India’s Quiet, Big Naval Splash

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India’s Quiet, Big Naval Splash

India is acquiring new platforms and capabilities that are turning it into a major naval power. Why doesn’t anyone seem to care?

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.

However, things have slipped. Its current carrier, INS Viraat (the former HMS Hermes), is drifting towards obsolescence, while a March 2011 report by the government’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAg) said that between 2011 and 2013, the IN would have only 61% of its envisioned frigate fleet, 44% of its envisioned destroyer fleet and 20% of its envisioned missile corvette fleet.

So while India is spending big money, its recapitalization is as much about maintaining existing levels as it is about building new capabilities. Meanwhile, many of these big ticket projects are running behind schedule and over budget (see point 3).

3)      Naval modernization and procurement is chaotic, late and over budget

The 2011 CAG report identified delays and huge cost overruns in three key programs: the Project 15A frigate, Project 17 destroyer and Project 28 missile corvette.

The CAG highlighted multiple problems, including massive delays in contract signings, unrealistic budgeting, inadequate infrastructure at shipyards and basic project management foul-ups. One example was the failure to “freeze” the design of vessels prior to the start of construction, an oversight that naturally leads to all the other problems occurring.

In September 2011 another CAG report pointed out that the MiG-29Ks to embark its new aircraft carrier, Vikramaditya, were bought without weapons, “adversely affecting the operational capabilities of the aircraft”. That’s putting it politely.

Recent problems with the Indian Air Force’s acquisition of 12 AgustaWestland AW-101 helicopters for VIP use are also likely to run interference on the navy’s plans to buy much-needed helicopters.

Defence Minister A K Anthony is reportedly tired of the constant stench of corruption that surrounds major foreign military deals, but given the dismal record of local state-run manufacturers in providing the armed forces with the kit they want on time and under budget, the Ministry of Defence’s decision to tighten up regulations on procurement rules doesn’t bode well for the military’s hopes of getting new kit anytime soon.

4)      India’s maritime forces are expanding into a (relative) vacuum

Although India has used its navy in contingencies involving Pakistan, the Indian Ocean is big enough – and empty enough – for it to expand its role without generating too much friction with its neighbors. In the Bay of Bengal the navy is leading the military buildup of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, opening an aviation base, INS Baaz, in August 2012. At the base’s commissioning, navy chief Admiral Nirmal Verma said the island archipelago just north of the Malacca Strait offers India “a vital geostrategic advantage. Not only does it provide a commanding presence in the Bay of Bengal, it also serves as our window into East and Southeast Asia."

Ambitious words, but not of great concern to any nation except China. And therein lies the rub. Unlike Beijing, Delhi is not planning to use its navy or coast guard to enforce nine-dashed line-shaped claims that undercut its neighbors’ mineral, fishing or territorial interests. Right now, the Indian Ocean is big enough for a growing Indian Navy; the same can’t be said for the PLA Navy’s expansion into the South and East China seas.

It’s clear that some of India’s newly acquired new skill sets and vessels, such as the coast guard’s acquisition of 36 interceptor boats and 20 fast patrol vessels and the navy’s purchase of 80 fast interceptor craft, are a valid and much-needed response to terrorist – and territorial – threats such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

But in other areas India is building new, strategic level capabilities. The P-8Is and the US-2s amphibians it may buy from Japan give it serious naval aviation reach, while Vikramaditya, its troubled Kiev-class aircraft carrier, will embark the MiG-29K Fulcrum D – an F/A-18 Super Hornet-level platform that is a far cry from the aging Sea Harriers currently deployed from INS Viraat.

India is also building an ambitious strategic submarine fleet that will not only be one element of its nuclear triad, but is also intended for blue water operations far from friendly shores. It also commissioned its first nuclear powered attack submarine, INS Chakra, in April 2012. The boat, which is leased from Russia, has the range and endurance to extend the navy’s reach far beyond the Indian Ocean. 

Throw in Delhi’s plans for an extremely low frequency (ELF) transmitter to communicate with strategic subs anywhere in the world, construction of which started in 2012, and it is clear that India is thinking big – and thinking long term.

James Hardy is the Asia-Pacific Editor of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly