS Vikrant was in dry dock, and did not launch a single sortie against enemy forces.
In 1971, it spent the initial part of the war avoiding a Pakistani submarine.
Following that submarine’s destruction, it was only committed to a handful of token actions to bomb East Pakistani port facilities.
At the same time, one of the most glorious chapters of independent India’s naval history was being written by more modest platforms: the missile boats that struck Karachi, twice, sinking a multitude of enemy vessels and destroying oil storage facilities.
The future does not appear to hold a major role for the navy either. With the introduction of nuclear weapons in the subcontinent, a total war of conquest has become a thing of the past.
A future conflict that pits India against Pakistan and/or China is more likely to be a short, sharp engagement along a limited axis, with both sides looking to achieve equally limited objectives.
In a confrontation of this sort, it seems unlikely that the navy would be called upon to maintain sustained presence over a wide swathe of ocean.
Instead, it may be tasked with projecting power within India’s immediate neighbourhood, and possibly with locating and degrading an enemy taskforce in the vicinity of the mainland.
To meet these objectives, India would not require an enormous blue-water navy built around multiple aircraft carriers, but a more modest force of surface combatants supported by advanced ISR, shore-based aviation, missile batteries, and submarines capable of denying the sea to the enemy.
Finally, it is useful to remember that neither the Indian economy nor the country’s limited industrial base can support a large army and air force to fight and prevail in a two-front war, while also building a naval armada to dominate the high seas.
As it is, the central government allocates an outsize 15.5 per cent of total government expenditures to the military; and it is in no position to increase that allocation without cutting back on more essential items such as agriculture, healthcare or education.
In configuring the armed forces to tackle present and future threats, the Indian military and political leadership will be forced to make some tough, yet necessary cuts to certain aspects of Indian military strength.
Those force cuts will have to be carefully planned and structured. At the same time, a synergistic effort will have to be made to build (or retain) the capabilities necessary to meet India’s most critical strategic needs while compromising on those deemed less important.
If this is not done in a planned, systematic manner, retrenchments be forced upon the military regardless; fueling another cycle of delayed, ad-hoc, and piecemeal acquisitions that leave it in a weakened state across the board.
Given these circumstances, investing in a powerful, ocean-going navy that will likely sit out the next war seems like a poor investment.
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