India’s Quiet, Big Naval Splash

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India’s drive to develop maritime forces that can protect its coast and project power into its surrounding waters is one of the biggest defense stories of recent years, but one that doesn't grab the headlines like its ongoing fast jet acquisitions. But the numbers don't lie: in 1988 the navy’s annual spend was INR10 billion ($181 million) – in 2012 it was INR373.14 billion ($6.78 billion).

New Delhi’s smart combination of procurement and geopolitical alliances was on display this week when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flew into Tokyo. That India and Japan share a wary attitude to China is well known – and this is giving Japan a chance to test the waters of international arms exports in the form of the ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious aircraft.

The US-2, which is in JMSDF service and odds on to be selected by the Indian Navy for its search-and-rescue amphibian requirement, is the perfect platform for Japan to export: it’s an unarmed, humanitarian-first platform that is also probably the best of its type in the world.

For Delhi, it is the latest example of a massive growth in spending – and naval ambition – that has slid under the radar.

There are a number of possible reasons for the lack of interest. First, India is also in the market for fast jets. As any visitor to a defense show will tell you, fast jets grab the limelight more than even the hottest offshore patrol trimaran.

There’s also the fact that India’s not the only Asia-Pacific nation to get into the blue-water navy game. But while the PLA Navy’s every move is analyzed and used to prove China’s embrace of – or departure from – the “peaceful rise” narrative, the Indian Navy has received a free pass over its acquisitions, whether it is its own Russian aircraft carrier or its manufacture of another flattop in Cochin.

There are a number of possible reasons why New Delhi’s naval maneuvers are not raising alarm bells:

1)      The US has decided India is a friend

The United States has decided that India is a country it wants to partner with in the Pacific, with then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta describing Delhi in 2012 as an “anchor” around which a stable Indian Ocean Region could be constructed. The U.S. doesn’t like everything that India does – its nuclear program and refusal to sign various intelligence agreements are just two flies in the ointment – but it likes it enough.

It also likes selling materiel to Delhi: U.S. defense sales to India since 2001 are worth about USD13 billion and rising. For the Indian Navy, these include an amphibious landing ship and at least eight P-8I Neptunes – a long-range anti-submarine and patrol aircraft that is only just beginning to enter U.S. service.

2)      India’s naval forces are seen as underperforming

India has had the tools to be a major naval power since the mid 1960s. Its first aircraft carrier (a former UK platform) entered service in 1961 and given its close relationship with the Soviet Union and then Russia, it has built from a robust submarine force.

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