India’s Achilles’ Heel

Recent Features


India’s Achilles’ Heel

India’s economy and its military have made rapid strides. But threats to energy security could undermine this.

Former U.S. President Dwight D Eisenhower once famously said: “History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid.” An interesting question today is how those words might apply to India.

India was left destitute in 1947 after achieving independence – more than 80 percent of the population was illiterate, and its people were left hungry with so much food having been exported out of the country to meet the requirements of the British Empire. India’s industrial base was nonexistent and its pitiable administration was only geared to collecting taxes to feed the gargantuan appetites of the so-called Raj. A study by Cambridge University several years ago suggested that trillions in current dollar terms had been transferred from India by the British during 250 years of misrule.

It has been a long journey since then, but India’s economy has improved dramatically. This has allowed the country to strengthen its military, despite allocating it on average “only” 2 percent of its GDP. And the military base that was built with generous assistance from the Soviet Union from the 1960’s is now being modernized around the principle of buy, make, build indigenously; strategic systems will now only be built indigenously.       

But India still has an Achilles' Heel: energy security. The import of oil and gas makes up about 70 percent of the country’s import basket, even as strenuous efforts are being made to develop nuclear, solar, wind and tidal power stations. In the meantime, most of the ships bringing energy from the Middle East to feed Asia’s growing appetite have to pass through the Gulf of Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden through the Arabian Sea to the Straits of Malacca. Yet the Persian Gulf today is beset, including uncertainty over the Arab Spring, the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces from Afghanistan, piracy and the question of Iran’s nuclear program. The region through which much of India’s energy passes can best be described as an arc of instability.

The visit to Saudi Arabia last month by Indian Defense Minister A.K. Anthony, who was accompanied by a high-powered military delegation of senior army, navy and air force officials, therefore raised some eyebrows in the Arab world, especially as it was accompanied by an unprecedented extended audience for Anthony with the King himself.

Two days of hectic activity and defense diplomacy resulted in a focused agreement on a range of security and defense issues that have been plaguing the region, especially with respect to piracy, terrorists and other non-state actors, sea mine warfare and hydro graphic assistance in the Red Sea/east coast of Saudi Arabia region by the Indian Navy. More defense cooperation is expected in the months ahead, with the Indian Navy leading the way in conjunction with Saudi naval ships.

The Indian Navy certainly has a large repository of knowledge in mine warfare, and having personally commanded the 19MCMS Squadron (6 ships based in Mumbai) in the turbulent 1980s (think the Iran-Iraq War and Operation Brasstacks), I’m aware of the Navy’s knowledge and expertise in this area. However, India’s assets have deteriorated in this field, largely due to poor planning, and there’s a need for quick investment on the part of India’s defense planners to remedy the situation. In mine warfare and littoral combat, the number of specialized ships available has a qualitative effect on the task at hand as the work involves long hours in close quarters with extremely dangerous, highly explosive underwater materials. Such equipment is especially crucial in choke points like the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Hormuz. Moored mines/floating mines/antenna mines laid in these waters by innocuous looking Dhows have the potential to quickly bring crude oil tanker traffic to a halt, while raising insurance rates to catastrophic levels. The effects on oil-hungry economies including India aren’t hard to imagine. And oil exporting economies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran would also be seriously affected as revenues dry up.

Security concerns aside, Anthony managed to secure approval for the import of an additional 5 million tons of crude annually from Saudi Arabia. This will go some way to easing India’s concerns over energy security as tensions in the region increase. In addition, the revival of Iraqi oil fields by Exxon Mobil is being positively viewed in New Delhi as it will enable India to re-establish trading links with an old friend in the region. Maritime co-operation in the civil, trading and defense fields is making progress as Iraq slowly rises again.

The upcoming MALABAR exercises, scheduled for April 2012 to include the Indian and U.S. navies in the Bay of Bengal, will be a good place for India to hone its skills in littoral and mine warfare, and will increase confidence and interoperability between the two premier navies deployed in the Indian Ocean. This is important as the likelihood of combat in narrow seas and littoral commons grows. With this reality in mind, India should invest in ships fitted to meet such eventualities. The “brown water” units of the Indian Navy and others need to be enhanced over the next decade, and Indian planners must bolster the country’s maritime diplomacy and closely co-ordinate with the United States to reduce the risk of strife in this region.

The stability of the Gulf nations is a prime requirement for peace in the region and beyond – and a key underpinning for the energy security India requires to continue with its rapid economic growth.