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The Indian Navy’s Big Ambitions

A new stealth frigate and naval base are the latest signs of India’s maritime ambitions. But can India’s Navy become more self-reliant?

By Nitin Gokhale for
The Indian Navy’s Big Ambitions

Two unrelated but important developments late last month highlighted the strides the Indian Navy is taking against a backdrop of a significant expansion aimed at meeting emerging maritime security challenges in the Indian Ocean region.

On April 27, a stealth frigate, the INS Teg, was commissioned in Russia. Three days later, India’s latest naval base, INS Dweeprakshak (Island Protector) was put into operation at Kavaratti in Lakshadweep, a tiny island chain southwest of India’s southernmost tip. Although, India had had a small presence on the strategically important island chain for the past decade, the Navy’s decision to open a permanent base was prompted by nearby recent incidents of piracy. Indeed, the Navy has in recent years captured scores of pirates and foiled several attacks.

“The Indian Navy has been operating a detachment at Kavaratti since the early1980s,” the Navy said in a statement. “With the commissioning of INS Dweeprakshak, the island territories would see calibrated strengthening of assets in step with their growing relevance to the security calculus of the nation. A firmer footing in the islands, which are spread out astride some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, would provide the necessary wherewithal to the Indian Navy to discharge its responsibilities suitably.”

The establishment of the base is in keeping with an announcement made by Chief of Naval Staff Adm. Nirmal Verma at the end of last year, in which he noted that the Navy is also in the process of setting up so-called operational turnaround bases, forward operating bases and naval air enclaves along the coast with a view towards enhancing India’s surveillance efforts in the region.

“In 2011, the Navy has provided a renewed impetus and focus towards creation of operational and administrative infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Lakshadweep and Minicoy Islands,” Verma noted in December. “These islands are the country’s strategic outposts and augmentation of the facilities will enhance our reach and enable extended presence in the area.”

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But it’s the INS Teg that gathered many of the headlines. The Teg will be followed by two more such stealth ships, to be inducted early next year. The 125 meter frigate displaces 4,000 tons and includes the BrahMos surface-to-surface missile system, a surface-to-air missile system, torpedo tubes and anti-submarine rockets. With its advanced weapons suite and sensors fully integrated with its combat management system, the ship is, in the Navy’s words, “well suited to undertake a broad spectrum of maritime missions.”

The commissioning of the Teg and the opening of a new naval base within days of each other, although technically unrelated, highlight the Indian Navy’s growing footprint in its broader area of influence, and its determination to boost its capabilities – especially in light of the recent stinging criticism of the military’s readiness dished out by the country’s army chief, Gen. V.K. Singh. The development of the Navy is seen as necessary to fulfill two roles: giving the country a blue water capability, while allowing it to effectively counter threats closer to its own shores.

Indeed, with Singh’s comments likely still ringing in lawmakers’ ears, the parliament’s Standing Committee on Defense, a panel with cross-party representation, was also handed a detailed brief by the Defense Ministry at the end of last month, which outlined plans to strengthen India’s naval capabilities.

According to the report, in the short-term, the military is aiming to augment its airborne maritime surveillance, strike and air defense capabilities through: induction of shore-based aircraft, carrier-based aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles; development of anti-submarine warfare capabilities; ensuring the country has adequate capabilities for expeditionary operations to achieve desired power projection force levels; inducting assets and developing suitable infrastructure to augment forces available for low intensity maritime operations and introducing state-of-the-art equipment and specialized platforms for Special Forces to enhance niche capabilities.

What does all this mean, taken together? Given the breadth of these plans, it’s now more than clear that the Indian Navy is in the middle of its most ambitious expansion plan in the past three decades. As I’ve noted before on The Diplomat, the Indian Navy’s planning is increasingly being driven by capabilities rather than numbers – a welcome shift from the old bean counting philosophy that has too often dominated the country’s defense planning.

The Navy also says 50 modern ships are currently on order, the majority of which are being built in Indian shipyards. Apart from two more stealth frigates of the same class as the Teg, and the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Admiral Gorshkov) being re-built and modernized in Russia, all other ships are being built indigenously.

But as encouraging as the focus on indigenous production is, the standing committee has been informed of potential problems ahead. According to reports, the committee was told last month that while Indian shipyards have made considerable progress in building hulls and associated equipment, they still lag in building and manufacturing weapons and sensors.

According to a statement from the committee on the process of indigenization, hull and associated equipment has reached 90 percent self-reliance and indigenization, propulsion machinery such as engine generators has reached 60 percent, and “fighting” components comprising weapons and sensors has hit 30 percent indigenization.

After assuming a relatively low profile over the past two decades, the Indian Navy is now poised to grow rapidly in the coming years. If India wants to realize its desire to become a dominant maritime power in Asia, then it has no choice.

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