“To be Secure on Land one must be Supreme at Sea” – Jawahar Lal Nehru
In early February this year, the archipelago nation of Maldives found itself in a full-blown constitutional and political crisis, when the incumbent President Abdullah Yameen, ordered the arrest of two Supreme Court judges, who had ordered the release of the political opposition leaders. The President proclaimed a state of emergency and crackdown on opposition and civil liberties. The downslide in democracy on this tiny island nation which mainly thrives on tourism, has been in the making since 2012, when the first democratically elected President Nasheed was forced out of office and subsequently tried on charges of treason and who has been living in exile ever since.
In 2013, the present President was elected in controversial elections and who since 2015, has been viciously cracking down on the political opposition and has undermined democracy and the rule of law. The dissension in the populace is also on the rise. Inevitably, the nation has been drifting away from democracy. A similar situation had arisen in 1988, when the then President Dr Gayoom was sought to be overthrown by hired mercenaries and was rescued by India in a swift military operation called “Cactus” wherein INS Ganga, a missile destroyer, returning from a flag-showing mission, was diverted to intercept the mercenaries fleeing in a freighter, as a consequence of the action by 400 Indian para-commandos inducted by air. The situation was overcome and Dr Gayoom was restored as the President of the island nation. However, much has changed in the last 30 years, in particular, the growth of Chinese influence in this region. This got a further push after the visit of President Xi Jinping of China as part of his South Asia tour in 2014 including India and Sri-Lanka. The bulldozing through of a Free Trade Agreement with China, without any debate and the parliament bereft of opposition, marked the apogee of Chinese influence in this archipelago, which traditionally, ethnically and historically has been within the Indian sphere of influence.
Strategic Location of Maldives Archipelago
This archipelago is strategically located at the Eight Degree channel in the Arabian Sea, which separates the island of Minicoy (India) and the Maldives. The shipping from the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Oman make a landfall at Minicoy before setting East towards Sri-Lanka or East-South East to Malacca Straits or South-East to the Java Sea and in the reverse directions when coming West. It is estimated that nearly half of the world’s shipping passes through these sea lanes and nearly all of shipping carrying oil for Japan and China traverses these sea lanes. The criticality of safe and free navigation through these waters thus needs no emphasis.
The Vital Role of Peninsular India
India is a peninsular sub-continent which sits astride the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the North Indian Ocean. With its size, economic, military and demographic might and most importantly, as the largest democracy in the world, it has a natural role to provide security to freedom and of safe navigation across these sea lanes and the Indian Ocean rim. It is also of great significance that 95 per cent of India’s commerce and trade is sea borne. Hence, it is naturally and geographically placed to play this vital role. Indeed, historically too, this was the position even during the Islamic and British rule over India. The British Empire attained its glorious heights only till it held sway over the sub-continent. No sooner was it dismantled than it lost its global power and reach.
The Growth of Chinese Influence
Since the late 1980s, the Chinese have been steadily building up their presence and influence in this region with their ‘String of Pearls’ policy. They have now reached a stage where, through their One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, they not only wish to consolidate this influence, but want to make inroads into Europe. Their aggressive trade practices and more often than not, favourable trade balance, complements this strategy. Furthermore, their policy of providing loans at commercial terms, to help build infrastructure in client countries, gives them leverage on debt often ending up in debt trap, which is exploited by China to take control of host country’s assets in infrastructure and land. The Hambantota port in Sri-Lanka is a case in point. Realisation of this danger is also dawning on the thinking folks in Pakistan as regards the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Apart from the debt trap, the demographic influx of Chinese workers poses another danger in creating cultural and ethnic imbalance. This creates faultlines which are also potential vulnerabilities that could be exploited by China.
As stated above, the prevailing circumstances are not what were prevailing in 1988 when India intervened militarily to restore status quo in Male and which also received international endorsement. However, despite the changed scenario, there are a slew of options available to India to enable restoration of democracy and the rule of law in Male. Let us examine these.
Mobilisation of international opinion to bear pressure on the dispensation in Male is one such measure. Dictatorships are abhorred in the international arena. Thus engagement with the dispensation in Male with calibrated coercive pressure is an effective and viable course of action which seems to have been followed upon. It did have some effect when the President Yameen said that engagement with India remains a cornerstone of Maldives’ policy. Providing support and encouragement to the dissident political formations to create internal pressure is yet another option.
• Trade and Economic Sanctions
These also constitute a step in the ladder to bear pressure on the incumbent leadership in Male to restore democracy. However, such sanctions must be very carefully weighed against results and consequences which quite often prove counter-productive as happened in the case of Nepal. More often than not, these sanctions hurt the populace at large more than the despots they are intended against. Rightly so in the instance case, the Indian establishment has not yet taken this road having got wiser from its experience in Nepal.
• Travel Advisory
Issuance of such advisory has a debilitating effect on the tourism potential of the target country. This has been issued by the Indian Government. Many other European countries have followed suit as has the USA.
Usually, this option is the last step in the escalation ladder and is always on the table. Whilst considering this, the Chinese factor has to be taken into consideration. Indeed some noise was made by Global Times cautioning India against a military intervention. The dimensions of military option are examined in detail hereunder.
Militarily, the predominant option is in the maritime domain in which the following factors are relevant:-
- Surface dimension.
- Sub-surface dimension.
- Bases, Logistic and Lines of Communication.
As was learnt, the Chinese had deployed a surface task force in the region, but it did not approach the area and returned after the presence of an Indian surface task force operating in the area was announced. This was a wise step in de-escalating the situation. Further, it is worth noting that any surface task force of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will most certainly be at a disadvantage in a possible skirmish in India’s own backyard just as an Indian Navy task force in South China Sea would face a similar situation. The long lines of communication create a favourable asymmetry for India. Also, entrance to the North Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal or Arabian Sea for the Chinese surface forces, will have to be through the Malacca Straits. Consequently, they would be under constant surveillance of Indian assets, primarily air and satellite borne. The absence of surprise and the advantage of shorter lines of communication, which enable faster turnaround and hence sustainability of operations, create an asymmetry predominantly in India’s favour. The presence of a carrier battle group and the capability to induct offensive air assets virtually on call, further widens this asymmetry.
The incursion of Chinese submarines, in particular the nuclear powered ones, in this region, pose a more potent threat than a surface one. Indeed of late, it has been noticed that at least one SSN of PLAN has maintained its presence in these waters. However, the limitation of this threat needs examination in light of the following:-
- Distance from Dalian naval base to North Arabian Sea up to off Mumbai via Malacca straits, is 5,061 nautical miles (nm) approximately.
- Distance from Dalian naval base to North Arabian Sea off Mumbai via Lombok Strait is 7,300 nm.
- Distance from Dalian naval base to Bay of Bengal off Visakhapatnam via Lombok Strait is 6,000 nm.
- Passage time at a cruise speed of 13 knots (kts) one way in (b) & (c) above, works out to 24 and 19 days respectively. Cruise speed of 13 kts is taken as optimal at a reactor loading of 45 per cent.
- Force Levels of SSGN/SSN in PLAN
▶ Type 095 NATO Desig Not Yet Allotted 1
▶ Type 093 Shang Class 2+4 (planned) 3rd entered service
▶ Type 091 Han Class 3 to be phased out as Shangs induct
▶ Conventional 55 of various types.
Note: Only SSGN/SSNs are considered for analysis as conventional ones would be limited in operations in this area.
Additional Operating Factors
- Stealth is critical in deployments of these boats. Accordingly, passage to and fro area of interest should be submerged.
- Thus passage through the Malacca Straits is not an option. Passage will have to be through the Lombok Straits. This implies total passage time would be 48/38 days respectively to be off Mumbai/Vizag.
- An autonomous patrol of a SSGN/SSN is usually of six weeks/45 days duration. This period of six weeks has been arrived at after empirical and psychological studies on crew endurance. Absence of sunlight and other stresses in a confined environment have a debilitating effect on the human body.
- The above two factors are taken into design considerations and the Planned Preventive Maintenance (PPM) routines are accordingly scheduled.
- In exceptional circumstances, the above period could be stretched to eight weeks/60 days while accepting certain degradation in crew and auxiliary machinery performance. A typical example of important auxiliary machinery is the distiller which makes double de-mineralised fresh water for the reactor and the crew after it is made potable.
- However, operating with a depot and support ship in the vicinity, would enhance the duration of the patrol without significant penalties on the performance of crew and machinery. The crew is replaced. Most SSNs operate on Gold/Blue crew concept. Indeed intelligence suggests that the Chinese SSNs do operate in this region with a support ship standing by.
Time on Task (TOT) and Threat Perception
From the foregoing, it is evident that in the absence of a support ship, the TOT of these boats is extremely limited. Even in an extended deployment it would 12/20 days in Western and Eastern seaboards of India respectively. For an effective deployment a minimum of 20 days TOT is considered essential. To maintain continued presence, adequate force levels are necessary, which the PLAN does not yet have for this area. Usually, a deployable factor of two-thirds of available boats is taken as the thumb rule.
It, therefore, accrues that given the present strength of the SSNs in the PLAN inventory, the threat on the Western seaboard of India is minimal. This will become more probable if operating with a support ship. But then the presence of the support ship compromises the stealth factor as the ship on surface would be detected by air/satellite surveillance. However, as the force levels in the PLAN increase, the threat posed by their SSNs will correspondingly increase.
To effectively neutralise/reduce the effects of such a threat our surveillance of Lombok Straits would be a critical factor and we could co-operate with Indonesia for this. They are unlikely to side with the Chinese as the latter have territorial claims on the former. In other words, sharing of intelligence and surveillance assets with potential friendly states is of essence.
Should the circumstances so dictate, this is another option that could be availed of. The common cause of ensuring freedom and of safe navigation through these sea lanes could provide the glue.
Infrastructure, Bases and Lines of Communication
The Indian Navy has the geography on its side in this scenario and with bases in A&N islands, Lakshdweep islands in addition to bases on the mainland with shorter lines of communication, mounting and sustaining maritime operations with quick Operational Turn Round (OTR) is a major advantage which is not available to the Chinese presently. They hope to achieve this with their OBOR initiative of which development of Gwadar port in Pakistan is a vital part under CPEC. However, with India securing a foothold in Cha-bahar port, Al-Duqm on the Northern coast of Oman and availability of a forward operating base in Seychelles which has been recently agreed to, it neutralises the Gwadar factor considerably. The recently concluded agreement with USA under the Logistics Exchange Memorandum also puts USN facilities available to the Indian Navy. The availability of these basing and logistics give the Indian Navy tactical advantage. Given these factors as examined above, the asymmetry in the maritime dimension is heavily loaded in India’s favour.
Indian Vulnerability Vis-à-vis China on the North East Frontier
The situation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the North-East with China though peaceful mostly, has been irksome in recent times with incursions by the Chinese forces. Doklam incident is a case in point. Thus any overt show of force in the North Indian Ocean/Arabian Sea could have a fallout on Chinese behavior in the North-East. They could raise the temperature in engagement there since their infrastructure is far more developed and conducive to quick mobilisation. Hence, this factor would have to be borne in mind while fashioning activities in the Maritime dimension.
Indian Response to the Developing Situation in Maldives
In view of all the factors enumerated above, the response of the Indian establishment has not been precipitate, but a well-calibrated one and is comprised of an interplay of all options discussed herein. The naval response had been tempered yet strong and overt in the form of exercises such as Milan 2018 (although this was scheduled earlier) and deployment of a surface task force in the Arabian Sea. This was adequate to send a strong message. It is highly probable that a submarine may have been deployed on patrol in the area of interest. There are of course some deficiencies which are mainly in extended surveillance and in sub-surface platforms.
Summary and Way Forward
All factors considered, the situation has not blown out of hand. Political and diplomatic measures are being taken for the restoration of democracy and rule of law in Male. However, as the incident has highlighted, some measures to address the inadequacies need to be taken by India. Some of these are:
- Speeding up of infrastructure build up in the North-East.
- Hasten the implementation of the long delayed 30-Year plan for submarine construction, in particular Project 75(I).
- Augment surveillance capabilities in the region. Additional P8 I maritime patrol aircraft may be needed.
- Operationalise our activities on proposed agreed bases in the Seychelles, Al-Duqm and Chabahar.
- Accelerate the implementation of the SSN programme approved last year.
- Augment strength of personnel and capabilities (surveillance in particular) at Dweeprakshak on Kavaratti Island.
The recent crisis in Maldives has thrown up a challenge in India’s backyard and sphere of influence. Unlike as in 1988, a swift military intervention was not an option given the change in geo-political scenario and the strong Chinese influence in the region. However, the Indian establishment has a slew of options including military – particularly in the maritime dimension, should the circumstances so dictate. For the present, a combination of politico-diplomatic measures is adequate to bring pressure on the incumbent President Yameen in Male to see the restoration of democracy and the rule of law. Fresh elections should be held as early as possible.
The Male incident has also highlighted shortcomings in our military domain and these need to be addressed with hastened attention. The build-up of infrastructure in the North-east must be taken forward on priority. Projects for the Indian Navy languishing for some time such as indigenous construction of submarines with land attack capability, must be given the necessary impetus. Surveillance capabilities in the area of interest need to be augmented. All these steps would ensure India’s pre-eminence in the North Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea so that it is able to discharge its natural role by virtue of its geo-strategic location as the provider of stability and guarantor of peace in the region as also to ensure freedom and safe navigation in these waters.