Military & Aerospace

A Vision of Maritime India 2020
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Vol 22.1 Jan - Mar 2007 | Date : 13 Oct , 2012

“What ship? Where bound?” is the traditional nautical query that goes out on the air when a warship encounters a stranger on the high seas. Recently an Indian Navy frigate on passage to the Persian Gulf was challenged on radio by a ship of the Coalition Task Force on patrol: “Unknown ship what are you doing in this area?” The IN ship shot back with barely concealed annoyance, “I happen to be an Indian warship in the Indian Ocean. What are YOU doing here?”

While this story may be apocryphal, it does serve to illustrate two aspects. Firstly that old mindsets take time to dissipate; guarding the seas East of Suez was historically considered the ‘white man’s burden’, and in some perceptions we may still be seen as interlopers in our own backyard. And secondly, that India has neither acknowledged her role as a pre-eminent maritime entity in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), nor done enough to shoulder the concomitant regional responsibilities.

While others are reluctantly coming to terms with India’s quest for her rightful place in the evolving world order, Indians themselves have remained irresolute and diffident in this regard. Consequently, there is a likelihood, that the concept of ‘Maritime India’ may present a conundrum, to the citizens of a nation which has remained hostage to a continental mind-set for centuries.

Therefore, before making out the case for a Maritime India, a decade and a half into the future, I would like to briefly take my countrymen back into the hoary past to examine the context in which a substantive maritime underpinning can be claimed for India’s history.

Our Blissful Ignorance

While we revere our past and have been brought up to blindly believe that we are the inheritors of a great culture and tradition, as a nation we have been sadly remiss in neither researching the past, nor adequately recording our own history. William Dalrymple provides us a poignant reminder of this shortcoming in the Introduction to his celebrated new book, ‘The Last Mughal’. He refers to the 20,000 virtually unused Persian and Urdu documents relating to Delhi in 1857, known as the Mutiny Papers, that he found on the shelves of the National Archives of India and says, “…the question that became increasingly hard to answer was, why no one had used this wonderful mass of material before.”

Indias maritime prowess went into rapid decline, mainly because the Central Asian dynasties, which ruled in Delhi, knew more saddles and stirrups than concepts of sea power.

It was left to conscientious British administrators, Jesuit scholars and other European researchers to unravel our glorious past by learning Sanskrit and studying our sacred Vedic literature. The discovery and collation of India’s history and culture by European scholars not only created great respect for it amongst them, but also inspired Indian nationalists to value and cherish their own inheritance, as they had never before viewed India from such a perspective.

However, those who write history also enjoy the license of giving it whatever slant they wish to; and this as we will see, is often at the cost of objectivity.

Their History

Almost all works on maritime history from Western sources start with a description of the seafaring tradition of the Mediterranean basin (circa 2500-2000 BCE), and dwell on the sea power of Crete, Phoenicia, Greece, Carthage and Rome. The first reference to the Orient generally relates to the Greco-Persian war in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, where mention is made (with relief) of how Greek sea power thwarted an “attack by Asia on Europe”. In this context Greece was fortunate in having two accomplished historians: Herodotus who is known as the “father of history”, and the Athenian historian-soldier Thucydides, who maintained a meticulous record of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta (431-404 BCE).

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Western Europe came once again under threat from the east; this time from sea power of the Ottoman Turks, who brought pressure to bear in the Mediterranean. The Battle of Lepanto in 1571 put an end to this last Asiatic challenge. Historians conclude that this was also the period that seafaring countries of Europe made certain breakthroughs in the fields of ship-construction and navigation, which enabled its sailors to start undertaking long-distance voyages. At the same time advances in gunnery and specialised fighting vessels provided them the means of overwhelming the opposition of ‘other races’.

It was the Indian Ocean, and specifically the lands washed by the Arabian Sea, which saw the first naval and oceanic sailing activity.

As Paul Kennedy puts it, the Western onslaught into the East was inspired by a mixture of political, religious and economic motives, particularly the latter. Once the Spanish and Portuguese fleets had demonstrated the ease of conquest, and the economic benefits to be gained by such maritime forays, the race was on, with Dutch, French, and English adventurers joining in what became a scramble for trading links, political advantage, proselytisation and loot.

So much for early maritime developments in the West; but it is intriguing to note that nowhere in these historical accounts does one find even a passing mention of India or the seafaring skills of ancient Indians.

Our History

For this we have to turn to the lone voice of Sardar KM Pannikar (1895-1963), our first ambassador to China, who combined in himself the attributes of statesman, diplomat, historian and visionary. Among the large number of his works in Sanskrit, Malayalam and English is a seminal essay entitled ‘India and the Indian Ocean’. First published as a monograph in 1945, this treatise is now out of print, and although read and quoted extensively by foreign scholars, it is little known to Indians.

According to Pannikar, for geo-physical and meteorological reasons (currents, prevailing winds etc.), it was the Indian Ocean, and specifically the lands washed by the Arabian Sea, which saw the first naval and oceanic sailing activity; and European historians err grievously when they assume that the navigational tradition first emerged around the Mediterranean.

Long before seafaring developed in the “limited” Aegean waters, according to him, oceanic navigation had become common with the coastal people of peninsular India. He clinches his argument by stating that: “Millenniums before Columbus sailed the Atlantic and Magellan crossed the Pacific, the Indian Ocean had become a thoroughfare of commercial and cultural traffic between the west coast of India and Nineveh and Babylon (modern Iraq) as well as the Levant (E. Mediterranean)”.

Pannikar goes on to assert that not only do the earliest Indian literature, the Vedas (1500 BCE), speak frequently of sea voyages, but that much of the materials found in the remains of the Indus Valley Civilisation (3000-2500 BCE), and many products discovered in Mohenjodaro came either from the shores of the Red Sea or the extreme south of India and “could only have been transported by sea”. He places Indians firmly alongside the Greeks and the Arabs as ancient seafarers and claims that the Hindus had already in use a magnetic compass (matsya yantra) for accurate navigation, and having acquired the skills to build ocean going ships of great strength and durability ventured into the distant reaches of the Arabian Sea.

Of all the Indian flagged vessels, only about 10 percent have been built in Indian shipyards because of higher costs, lengthy delivery times and indifferent quality.

Though Socotra was perhaps an Indian settlement and Indian communities existed in Alexandria, and in other locations in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, maritime activity in the Arabian Sea was confined to commercial purposes only. On the other hand, the Bay of Bengal provided a highway for a succession of kingdoms in the southern and eastern Indian peninsula to embark on cultural, colonisation and proselytisation missions to lands beyond the Malacca Straits – as Far East as Japan. Interestingly, Pannikar debunks the commonly held belief that all Hindus had a religious objection to crossing the seas, saying: “it was never true of the people of the South”.

Pannikar recounts the continuum of colonisation as well as cultural and religious osmosis from India’s east coast, by sea to Southeast Asia. Starting with the Mauryan emperors, he traces Indian maritime activism through the Andhra, Pallava, Pandava, Chalukya and Chola dynasties. To make his point about intrepid Indian mariners providing continuous cultural sustenance and support from the ‘mother country’, he refers to the 500-year long dominance of the seas by the Sumatra based Sri Vijaya Empire (of Indian provenance) and to the growth of large Hindu kingdoms and empires in Champa (Siam), Cambodia, Java, and Sumatra from the 5th to the 13th centuries.

From this apogee, India’s maritime prowess went into rapid decline, mainly because the Central Asian dynasties, which ruled in Delhi, knew more saddles and stirrups than concepts of sea power.

The arrival of the 20-gun Portuguese frigate San Gabriele off Calicut in May 1498 marked the beginning of what Pannikar terms as the ‘Vasco da Gama epoch’ and commencement of four centuries of ‘authority based on control of the seas’ by European powers; and not all the daring, valour and patriotic fervour of the Zamorins, Marrakars or Angres could stand up to it.

An Indian Ocean Entity

“Status and symbolism” said George Tanham a RAND Corporation researcher in his monograph on Indian strategic thought, “matters greatly in Indian society…and Indian Admirals may need no justification or rationale for a powerful navy other than that India’s greatness mandates it.” Others have alleged hegemonistic intentions on the part of India. With mindsets of this nature, I considered this somewhat lengthy prologue necessary to obtain a correct perspective about our past, and to provide reassurance that Indians are neither interlopers nor parvenus in the Indian Ocean.

Our post-independence leadership, for various reasons, developed a utopian outlook, which led to a moralpolitik rather than realpolitik orientation in our policies.

We, therefore, need to examine whether in trying to become a pre-eminent IOR entity India seeks merely ‘status and symbolism’ and hegemony; or is it actually seeking to fulfill a manifest destiny and a tangible need. The British, because they had arrived in India by sea, realised the gravity of the potential maritime threat, especially from their European rivals. Accordingly they adopted a maritime strategy for India, which was a sub-set of their global game plan to gain and maintain control of all major oceanic choke points worldwide, especially those leading to the IOR.

Our post-independence leadership, for various reasons, developed a utopian outlook, which led to a moralpolitik rather than realpolitik orientation in our policies and a focus on lofty concepts like ‘non-alignment’, ‘universal disarmament’ and ‘zones of peace’ which were rich in rhetoric but did nothing to further our national interests, gave us a moralising image and endeared us to no one.

The British have not forgotten that their economic rise and fall had been closely linked with their navy’s rise and fall. Shorn of all imperial or colonial trappings, their Defence Doctrine still speaks of maintaining the capabilities required “for independent action to meet inescapable national obligations and safeguard British interests worldwide”. Many times the size of this tiny island nation, we need to make a serious assessment of India’s own national interests and compulsions in the context of the IOR.

Due to a lack of vision, diffidence, and preoccupation with internal matters we have over the past 60 years embraced insularity and neglected our maritime security. Even if some kind of a ‘Monroe Doctrine’ was cultural anathema for us, we should at least have declared to others our strategic frontiers, and defined for ourselves a strategy to safeguard our interests within their bounds.

A Maritime Destiny?

India’s overarching interests are clearly defined by the need to guarantee a stable and tranquil external environment for two reasons. Firstly, our own people expect that favourable conditions will be maintained for speedy implementation of the nation’s lagging developmental process. Secondly, we have an obligation to the international community to ensure that trade and shipping traffic flows unhindered in the IOR sea-lanes.

With ample justification, our strategic frontiers can, therefore, be considered to extend from the Persian Gulf down the east coast of Africa, across to the Malacca Strait and south to the Southern Indian Ocean. In this context, as a peace loving status quo power and a law-abiding nation state with an impeccable record of observing international conventions, we must disregard those who are inclined to cry wolf about ‘hegemony’.

the Bay of Bengal provided a highway for a succession of kingdoms in the southern and eastern Indian peninsula to embark on cultural, colonisation and proselytisation missions to lands beyond the Malacca Straits ““ as Far East as Japan.

Admiral Mahan the renowned American strategist, had specified six conditions, as having a vital bearing on the sea power of a nation: (i) geographical position; (ii) physical conformation; (iii) extent of territory; (iv) number of population; (v) national character; and (vi) policy and nature of government institutions. Let us examine our country against the touchstone of Mahan’s conditionalities.

As far as the first three, essentially geographical conditions are concerned, no country – perhaps not even an island state – could be as favourably placed as peninsular India, for the development of maritime power. The next two conditions relate to the commercial enterprise and seagoing proclivities of the populace; and with 11 maritime states and island territories India probably has more seafaring people than the population of most European countries; but more of that later. It is the sixth and last condition, on which we will need to focus our attention rather sharply.

Having seen that the portents are appropriate and propitious for India to redeem her maritime destiny, we have to recognise that there are a number of distinct strands to the logic, which must underpin her endeavours in the maritime domain. It is necessary that we examine (the threats, and opportunities that constitute) these strands and then weave them all together into a cohesive cord.

States & Non-State Actors

For a threat assessment to be objective, it must recognise Lord Palmerston’s dictum about nations having neither permanent friends nor foes, but only permanent interests. An appraisal, divested of sentiment, will therefore show that India and China are going to be competitors for the same strategic space in Asia, and no matter how peaceful their rise or how intense their bilateral trade, a clash of interests cannot be ruled out. It is intriguing, in this context, to note that of her 15 neighbours, China has painstakingly settled land boundaries with all, but stoutly maintained her claim on Arunachal as well as occupation of Aksai Chin.

The sustained transfer of not just conventional arms but also advanced nuclear weapon technology as well as missiles, to Pakistan either directly by China or through the North Korean conduit has no precedent in international relations. In addition, China’s strategy of creating a ring of weapon client states right around India has placed us strategically on the backfoot. This situation is, however, of our own making, because over the years, China has provided sufficient indications of her plans for ‘containment’ of India, which we have disregarded.

It should come as no surprise to us if in the next few years PLA Navy ships and nuclear submarines are put regularly into harbours like Chittagong, Sittwe, Hambantota or Gwadar in our immediate neighbourhood. In pursuit of their grand design, the Chinese are planning or in the process of building container terminals in all these ports.

By herself, Pakistan may or may not have been able to do much vis-à-vis India, but as China’s surrogate she has received strategic support, and managed to achieve a great deal. And of course the Chinese puppet-masters have manipulated a willing Pakistan brilliantly to checkmate India at minimal cost to themselves.

The seven tons of explosives, which created mayhem in Mumbai in 1993, arrived on our shores by sea. Today, the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle on either side of India are the source of financial sustenance for terrorist organisations

Developments post 9/11 have garnered for Pakistan, moral and material support from the USA, and further buttressed the position of her military ruler. As a consequence of this implicit and explicit abetment, Pakistan continues undaunted, to be the nursery of religious fundamentalism and fountainhead of nuclear/missile proliferation.

Moving away from our immediate neighbourhood, we also need to factor into our calculus, the substantive presence of extra-regional powers in the IOR. Friendly they may be, but one should never forget that they are in these waters, not for altruistic motives but specifically to safeguard their perceived national interests; economic and strategic.

Should a conflict of interests ever arise, we must be in no doubt that coercive force will be brought to bear on us. Under such circumstances, we have to be prepared to act in our own self-interest. And we must let neither the Hyde Indo-US Nuclear Energy Act, or any similar document, nor the manifold ‘strategic partnerships’ that we seem to have crafted with other nations ever cloud our vision.

The seven tons of explosives, which created mayhem in Mumbai in 1993, arrived on our shores by sea. Today, the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle on either side of India are the source of financial sustenance for terrorist organisations like the al Qaeda and Jemmiah Islamiah, which use maritime routes for lucrative narcotic and arms trafficking. The LTTE, apart from its combatant Sea Tiger wing, also has a small merchant fleet, which conducts clandestine trade in Southeast Asia to replenish the organisation’s logistics. Add to this, the freewheeling piratical activity in locations like the Horn of Africa, the Bay of Bengal and the Malacca Straits, and one gets an idea of the vigil that is necessary to maintain order in the waters of the IOR.

Maritime Assets & Liabilities

The Indian Ocean sees about 100,000 ships transiting across its expanse annually. Two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments, one-third of its bulk cargo, and half the world’s container traffic pass through its waters.

The vibrant economies of China, Japan, and South Korea as well as the rest of Asia-Pacific rely on oil supplies, which emerge from the Strait of Hormuz and transit via the Malacca Strait into that region. Over 70% of our own oil comes by ship from the Persian Gulf. Any disruption in oil traffic could destabilise the price levels, resulting in a major upset for the world economy and a setback for our developmental process. As mentioned earlier, India’s fortunate geographical location astride Indian Ocean sea-lane gives her a key role in safeguarding their integrity and ensuring unhindered traffic.

India’s burgeoning economy, which ranks fourth in the world in PPP, is inextricably linked with sea borne trade. Our exports were about US$ 100 billion in 2005-06 and are slated to double over the next five years. Of our foreign trade, over 75% by value is carried by sea. India’s growing merchant fleet is the 15th largest globally and operates out of 12 major and 184 minor ports scattered along our 7500 km long coastline.

Another aspect of the ocean, which presents the prospect of wealth and prosperity, and yet contains the seeds of conflict, is undersea resources. The average depth of the Indian Ocean is less than 4 km, and that is the distance, which tantalisingly separates us from a veritable treasure-house of rare minerals, gas and hydrocarbons awaiting exploitation on the ocean bed. India has a mineral rich EEZ extending currently, over 2.2 million sq km (and likely to increase). In many instances, especially in deep basins of the Andaman Sea, technology is the only barrier that currently hinders exploitation of these resources at this moment.

In an effort to diversify resources and ensure stability in supplies, ONGC Videsh Ltd has acquired oil concessions abroad in Russia, Myanmar, Iran, North Africa, the CARs and South America. These represent investments of several hundred billion dollars in real estate, infrastructure and national resources, which may one day require us to reach out across the seas for their protection.

The frozen wastes of the Antarctic have been attracting expeditions of Indian geologists, meteorologists, oceanographers and others for over two decades now. Our scientific community has established a succession of manned scientific stations, which have yielded valuable data over the years. Their worthy endeavours have been fully supported by the navy, and should this unique continent have anything to yield in terms of mineral or organic wealth (even if 50 years hence) India’s stake would need to be protected.

Fish provides 25% of the world’s supply of animal protein. The control and management of fishing resources is a problematic area, with most seafaring nations deploying their fleets to more lucrative grounds in the EEZ of other countries. India’s EEZ contains an estimated potential yield of 40 million tons of fish. Of this, we harvest less than 10% and the rest are either poached by foreign trawlers (especially in our island territories), or die of old age.

Maritime Cooperation

During peace, which fortunately prevails most of the time, the main business of navies is (apart from preparing for war) to act as instruments of state policy in offering “a range of flexible and well calibrated signals” in support of diplomatic initiatives. The options available could include projecting maritime power for intervention, or influencing events on land, showing presence to either convey reassurance or threat, cooperating with allies in training exercises or simply rendering humanitarian relief when required.

The waters of the Indian Ocean provide a sanctuary where the SSBNs of various nuclear powers, including the Chinese… Location and tracking of these submarines may become necessary to keep the threshold of coercion at a reasonably high level.

Recent experience, including the relief rendered by us during the tsunami disaster and the Lebanon crisis has shown that our neighbours are inclined to look instinctively to us for assistance in times of distress. Even in the normal course, they feel that India is well placed to provide military training as well as material aid to them. It is only when we fail to respond to their repeated appeals that they turn to other countries in the region. Regrettably, this scenario continues to be repeated with depressing regularity.

As pointed out earlier, we have been neglectful of this aspect and need to make early amends. Our foreign cooperation objectives should essentially aim to curb or prevent powers inimical to India from intruding into our neighbourhood, and to help us shape the environment favourably for operations in peace and in war. The Indian Navy does have in place a well-oiled mechanism as well as long term plans for foreign cooperation, which needs the Government’s backing for implementation.

Safety of the Undersea Deterrent

India’s Nuclear Doctrine clearly envisages a deterrent in the form of a triad with land-based, aircraft borne, and submarine launched ‘legs’. Of these, we possess only the first two at the moment. Nuclear weapons are not meant for war fighting, and achieve deterrence by convincing the enemy of the futility of contemplating a nuclear first strike, because the instant response would be so horrific and devastating as to render the strike pointless.

In order to convince the enemy, your deterrent must have two essential attributes, which render it ‘credible’: it should have massive destructive power, and a major component of it must be survivable in the face of a sneak first strike. The only platform, which can claim to be ‘undetectable’ and hence invulnerable to pre-emptive attack, is the nuclear propelled, ballistic missile-armed submarine (known in USN parlance as the SSBN), which can remain concealed in the ocean depths for months on end.

The waters of the Indian Ocean provide a sanctuary where the SSBNs of various nuclear powers, including the Chinese, lurk unseen with their missile warheads programmed to strike designated targets; some of them, no doubt, our own cities. Location and tracking of these submarines may become necessary to keep the threshold of coercion at a reasonably high level. This is however, a daunting task, which requires tremendous anti-submarine warfare hardware and skills, which the IN should be acquiring.

However, to complete the triad of our own Strategic Forces we must have a small number of Indian SSBNs. Developmental work is reported to be underway, and when this platform becomes operationally available, we will need suitable areas in the distant reaches of the Indian Ocean from where it can be safely deployed to pose deterrence to our adversaries.

The Ingredients of a Maritime India

At Independence, agriculture generated seventy percent of India’s GDP, and it is a sign of the times that today its share has dwindled to less than 20% while services (including IT) contribute over 50%; and industry does the rest. The dramatic growth of the Indian economy is being spurred by its interdependence on, and integration with the global economy. This factor, coupled with our energy requirements, burgeoning trade, oceanic wealth; both mineral and organic, and many other vital interests require us to focus attention on our maritime environment.

A supporter of all UN organs, and an aspiring member of the Security Council, India’s own well-being and progress depend on promoting international stability, freedom and economic development. Since our economy is dependant on international trade, India’s vital interests are not going to be confined merely to the IOR. Just as we see foreign direct investment pouring into India, Indian investment overseas is also going to grow rapidly. Thus, along with an Indian diaspora of over 20 million, we are also going to have vital economic interests scattered worldwide.

The concept of maritime power encompasses far more than most people seem to imagine, and certainly goes much beyond the military aspects. Although it may be no longer fashionable to quote Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, in the opening pages of his book ‘Sea Power of the State’ he highlights his expectations from maritime power thus: “In the definition of sea power we include as the main components, ocean research and exploitation, the status of the merchant and fishing fleets, and their ability to meet the needs of the state, and also the presence of a navy to safeguard the interests of the state since antagonistic social systems exist in the world. Sea power emerges as one of the important factors for strengthening the economy, accelerating technical development and consolidating economic, political and cultural links with friendly people and countries.”

Of the 28 established shipyards in the country, only seven public sector and two private yards have reasonable building capacity.

Thus, contrary to popular perception, a strong and capable navy is just one (albeit very important) component of a nation’s maritime strength. We need to focus on the ingredients required to make us shun our centuries old continental mindset and put us on the path of becoming a truly maritime nation. This brings us to the different ingredients that will go towards constituting a vibrant Maritime India 2020.

Ports and Merchant Fleet

Considering that 97% of our international trade by volume, is carried by sea, the Maritime Sector, in which the Ministry of Shipping and Transport includes port operations, the mercantile fleet and our shipbuilding industry, has been sadly neglected since Independence. A study commissioned by the Confederation of Indian Industry as recently as 2006, to examine the revival of this sector, points out that with our sea borne trade rising at a rapid rate, there is urgent need to focus inter alia on the following areas:

  • Ports
  • Global Maritime Security Environment
  • Hinterland Connectivity
  • Shipbuilding and Ship Repair Industry
  • Human Resource Development

Compared to the efficient cargo handling and speedy ship turnaround times available in most of Asia-Pacific, our ports are slothful and grossly inadequate to meet the current cargo throughput requirements. Considerable planning and investment would be needed to bring our ports up to international standards. In this context, the exacting requirements of security protocols like the ISPS Code would also need to be kept in mind. Moreover, unless hinterland connectivity in terms of efficient railroad and fast highway connections are available, investment in ports may be rendered infructuous.

India’s merchant fleet comprises of 760 ships of 8.6 million tones GRT, and the average age of its vessels is about 17 years. It can carry less than half of the country’s foreign trade, and India’s shipping capacity in the words of Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, is “…woefully inadequate, and by any reckoning out of synch with its overwhelming dependence on seaborne trade.” Consequently we are continuously dependant on foreign carriers and losing earnings to them. The fleet is also qualitatively mismatched to market needs; lacking container vessels, as well as product and specialised carriers. All these shortcomings constitute strategic handicaps and need to be redressed.


Of all the Indian flagged vessels, only about 10 percent have been built in Indian shipyards because of higher costs, lengthy delivery times and indifferent quality. There is deep irony in this statistic, because we have an ancient shipbuilding heritage. In Lothal (Gujarat), archeologists have excavated, possibly the world’s oldest dry-dock going back to 2500 BCE, and anchored in Hartepool harbour is the 38-gun frigate HMS Trincomalee built of stout Malabar teak by the Wadia master-shipbuilders of Bombay way back in 1817. Today the Indian shipbuilding industry is a pale shadow of the magnificent Wadia tradition.

India is at the centre of a spectacular IT boom and many industrial sectors in the country are at the cutting edge of technology or of production engineering, but not shipbuilding. It is an index of our shortsightedness that while China, South Korea and Japan have marshaled their strengths to produce quality ships at competitive prices in large numbers, India with all her advantages, has completely neglected the shipbuilding industry. India may be world No.1 in low-tech ship breaking, but a modern supertanker needing repairs in our waters may well have to go to Dubai for dry-docking.

Of the 28 established shipyards in the country, only seven public sector and two private yards have reasonable building capacity. While the public sector shipyards lack the technology, as well as finances, work ethic and innovative spirit necessary to be competitive, the private shipyards await a ‘level playing field’ to make their mark. This depressing scenario may persist unless the GoI takes a long-term view and implements some hard decisions in this strategic sector, bearing in mind that a boom in shipbuilding will spawn a multitude of ancillary industries too.

A Central Maritime Agency

The sixth issue figuring in Mahan’s agenda referred to earlier, spoke of ‘government institutions’. Today there is no single government agency, which has either the span of responsibility or the authority to act as the focal point for India’s maritime policies and interests. Nor one, which has the physical means to exercise control over the myriad activities that take place on and under the oceans. As many as sixteen different ministries, departments or organisations, (including the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard), are involved in ocean-related matters, and much of the time the left hand does not know what the right is doing. The result is; confusion, crossed wires and compromised national security.

Let me provide a few examples here. Merchant ships blatantly pollute our waters with impunity, unsafe ships ply in our waters and often run aground or sink outside harbours, licenses to fish in Indian waters are given for foreign trawlers who fudge papers and have Chinese or Pakistani crews, we lack radar chains to monitor shipping traffic, and the crowning irony; while hundreds of retired Indian naval personnel are debarred from crewing our merchant ships, we look abroad to hire foreigners for this purpose.

A comprehensive proposal for the constitution of a multi-disciplinary ‘Maritime Commission’ was mooted a few years ago by Naval Headquarters, but ran into rough weather and finally foundered on the rocks of inter-Ministerial rivalry and insecurity. A nation such as ours urgently needs to evolve an overarching Maritime Policy and create a central agency to monitor its implementation.

Varuna’s Trident

Coming finally to the Indian Navy, which is the instrument for safeguarding our maritime security perimeter, for creating a position of influence in the region where India’s national interests lie, and in extremis for defeating the nation’s enemies at sea. Of all the entities that have found mention so far, it is the IN, which has prepared itself best to be the keystone of the nation’s maritime edifice in 2020.

Therefore, instead of embarking on a discussion of diverse issues, I will confine myself to informing the reader of the navy’s outline plan of action for this period. The navy considers that the resurgence of our maritime power is a sine qua non of India’s rise as an economic giant. While undertaking the planning process, the navy’s leadership has taken care to create not just the intellectual underpinning necessary for it, but also to provide, for decision-makers, a rationale for its projected growth path.

The Indian Maritime Doctrine published in 2004, essentially set out the ‘rules of the game’ for deployment of maritime assets for attaining national objectives. In 2005, the navy decided to undertake an exercise to quantify the ‘capabilities’ (for example air defence, amphibious, anti-submarine, maritime patrol etc) that would be needed to discharge all the roles envisaged for maritime forces in the doctrine. Given the performance of modern ships, aircraft & submarines, these capability requirements were then translated into numbers of platforms that would be necessary.

A sensitivity analysis was undertaken with the numbers that emerged, against budgetary variables up to the end of the 13th Plan (2022). Having essentially met all bottom lines relating to threat perceptions, fiscal resources, and shipbuilding capacity, this force planning exercise was converted into a Maritime Capabilities Perspective Plan which now forms the navy’s force planning blueprint till the end of the next decade. This capability-based approach has served to make tomorrow’s navy leaner, while packing far more punch and keeping the ‘capital to revenue’ ratio at a very healthy level; which means that there is much more money available for modernisation.

In late 2006 a Maritime Strategy was promulgated by the IN. This document has served to fill the residual philosophical hiatus, and to provide tangible guidelines, within the specific geo-strategic environment anticipated in the next decade, for the acquisition, build up and employment of maritime assets in peace and in war.

The navy of 2020 will essentially be a three dimensional force (“Varuna’s Trident”) built around the core of two aircraft carrier task forces and closely networked through a dedicated communications satellite. Indigenously built destroyers and frigates will be available in adequate numbers to provide escorts for the carriers as well as for independent surface action and anti-submarine hunter-killer groups. All escorts will have modern sensors and long-range weapons of offence and defence, and will carry multi-role helicopters.

While replenishment ships will ensure long legs for the combatants, we will also have enough friendly refueling ports in the IOR (and South China Sea) to allow extended operational reach. Long-range anti-submarine warfare and maritime patrol aircraft of a new generation would provide support to our forces in the distant reaches of the oceans.

We would have in service by then, six indigenously built submarines of the Scorpene class, and perhaps another 3-4 boats of an advanced indigenous design, all equipped with missiles and air independent propulsion. The decline in submarine force levels should have been arrested and reversed.

It is now an article of faith with the IN that all operations by maritime forces at sea will be designed to produce a direct or indirect impact on the land battle. Future operations will invariably demand that information dominance be the opening gambit. Sea control, if required, could then be established as a prelude to maritime manoeuver and littoral warfare. In such a scenario, land attack, naval air, amphibious, and Special Forces capabilities will require due emphasis, which is being provided by the naval planners.

Many of these concepts are new, and require radical reorientation of mindsets as well as operating procedures. The navy has, therefore, triggered a process of ‘Transformation’ to deal with orderly the management of change.

The navy’s focused thrust would have ensured by 2020 that much technology and many products of indigenous or collaborative origin are at sea. In the area of propulsion, we would have advanced diesels and gas turbines, as well as electric drives on our warships. It is entirely possible that the endeavours of our scientists would by this time have succeeded in putting indigenous nuclear propulsion at sea, either on a submarine or an aircraft carrier.


It may be mentioned with utmost emphasis, that of all the ingredients, which go into the making of a great maritime nation, none is more important or significant than the human mind. Unless determined efforts are made to create a consciousness of our ancient maritime heritage, and an affinity for the seas in the minds of young Indians, all efforts at creating a Maritime India could come to naught.

There will be skeptics who point to our populous landlocked states. To them I would say that while the Indian Navy today does have its share of sailors from the ‘maritime states’, the bulk of our Service consists of land bound people from Bihar, UP, Rajasthan (two former Chiefs), Haryana, Himachal and Punjab; and they all make excellent sailors. So much for Mahan’s predictions!

In an epic and hazardous voyage, the navy’s sail training ship INS Tarangini circumnavigated the globe in 2004. The Captain describes with delight, the incredulity of thousands of visitors who boarded the ship in various ports across the world at the sight of Indians (!) sailing around the world. By next year, we hope that a courageous IN officer will set another seafaring benchmark for his countrymen by undertaking a solo sailing voyage around the world.

We must also note the example of continental Russia where Peter the Great almost single-handedly created not just a maritime tradition but also a magnificent navy, which recently celebrated its 300th anniversary. So if a maritime tradition can be created, it can certainly be revived.

There is a great deal that the Government can and must do in this context; and we have dwelt on it at length. However, there are a handful of organisations and individuals of dedication and conviction working today, to kindle the spark which will revive India’s glorious maritime tradition amongst the populace, and especially her youth. Noteworthy amongst these are the Sea Cadet Corps in Mumbai, the National Maritime Foundation in Delhi and the Indian Maritime Foundation in Pune. They are all deserving of our goodwill and support in this worthy cause.

Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd.)

Former Chief of the Naval Staff of the Indian Navy, Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee and author of From the Crow’s Nest.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left