Military & Aerospace

A Vision of Maritime India 2020
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Issue Vol 22.1 Jan - Mar 2007 | Date : 13 Oct , 2012

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.

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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.

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