Homeland Security

Need for an Indian Marine Force
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Issue Vol. 30.4 Oct-Dec 2015 | Date : 21 Feb , 2016

Our continued neglect of the maritime frontier and the opportunities that it provides reflects the thinking of a ‘landlocked’ power. If we create a master plan to devote one per cent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) towards building up our maritime potential over the next 15 years, we can become a manufacturing and trading power bigger than any European country. Our country is blessed with warm seas and good navigability for vessel of any size all the year round. Yet it is a challenge to investigate and determine which of these factors are holding up our maritime growth – is it inertia or lack of practical thinking; discouragement of ‘spurred’ economic activities along our seaboard or not granting ‘special’ economic development powers to our island territories; is it just lack of a ‘risk taking’ mentality or is it due to the absence of a ‘will of steel’ to become a great nation?

“When the chips are down, call in the Marines”, goes the popular motto of the American Marines. India, which claims to be an ancient maritime nation and has a long coastline of nearly 4,500 kilometres and outlying island territories to defend, does not have a Marine Force! It makes one wonder as to why we have never achieved the status of a great maritime nation despite transcending the main world trade routes. Maybe even strong past Indian rulers never grasped the strategic need to have strong trade relations with other countries and civilisations, using indigenous maritime fleets to increase national prosperity, and gain from the free flow of new ideas from across the globe.

Our continued neglect of the maritime frontier and the opportunities that it provides reflects the thinking of a ‘landlocked’ power. If we create a master plan to devote one per cent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) towards building up our maritime potential over the next 15 years, we can become a manufacturing and trading power bigger than any European country. Our country is blessed with warm seas and good navigability for vessel of any size all the year round. Yet it is a challenge to investigate and determine which of these factors are holding up our maritime growth – is it inertia or lack of practical thinking; discouragement of ‘spurred’ economic activities along our seaboard or not granting ‘special’ economic development powers to our island territories; is it just lack of a ‘risk taking’ mentality or is it due to the absence of a ‘will of steel’ to become a great nation?

India’s naval power had remained neglected after independence as our political leaders envisioned threat only from across our Western land border…

At the end of WW II, Russia successfully ensured that it never again shares a border with a country that has the potential of invading it in future. US policymakers, as early as the 1823, formulated the ‘Monroe Doctrine’ which consciously discouraged and ensured that no other military power succeeds in establishing a foothold on the American landmass and that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans always act as gigantic barriers to safeguard its population even from an aerial attack.

Recently, China has also woken up to its long forgotten maritime traditions and is furiously building up its naval power, trade and influence over the maritime nations of Asia and Africa. It is constrained because the US has converted Taiwan to act as its ‘Gibraltar’, in order to curb Chinese ambitions. Presently, China has kept four well trained Mechanised Amphibious Divisions ready to achieve its main aim of seizing Taiwan by force should the opportunity arise.

Both the UK and France also have adequate groupings of Marines and support nuclear carrier-based Task Forces for overseas intervention. They have also practiced interoperability and functioning under a joint command. Only a Marine Force has the capability for ensuring a quick and effective response to situations arising across the sea or to initiate the process of recapturing of island territories. When national prestige is at stake, this is a small price to pay for the upkeep of such a strategic capability. Marine Forces are also dual use groupings both across water and on land, as history has proved. Marine Forces also should not be confused with Naval Commandos who have an entirely different function.

The Importance of the Maritime Seaboard

The kind of prosperity which China has been able to create in a mere 35 years on its Eastern Seaboard stretching up to 200 kilometres inland is comparable to the rise of Japan during the period of the Meiji Restoration. China’s Eastern seaboard today is comparable to the Atlantic seaboards of Europe and North America in terms of prosperity and industrial development. If we look back in history, the great scare that was created by the appearance of a single German battleship ‘Emden’ off the coast of Madras and its shelling at the start of WWI, or the brief appearance of two Japanese carrier Task Forces in the Bay of Bengal in early 1942 after the capture of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and their carrying out the bombing of Calcutta, or the decisive influence played by the arrival of the US carrier Group led by ‘Enterprise’ in mid-December 1971 South of the Indian peninsula to dissuade India from switching over its forces to the Western Front and attempting a permanent solution against Pakistani military adventurism – all these episodes point out how vulnerable we as a nation are from a threat from the maritime dimension, and how amenable we are to pressure applied on the maritime front.

Availability of a battle-ready Marine Force grouping at short notice is essential for our national security…

In contrast, China today faces no such threats, and its current strategy has been to force US carrier Groups to operate at least 2,000 kilometres off the Chinese mainland in the event of a confrontation. It has been able to project this threat by strengthening its submarine arm; by creating strong coastal flotillas armed with long range Ship to Ship missiles; by strengthening the reach, sophistication and numbers of its coastal bomber command incorporating large, land-based AWACs and by strengthening and expanding its Marine Force which is the second largest in the world today.

We must, therefore, seriously endeavour to turn the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea into Indian dominated lakes using unrivalled naval assets and air power. We should also have the wherewithal to have considerable influence over the Northern Indian Ocean Region especially the busy sea lanes from West Asia to the Malacca Straits. The ‘Look East’ Policy which the Government of India has enunciated also needs backing up with military strength for it to succeed, and generate a good level of cooperation and economic activities. Weakness will always attract ‘interference’, bullying and countering efforts by nations who do not wish to see India succeed. What a fall India has experienced from the ancient days of Emperor Ashoka and Rajaraja Chola when we had a strong navy. Indian culture and religion had spread throughout South East Asia and was voluntarily accepted and appreciated by the people there.

One good step always leads to the next. Scientific progress and innovative thinking should always be encouraged, so that advancements made by other nations should get immediately noticed and replicated. This requires good managerial talent especially at the government level, developing a strong engineering skills base, gearing up the technological support backup and research institutions which have to quickly deliver results, and above all sustained leadership and coordination strengths. India must not allow itself to become a ‘pushover’ in the maritime arena and we need to catch up fast to stay in the race. All we need to do is emulate Israel and China and surpass them as opportunities arise.

Factors Warranting the Raising of ‘Indian Marine Force’

India’s naval power had remained neglected after independence as our political leaders envisioned threat only from across our Western land border. It was only during the late 1980s that India started to pay attention to building up naval assets in order to become a regional power. Due to lack of political will and national vision, this effort had been put on the backburner for the last 15 years with disastrous results, as indigenous ship building programmes have remained stunted in high technology areas and for capital ships. It will take at least another ten years to correct the slippages and become buoyant again.

Japan and Australia are also in the process of raising full-fledged operational Marine Brigades by 2020…

India has missed the opportunity to get ship building technology cheap, when other naval powers were in economic recession and were desperately on the lookout for collaboration orders to escape laying off their skilled workforce and closing down their production lines. Glaring examples are – not completing the HDW submarines construction deal which would have enabled us to master the skills of manufacturing advanced conventional submarines indigenously; not joining the consortium of France and the UK for constructing the new generation of 60,000-tonne class nuclear carriers; and not collaborating with Navantia of Spain to build advanced Landing Platform Docks (LPDs) after having gained experience in operating the ‘Trenton’ class Jalashwa LPD.

In India, the need for a professional Marine Force had been felt since the time of the disastrous Ramree Island capture operation launched on the Arakan coast in early 1943. Subsequently, the 3 British Marine Brigade was brought into the ORBAT of South East Asia Forces Command and 33 Corps was raised as a purely amphibious force during WWII. In 1971, ‘OPERATION BEAVER’, a botched amphibious operation was launched at Reju Creek South of Cox’s Bazar using an infantry battalion (1/3 GR), to block the escape of Pakistani troops. This became a haunting comedy of errors and led to several unwanted drowning deaths.

The fundamental defect that exists is that we come out with typical short fix solutions in operational planning. An infantry formation can be trained to take part in a ‘set piece demonstration’ of amphibious warfare, but the lingering knowledge and efficiency does not last beyond three months as this is an altogether different ball game like airborne operations. To become professionals in this field, a tradition has to be created and Units and formation HQ have to learn from past mistakes. A vast array of equipment modifications has to be tried out and perfected by doing constant R&D, and by frequently interacting with foreign marine forces.

On the contrary, a Marine formation can easily adjust to a ground role by shedding some of its specialised equipment if given this alternative task. Unfortunately, both our army and navy do not think that ‘amphibious warfare’ fits into their priorities for ‘resources allocation’, and expects the other service to take the initiative. As a result even our trained army units are only good enough to play the role of ‘follow on’ echelons in an amphibious operation. This conundrum exists all over the world! The US Army has never been able to match the prowess of the Marines in amphibious landings since the Anzio operation in 1944 when it became a laughing stock. The Royal Navy learned this hard lesson during the ill-fated Dardanelles operation in WWI.

India has not so far raised an independent and permanent Marine Force due to its land-power oriented thinking…

Structure of the Proposed Indian Marine Force

The proposed organisation of India’s Marine Force is given in Appendix I. It would be prudent to give the Coast Guard the responsibility of raising this force, as it will then get high priority in the scheme of things. This force should preferably be located near a port in the South such as Vizhinjam or Tuticorin or Nagapattinam or Cannanore where Defence land is already available. Alternatively, Paradeep Port in Odisha is also a suitable location. In the absence of warlike conditions, it will take ten years for India’s Marine Force to become fully equipped and operational. Each of the ‘Marine Special Expeditionary Units’ must remain deployed in an operational area once in six years in order to gain fighting experience.

The proportion of regulars to officers on deputation in a Marine Unit should be 50:50, so that a wide spread of personnel get the ‘Marines’ experience. Only those on deputation who have at least three years of service should be given the chance to serve in the Marine Force. No attachments or detachments of the Marine Force without the prior sanction of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) should be permitted, nor should any ceremonial or station duties be assigned to them, so that very high training standards and operational deployment effectiveness is maintained. The Marine Special Expeditionary Unit should also be showcased in UN Peacekeeping roles, so that they gain confidence and a good reputation.

Special Forces allowance should be authorised for Marine Forces personnel serving in Combat Units, as their training and operational roles are highly strenuous and risk oriented. Availability of a battle-ready Marine Force grouping at short notice is essential for our national security, as it will allow India to respond on the same day itself to any unfavourable developments in our neighbourhood across the sea. Nothing should be allowed to become a finality due to default and delayed actions on our part at the national level, which could lead to unwanted long-term repercussions. India deserves to be taken seriously and given due respect in other nations’ self-benefitting calculations in our neighbourhood.

Even a country like Spain has two LPDs and many military observers were surprised at the speed of its response across the Atlantic when there was a devastating earthquake in Haiti, a few years ago. Japan and Australia are also in the process of raising full-fledged operational Marine Brigades by 2020. In India, the fight is still going on between private shipyards and government-owned shipyards as who will get the order to make indigenous LPDs. Some of the private shipyards which have suitable production capability are in the red due to lack of sustained orders, as there is no lobby existing presently in the MoD to take up the case of building up our Marine Force capability.

We may be shocked out of our slumber if a pro-Chinese regime gets entrenched in the Maldives and leases out a naval facility to China on a long term basis, just like the Diego Garcia arrangement between the UK and the US. Presently, China has one LPD with Marines on permanent ‘anti piracy’ patrol deployment as part of its ‘19th Convoy Flotilla’ of its South China Sea Fleet operating in the Western Arabian Sea along with a nuclear submarine and support ships. It already has an assured support Base at Gwadar in Pakistan. Although Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka are friendly towards China, they are unlikely to provide permanent Base facilities.

Marines are also required for projecting strategic military capability over long distances, at sea or on land…

Suitable Tasks for the Indian Marine Force

Tasks which can be assigned to the Indian Marines Force are:

  • Undertake pre emptive actions involving amphibious landings, seizure of beach heads or a port installation, as a prelude to the induction of the Main (Army) force.
  • Linking up with an airborne force from a beach head.
  • Carry out strategic interdiction in enemy territory consequent to seaborne landing.
  • Seize enemy strategic asset located on the coast or in nearby inland area.
  • Prevent sudden enemy capture of important island territory.
  • Undertake sustained anti-piracy or counter terrorist operations in sea space.
  • Carry out domination operations in riverine terrain, mangrove terrain or estuaries.
  • Assist natural disaster relief or evacuation operations at offshore locations.
  • Do escort duties for Indian shipping in important sea corridors.
  • Patrol uninhabited island territories and coastal stretches.
  • Act as a high mobility strategic reserve over water, air or land.
  • Assist large-scale search and rescue operations at sea.
  • Assist seabed exploration and offshore oil and gas extraction efforts.
  • Carry out laying of sea-mines and placement of detection devices during wartime.
  • Assist peacetime ecology conservation efforts in coastal waters.
  • Assist a naval blockading force in wartime.
  • Seal off certain stretches of coastline from clandestine landings for limited period.
  • Local protection of naval flotilla when in anchorage in hostile territory.
  • Assist in carrying out a diversionary operation during wartime.
  • Defence of strategic nuclear assets deployed offshore.

In view of the above mentioned tasks which can get assigned, it is essential to have a standing Marine Force to master the nuances of sea-based warfare. For example, the Israeli Marine Force ensures that not even a hostile scuba diver can land on its coast undetected. They have perfected a system of radars and other detection devices based on secret technologies to ensure this high level of security. The French make the best in class ‘Mistral’ Helicopter and VSTOL PDs and landing crafts in the world. The UK’s Royal Marines are the best experts in arctic warfare, mountaineering skills and in sea-based sabotage and extreme commando operations. The Falklands War saw the Royal Marines in full action along with their Gurkha Brigade and Special Air Service Units. They displayed the innovative technique of taking on concrete pillboxes from stand-off distance using ATGMs.

Other Countries’ Marine Forces Impacting India

  • China has two Brigades of highly trained and equipped Marines and four LPDs. It is building more Type 71 LPDs and also a 30,000-tonne Type 81 Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD).
  • Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps have two Marine Brigades. What is holding them in check is the formidable US presence in the Persian Gulf.
  • Pakistan has two battalions worth of Marines organised into ‘Dolphin’ Companies.
  • Indonesia has a Division worth of Marines to protect its archipelago and oilfields. It trains every two years with the Chinese Marine Force and conducts joint exercises.
  • Bangladesh and Myanmar also have Marine Battalions.
  • The US has a Marine Base in Bahrain and has stationed two MEUs there/on ships. Another MEU is located at its Indian Ocean nuclear base in Diego Garcia at all times.

The strategic requirements for India to possess an effective Marine Force should, therefore, not be lost. If Maldives comes under the sway of a pro Pakistani regime or a pro Jehadi regime, the strategic situation will suddenly shift for India. In such an eventuality, it is better to take swift pre-emptive actions rather than being confronted with an ‘Inner Tibet being occupied by China’ type situation as had happened in 1950, when we were left humming Panchsheel tunes.

The recent poll outcome in Sri Lanka may lead to a favourable strategic situation for India, if Chinese nuclear submarines stop docking in this country’s ports. Imagine what an outcry China can create if an Indian nuclear submarine or a group of naval ships dock at Kaohsiung harbour in Taiwan? India has not yet exploited the rich tuna fishing grounds in our Exclusive Economic Zone and in the Northern Indian Ocean Region. Chinese and other Far Eastern countries’ fishing fleets and processing factory ships have been lately active in exploiting these resources. Close trade, economic and naval cooperation with Australia and South Africa will stand to benefit us. India needs to focus on becoming the leading trading partner of the countries in the Indian Ocean rim by 2025.

Having a good Marine Force capability definitely reflects on a nation’s prowess in world affairs, especially on regional calculations. It would be like a good omen and catalyst for national resurgence. Italy’s Navy has the reputed ‘San Marino’ Regiment as part of its Special Forces, and not a single Italian cargo or passenger vessel has been targeted by sea pirates or terrorist groups for the last decade. When we talk peace with other countries, it should be backed with overwhelming military strength to get what we want, as the Russians always do. This acts as a great catalyst to come to mutually acceptable and beneficial agreements, which even skilled diplomats or smooth talking politicians cannot achieve. Every free nation has to fulfill its manifest destiny without being a menace to other nations. Therefore, negotiations backed up with adequate strength are a must in realpolitik. ‘Force’ is required more as an insurance should the other party act irrationally. Otherwise, why should China have waited so long to get back Hong Kong? India needs to shed its “soft state” image, while remaining a peace loving country.

Proposed Organisational Restructuring for the Indian Navy


India has not so far raised an independent and permanent Marine Force due to its land-power oriented thinking and lack of promotion of its maritime potential and interests. If we wish to learn only after mistakes are committed and after suffering irrecoverable loss, then continuation of this policy can be justified. On the other hand, a Marine Forces will help the nation to project strategic ambiguity and force the opponents to allocate additional forces and resources for their own security calculations. To capture and operate a port or to establish an artificial harbor in hostile territory certainly requires an efficient and well-trained Marine Force. The job of the Marines cannot be carried out by the Infantry however, well trained it is, because the priorities of army commanders always keep changing with different personalities at the head of affairs, and infantry units keep rotating. For the army or the navy, this will always remain an additional or secondary task. The capabilities of the MARCOS of the Navy are basically limited to fleet protection, harbour installations security and carrying out some degree of special operations in enemy waters. They cannot carry out mainline amphibious operations. Amphibious warfare ships and equipment are complex and have to have 100 per cent reliability, in order to save lives from accidents and failures, besides from enemy actions. Marines are also required for projecting strategic military capability over long distances, at sea or on land. There are no known substitutes for Marines in such contingencies.

The Marines played a significant role in winning the war in the Pacific for the US during WWII against the fierce and entrenched Japanese forces. This component was as important as its carrier groups. In India’s neighbourhood, the Coco Islands of Burma and Gwadar Port in Pakistan have already been let out to the Chinese. Once Hambantota Port in Southern Sri Lanka gets completed with Chinese finance and material help, it is likely that the PLA Navy will get replenishment facilities there in reciprocity.

India should not forget that it was conquered and made a colony for nearly two centuries by European traders who came by sea! They found it so easy to rule and exploit the enormous resources of this subcontinent, by keeping Indian society divided and choosing their favourites. The lack of a naval vision and strong maritime culture will do us in again, if we do not plan to dominate the Indian Ocean Region. In the present context, raising of a dedicated Indian Marine Force is a necessity which we cannot postpone anymore or find stopgap solutions, to indulge our wishful thinking nature and escapist mindset. Even the great Roman Empire declined due to the weakening of its maritime power.


1. The Second World War by Antony Beevor, Orion Books Ltd, London, 2014.

2. Wikipedia sources.

3. The Influence of Sea Power on Ancient History by Chester G Starr, Oxford University Press, 1989.

4. History of Modern India by Bipan Chandra, Orient Blackswan Pvt Ltd, Hyderabad, 2009.

5. www.irfc-nausena.nic.in/irfc/ezine/Trans2 Trimph/chapters/9_naval_ops_enc.htm. Sourced on 05 Mar 2015.

6. “MARINE COMMANDOS: INDIA’S FLEXIBLE ELITE”, Archived, Jane’s Intelligence Review. Sourced 05 Mar 2015.

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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

Col JK Achuthan (Retd.)

8 GR was commissioned in June 1980. 

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3 thoughts on “Need for an Indian Marine Force

  1. Part Two:

    Here is something that I wrote about the Indian Navy’s “Strategy and Structure” a long time ago”:

    “This is all old time “Show the flag”, “Fleet review”, and “Capital ship” assessments of naval profiling. How does showing the flag here and there strengthen a navy? For example, by concentrating its Naval forces around Karwar, The Indian Navy has effectively unlearned the lesson of Vizag and PNS Ghazi. Not to mention Pearl Harbour, the Battle of Trafalgar and the sinking of the Bismark! Now the enemy knows exactly where to take out the Western Fleet, all that remains is the “how” and the “When”, I have always maintained that India needs to have a large number of tiny bases and tiny but sharp toothed ships, subs, missiles and aircaft that can be moved around between bases to cluster or swarm as necessary. Not just along the coast but along India’s extensive archipelagos of the Nicobar, Lakshadweep, Minicoy and Andamans. The Indian Navy is locked into a pre Second World War parading of Dread Noughts and Fortresses more redolent of medieval Rajasthan. If at all it is possible to create a Maginot line in the oceans, The Indian Navy will succeed in doing so! This reminds me of very junior chess players painstakingly building a bulwark of pawns against a superior and dynamic player who delivers a check mate with a few deft moves and a sacrifice or two. The Indian Navy, like its Neta-Babu Over Lords seems to be attending to its personal comfort, security and the familiar environs of a clonie (colony) rather than attending to National Security. Quite expected. But, look at Russia. In deploying small ships with extraordinary fire power in Syria, they have demonstrated what I have been trying, in vain, to tell India for decades. My lack of success is primarily due to India trying to become a “me too” “toys for the boys” Navy like the US without any regard to India’s strategic or tactical needs, affordability or lie of the land.”

  2. A good perspective. The Indian Navy, like the US Navy is bringing up dreadnoughts and capital ships like the Knights of medieval Europe while Russia is moving into smaller, faster, ships with greater stamina, flexibility and higher fire power like Genghis Khan’s Mongols. (Remember the Battle of Trafalgar?) India is endowed with a natural if static Eastern and Western fleets of aircraft carriers, missile cruisers, submarine bases and so on that India has ignored because of its land-locked perspective to expend enormous and unnecessary sums on “Navy Build Up” in imitation of obsolete Navies and Naval Forces that rest on an economic base and a global agenda that it will take India a century to even aspire to AFTER it puts an end to bad laws, perverted constitution and the reservations-extortion raj this has fostered. the United States.


  3. The Indian forces are not filling their role as they should do they still think the old ways , a tank battle they will send 100 tanks to face a 100 tanks what about your air power. A blockade a port, a few thousand trained Marines hold a port until help arrives. Indian political leaders envisioned threat only sees a treat from across our Western land borders because they are stupid to understand things like that “what about Bombay Or Mumbai “ they were totally unaware to face a situation like that ? The Indian forces they have to try and make those stupid politicians understand a situation like this can happen.

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