India Beefs Up for Great Game

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India Beefs Up for Great Game

Worried by an increasingly assertive China, India has ramped up investment in its Navy and Air Force. Will it be enough to protect its own backyard?

Given India’s size and numerous disputed borders, it’s hardly surprising that the country’s army – the third largest in the world – has for decades been central to New Delhi’s military planning. But for the past five years India has also, belatedly, started to focus on strengthening its maritime and aerospace capabilities to counter potential challenges.

The figures speak for themselves. The Indian Defence Ministry spent more than 54,000 crore rupees ($11.6 billion) on capital acquisition for the Navy and the Air Force combined during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 fiscal years. This compared with just 13,539 crore rupees on the Army over the same period, according to figures submitted to the country’s parliament.

The shift in spending shouldn’t, of course, be mistaken as a sign that the Army is diminishing in importance. But it does highlight India’s increasing willingness to broaden its horizons in preparation for a possible future contingency further afield.

The Indian Navy, a seasoned force with a solid track record, is quietly expanding for a larger role in military diplomacy and outreach.  Indeed, its near-term plans suggest ambitions to become a three battle carrier group force by 2020.

While its most prestigious acquisition – the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, which was renamed the INS Vikramaditya – is likely to be inducted into the fleet by March 2013 at the latest, the country is also readying an indigenously built carrier that will most likely join the service by 2015.

At present, India operates a single aircraft carrier, the INS Viraat – a British-vessel from the 1960s that is seeing an extended lease of life thanks to the Navy’s innovative engineers and planners. The INS Vikramaditya, currently at harbour and conducting sea trials in Russia, will therefore give India a much needed edge in its maritime capabilities, not least because it will come equipped with the latest MiG-29 K series of aircraft. Indian naval aviators are already hard at work training with the planes away from the ship.

Traditionally, the Indian navy has sourced most of its ships from the former Soviet Union, but over the past decade, defence planners have leaned hard on Indian shipbuilding yards to deliver a variety of warships for the Indian Navy. For example, two recently commissioned stealth ships – INS Shivalik and INS Satpura – have been designed and built by public sector firm Mazgaon Docks Limited. The order books of India’s oldest government-owned shipbuilders are chock full with orders from the Navy, which is eyeing four more such guided missile frigates over the next five years.

And there are more acquisitions in the pipeline, including: four anti-submarine corvettes, four guided missile destroyers, three stealth frigates, six Scorpene submarines (being built at Mazgaon Docks with French technology and assistance) and two nuclear-powered submarines.

India’s conventional diesel-powered submarine fleet, meanwhile, is down to single digits, but the country is hoping to have the Russian-built Nerpa class nuclear submarine (leased for a decade) join service later this year. But the biggest force accretion in recent years has come in the form of the Boeing Pi-8 long range maritime reconnaissance (LRMR) plane, which gives the Indian Navy a reach and capability to mount surveillance far beyond its traditional areas of influence.

The Air Force isn’t far behind.

Recently retired Indian Air Force Chief Marshal PV Naik told me last month that the Indian Air Force will be transformed over the next five years, with capability enhancements planned across the entire spectrum of war fighting.

In his last interview before retirement, he outlined a roadmap for the next five years. ‘We are in the final stages of acquiring 126 Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft. Over 200 fifth-generation fighter aircraft (jointly developed with Russia at a projected cost of over $30 billion) will be coming around 2017,’ he said. He added that there were also plans for more than 40 new Su-30s to be manufactured in India, as well deals for 149 medium-lift helicopters, 22 attack helicopters and 12 VVIP helicopters, all of which he said had been cleared.

‘The process of change started 7 or 8 years back but it’s materializing now,’ Naik said. ‘It’s a very exciting thought. Over the next 3 to 4 years, I expect the IAF to become one of the most modern air forces in the world.’

India will need to meet such expectations if it is to face its biggest challenge – an increasingly assertive China, which India’s strategic planners believe will increasingly venture into India’s neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean, which has until now been regarded as India’s backyard.  

The signs that it plans to do so are already evident. This month, Indian broadcaster NDTV reported on increasing Chinese efforts to map and obtain crucial Bathymetric data around India’s Andaman island territories. A Chinese spy ship apparently camouflaged as a fishing trawler was detected by the Navy in the area about four months ago. An Indian Navy warship tailed the spy ship (which is said to have had 22 laboratories on board) until it docked in Colombo, but couldn’t take any action against the Chinese ship because it wasn’t in Indian territorial waters.

Indian intelligence agencies have also picked up traces of a growing Chinese footprint in the Bay of Bengal, close to Wheeler Island, which is the site of India’s missile testing facilities. The presence of Chinese ships has frequently been noted around the time India has been issuing no-fly zone warnings when testing conventional and strategic missiles from the facility on Wheeler Island. The Chinese ships, NDTV claims, were picking up data when missiles were launched.

It’s with these kinds of developments in mind that Indian defence planners have been busy sketching out an ambitious plan for India’s Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) – one of two tri-services facility, the other being the Strategic Forces Command, which handles India’s nuclear assets.

Formed in 2001, the ANC is poised to expand rapidly following a renewed assessment of rising conventional and sub-conventional threats emanating from the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal regions. This group of islands, which lay off the southeast of India, has suddenly become central to India’s strategic and security planning in countering China’s increasing forays into the neighbourhood. Since the archipelago is located at the confluence of vital sea lanes of communication, it has significant geo-strategic relevance.

An internal assessment by  India’s Defence Ministry concluded: ‘The location of these islands, their rich resources of marine wealth and potential for natural oil and gas and their proximity to littorals coupled with the possibility of extra regional players extending their influence in the region, make them vulnerable to both conventional as well as sub-conventional threats. The importance of A&N Islands in the security matrix of the country is thus growing exponentially. It is therefore prudent to have a strong and deterrent military capability at these islands.’

As a result of this assessment, ANC is being given more maritime and air assets, and there are also plans to base the Air Forces’ frontline fighters – the Sukhoi-30s, at Car Nicobar Island – not far from the Malacca Strait. As India’s first and truly operational tri-services command, the ANC is headed in turn by three star officers from all three armed forces. In addition, since 2010, the commander-in-chief of the ANC has been designated as the Commander-in-Chief Coastal Security Command for the A & N region.

Analysts from across the globe are declaring the Indian Ocean Region as the setting for this century’s version of the Great Game. It’s hardly surprising, then, that India has decided to bolster its Navy and Air Force to make sure it can hold its own.

Nitin Gokhale is Defence & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster, NDTV 24×7