President Xi Jinping’s April visit to Pakistan saw China securing de jure management rights over Gwadar port for a period of 40 years, a facility it has helped finance and build. The move has brought China closer to fulfilling its ambition of having a dual-use base sitting astride the mouth of the Persian Gulf. While this ambition is not terribly new, as evidenced by the oft-quoted “string of pearls” theory, the need to secure it was propelled by the Chinese Navy’s (CN’s) continuing experience with its “out-of-area deployment” on anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden that commenced in 2008.
However, for the Indian Navy (IN), this development marks the culmination of a long held position that the CN was using anti-piracy patrols as a mere stepping stone to a more permanent presence in the region. The situation in any case warrants a quicker expansion of the IN’s Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) network in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), greater investment in specific kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities, and an upgradation of Indian military diplomacy to include a much bigger equipment transfer component. Since submarines are likely to be the centrepiece of China’s emerging offensive posture in the IOR, the IN will have to up its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) game by more than a notch or two.
While the Gulf of Aden operations may have crystallized the Chinese leadership’s thinking in favour of obtaining permanent basing rights to sustain a maritime presence near vital sea lines of communication, China is as yet not capable of positioning a fourth fleet (the CN has three fleets at the moment) for operations in the IOR. Nor can it currently claim access to enough sizeable bases in the IOR, Gwadar notwithstanding, to support any such hypothetical element. So whatever “pearls” China can string along in the IOR, besides serving to replenish rotating surface ships, will, for the foreseeable future, be used to support submarine deployments as a key offensive element. In the event of conflict, Chinese submarines may be used to interfere with Indian sea lines of communication, and threaten land-based targets with cruise missiles. They will also complicate deterrent patrols for Indian nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), even in peacetime.
The IN’s annual Tropex exercise that involves coordinated anti-ship missile launches by several platforms leveraging a modern sensor and targeting network would have convinced the Chinese of the futility of projecting power in the IOR with a surface ship force. Especially when they are still many years away from deploying an aircraft carrier or fleet air defence or naval strikes. The IN has two aircraft carriers operational at the moment.
The IN’s maritime patrol aircraft while on long range patrols are known to find and buzz Chinese ships even when they are sailing south of the equator. Despite the CN now possessing much bigger multi-role ships with decent anti-air warfare capability, it is unlikely that China has the confidence to take on the IN in the IOR with a surface ship-heavy force. Moreover, India also has the capability to bottle up a CN surface fleet entering the northern IOR via a strategic channel such as the Strait of Malacca.
China will instead focus on the underwater domain, where the IN is sorely lacking in platform numbers at the moment vis-a-vis the Chinese. The IN today has only 15 submarines, 13 of them conventional diesel-electric types (SSKs), one nuclear attack submarine (SSN) and one SSBN, the INS Arihant, that is right now undergoing final sea trials before induction. As opposed to this, the Chinese possess over 50 SSKs, 5 SSNs and 4 SSBNs and are building more of all types. Granted not all its submarines are modern or of the same quality, the fact remains that China has boats to spare for patrols in the IOR. And since 2013, “contact” with both Chinese nuclear and conventional submarines have been made by the IN near Indian waters.
Not to mention the recent port calls by Chinese submarines to Sri Lanka (which hosts what was till recently a potential Chinese “pearl” in the form of Hambantota port) that caused so much consternation in New Delhi, and contributed to pushing Indian discontentment with the former Rajapakse regime over the edge.
It is noteworthy that Chinese submarine operations in the IOR seem to coincide with the INS Arihant’s progress towards final induction and deployment on nuclear deterrent patrol. Chinese SSNs operating in the Bay of Bengal will definitely make matters difficult for the Arihant and its follow-on boats to find sanctuaries wherefrom they can launch their nuke-tipped ballistic missiles at targets in the Chinese mainland if it ever came to that. SSBNs such as the Arihant after all need to lurk undetected in deep waters waiting for orders to launch their missiles in a retaliatory nuclear second strike while on deterrent patrol. The continuous presence of Chinese SSNs however means that the IN will have to adopt a “bastion” approach to protecting the Arihant and its successors. This would involve the use of both existing surface based ASW forces as well as future SSNs inducted by the IN.
India’s only operational SSN, INS Chakra, would very likely be part of the shield protecting the Arihant to keep it safe from enemy SSNs. The IN currently plans to lease another SSN or two from Russia and build six more indigenously. However, even with these numbers, it could find itself somewhat constrained in terms of being able to spare enough SSNs for diverse long-range missions other than providing a screen for India’s underwater second strike capability, if Chinese nuclear submarines were able to significantly increase the frequency of their patrols in the Bay of Bengal.
This would of course depend both on China consolidating its presence in the IOR, and the number of SSNs it has at its disposal. China’s current woes with maintaining the readiness of its nuclear submarine fleet and their emanated noise levels (which leads to increased detectability) may not last forever either.
The CN’s approach seems somewhat reminiscent of the US strategy during the late Cold War which sought to keep Soviet SSNs engaged in defending their SSBNs, even as the larger US SSN fleet dominated sea lines of communication across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In the Indian context, an Indian SSN force tied down to protecting SSBNs will find it much less easy to deploy to the South China Sea.
Indeed, even as it tries to acquire pearls in the IOR, the CN’s primary missions centre around preventing Taiwanese secession and dominating the hydrocarbon-rich South China Sea littorals. The IOR foray should also be seen as a way to keep the IN from joining a potential anti-Chinese maritime coalition in the South China Sea.
The Chinese, like the Indians, have equipped their submarines with both anti-ship as well as land attack cruise missiles. And while Chinese SSNs are noisy, their speed and unlimited endurance means that they can launch “missiles of opportunity” at select targets from standoff ranges. The Chinese recently introduced the Type 093G nuclear submarine which carries a substantial number of cruise missiles and is stealthier than the Type 093 Shang Class SSNs currently making parleys into the IOR. What this means is that the timetable for inducting new SSNs has to be brought forward by the IN. Merely building more conventional submarines under the recently cleared Project 75I will not do, because even though SSNs are noisier than conventional submarines, the latter is more of an ambush predator suited to quietly lurking in shallow waters and not really a match for an SSN in deep waters.
The Chinese submarine threat of course manifests itself in the form of SSKs as well. While SSKs bearing the Chinese flag could operate regularly out of future Chinese bases in the IOR, the bigger de facto Chinese SSK threat will come via Pakistan’s forthcoming acquisition of eight air-independent propulsion-equipped submarines to be license-produced at the Submarine Rebuild Complex in Ormara, near Karachi. Gwadar, however, is the fulcrum around which a joint Pakistani-Chinese reconnaissance-strike complex in the northern Arabian Sea is being orchestrated. China has helped Pakistan set up a very low frequency (VLF) facility for communicating with submarines in Turbat, north of Gwadar.
While this VLF facility will allow Pakistan to transmit orders to its new submarines that will incidentally carry nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, it will also be used to talk to Chinese nuclear boats in the IOR.
The IN has in recent years invested in powerful airborne platforms such as the Boeing P-8I Neptune that allows it to carry out wide-area anti-submarine warfare operations and is likely to induct more of those. However, submarine detection and tracking at the moment is still a time-consuming task and requires the availability of numerous helicopters with low frequency dunking sonar (LFDS).
The Navy has to move quicker to replace and augment its current fleet of naval multi-role helicopters. Additionally, the production of a new generation LFDS developed by DRDO needs to be expedited as well. But to take on a larger number of enemy submarines in the IOR, the IN will have to move quicker on underwater force accretion in terms of SSKs too. Producing more Scorpene class submarines at the established line in Mazgaon Dockyard should seriously be considered even as Project 75I is furthered.
Technology naturally has to play a very big role in the Indian riposte to Sino-Pakistani plans. Chinese submarines are known to be optimized for anti-surface warfare and are not that capable in ASW, given the limitations of Chinese sonar and other sensor technology. Sonars are however an arena where India has traditionally had great domestic competence despite the recent issues with developing cutting edge low-frequency active-towed array sonars. Those issues have now been overcome and India must look to deploy contemporary thin-line towed-array sonars on all its submarines, something Chinese submarines currently lack.
India will also have to invest in an indigenously developed prototype sea-bed array system whose efficacy has already been demonstrated. Though expensive and power-consuming, this sea-bed array system can be a game changer in terms of locating and identifying submarines in strategic locations around the Indian Ocean.
In fact, this sea-bed array system has to become an integral part of Indian maritime domain awareness in the IOR which already consists of a satellite-enabled multi-sensor, multi-location network.
Just as India is setting up radar stations and listening posts in friendly countries across the IOR, it will also have to add this sea-bed array system in the near future to meet the challenges of increased submarine deployment by India’s enemies. At the moment, a new coastal sensor network concept that includes underwater, surface and aerial surveillance elements, is being refined at a location in South India.
Cooperation with countries like Singapore with competence in underwater communication technology as well as strategic location for new generation multi-static sensor networks is also underway.
India’s outreach to the IOR littoral will however have to include a significant arms package component. Just as China is extending deterrence via Pakistan, India must create a naval coalition in the IOR of which it will naturally be the dominant entity. While transfers of offshore patrol vessels, both new and old, to IOR countries is commendable, what India needs is the ability to produce submarines for export and these need not be uber submarines.
For instance, Bangladesh had actually requested India first for a couple of submarines and turned to China only after India was unable to meet the request. Now China is transferring to Bangladesh two old Ming Class submarines and is trying to use that to negotiate a “pearl” in Cox Bazaar which is only a thousand kilometres away from strategic naval bases on India’s East coast.
However, it is likely that Bangladesh has had to settle for the rusty old Mings because it is not in a position to give China what it wants.
So while at the moment, the Indian Navy is well placed to counter an enemy surface fleet in the Indian Ocean region, it will have to increase the pace of anti-submarine-warfare-oriented acquisitions and tie in other regional navies into a security alliance to meet the emerging Chinese posture in the IOR.
Every Indian-supplied sonar on a friendly naval ship adds to India’s maritime domain awareness in the IOR.
Interestingly, China’s “string of pearls” also calls for much greater Navy-Army cooperation in India through the creation of a serious amphibious force capable of over-the-horizon assaults.
After all, what better way to destroy a submarine threat, than by capturing the submarines while they are still in port via a joint manoeuvre from the sea?
Saurav Jha is an author and commentator on energy and security affairs. His first book, The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power (HarperCollins India) was released to critical acclaim in 2010.
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