Homeland Security

India's Dilemma : A Maritime or Continental Power?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 13 Feb , 2016

Much has been made about India’s naval expansion. It has been touted as an important instrument of maritime power projection across the IOR- region and hence the harbinger of India’s arrival into a world untrammeled by the suffocating conflicts of the sub continent. In the next few decades we expect the Indian Navy to expand at an unprecedented pace adding weapons platforms and budget headings as it goes along.

However, this expansion raises a few questions about how India perceives herself and her own geopolitical position. Is India a maritime state or a continental power? Are we ignoring the army at the altar of the navy and its glamorous neo-Mahanism? Is the balance of threat out at sea or can it be found closer to our land borders? 

In my opinion, India is a continental power. Her very existence is based upon land forces. Historically it has always been so, as the army has been the prime instrument of fighting off both external and internal enemies. As a corollary of this I can surmise that the decisive battles of India’s future will be fought on land. 

History is the repository of man’s trials and triumphs. In the mid 19th century, France had the second largest navy in the world. It also had a formidable army that had fought numerous campaigns ranging from the Crimea, to Algeria and even Mexico.

However, in 1870 she was invaded by Prussia and brought to her knees. The French navy watched on helplessly as the Prussians crossed the Rhine, destroyed the French army, captured the Emperor, besieged Paris and ended the second French empire. The Prussians and their Germanic allies had no navy to speak of beside some second rate gun boats. What they did have was a superbly organized land army with excellent artillery and a better understanding of geographic realities.

The impressive blue water fleet that had cost millions of Francs had absolutely no impact on the land war. On the contrary, it had diverted a sizable chunk of funds away from the army.  The moral of the story is that a nation with exposed land borders must first have an excellent terrestrial military force and only then can it focus on developing a blue water fleet. Having a Mahanian style navy may be good for England or the US or even Japan, but not for a country that has 7500 kilometers of exposed borders like ours. It has to be noted that pre 1939, the US and Great Britain usually maintained a very small peace time army, preferring to lavish funding on the navy. This is perfectly suitable to their geographical positions, but one must acknowledge that our own location is qualitatively different. 

The International Relations(IR) terms of Balance of Power (BOP) and Balance of Threat (BOT) are integral to any discussion on Geopolitics. However, in our case we must also consider the Balance of Consequences (BOC) of a military defeat at the hands of our neighbors (No need to mention who they are).

We can survive a defeat at sea, but not one on land. That could be an existential threat to the union of India. At the very least, It could lead to an irrecoverable loss of territory. History of post 1947 India clearly shows that India has rarely ever managed to recover lost ground be it in Aksai Chin or elsewhere. The only solution to this lies in not losing ground in the first place. For that we need a strong army. And the best way to achieve that is through effective artillery. 

250 years ago, Frederick the Great said that ‘Crowns are won with Cannons’. Guns were the ‘Final argument of kings’, and ‘The supreme arbiter of conflicts’. Not much has changed. From inflicting around 15% of all casualties during the Napoleonic wars, cannons accounted for up to 70% of combat losses during the First and Second world wars. Yet today the Indian army is significantly anemic in this field. In the trudging warfare of the Himalayas or the wars of limited movement in west Punjab, artillery and rockets are kings.

Infantry movements are suicidal without adequate suppressive fire and frontal assaults will be nothing more than acts of self immolation. The introduction of precision guided munitions like ‘Excalibur’ will make artillery an even more effective killing machine as howitzer shells attain unprecedented accuracy.  Von Schreff’s prediction of ‘The empty battlefield’ is becoming increasingly manifest as wars of the future attain the shape of massive counter-battery duels, where concentrated masses of men and machines are nothing more than juicy targets for the enemy’s artillery. 

In this environment, should one not be concerned about the firepower of the Indian Army? The ongoing naval expansion and the prescribed artillery up-gradation have one thing in common. The need for huge amounts of capital. Are we diverting funding from the artillery (An existential need) to a blue-water fleet (A luxury)? 

Once again, history offers the answer. Between 1899 and 1911, Imperial Germany was obsessed with Mahanism. Both hawks and doves from the Second Reich advocated a blue water ‘High Seas Fleet’ that could bring Germany on equal footing with Great Britain and allow her a way to escape the stifling bounds of mainland Europe.

The Germans sunk huge amounts of funds into the navy and ignored the army. In doing so they lost track of the basic geographical reality of Germany being a continental power having long land borders and belligerent neighbors. Within a few years they had the second largest fleet in the world.

However, the army remained the same as it had been in 1899. It was only with the First Balkan war of 1912 that German observers realized how far behind their land forces had fallen. They severely curtailed naval spending, choosing the army instead. Between 1911 and 1914 they added specialist units, communications systems, reconnaissance aircraft, engineering detachments, zeppelins and observer balloons at a breathtaking pace. But most of all they added cannons.

In only three years they designed, built and introduced thousands of guns. They were quite ruthless at it; where their own designs fell short they shamelessly copied French designs. So much so that no army at the outbreak of the First World war could boast of a better artillery service. As the war dragged on, these guns did more to win battles that the entire German navy, who’s only contribution was a single indecisive engagement at Jutland (1916). Three years of artillery up-gradation had surpassed 12 years of naval expansion. Cannons had quite literally provided the Germans more bang for the buck. One can only imagine the outcome of the Great War, had Germany balanced naval expansion with artillery up-gradation during those 12 years. 

Some might argue that the Indian Army has adequate firepower, they may even be right. However, Von Manstein said that ‘one can never be too strong at the decisive point’ and artillery will be the decisive point of future conflicts. What we need is not ‘adequate’ firepower but overwhelming firepower both qualitatively and quantitatively. One silver lining is our Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, which promises to increase our army’s Operational and Strategic hitting power.

However, it leaves units vulnerable in tactical situations where using missiles may be perceived as conflict escalation. What individual unit commanders need is organic artillery under their direct command that can alter the tactical situation in their favour by laying down large volumes of supressive, support and counter-battery fire at short notice. This is doubly important in Himalayan warfare, where the role of Close Air Support is truncated by appalling flying conditions of less than 200 days a year. 

In conclusion we are presented with an Assertion and an Admonition. The Assertion being that India is more of a Continental than a Marine power and the Admonition that we start behaving like one.

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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

Daanish Inder Singh Gill

is an MBA from the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade (IIFT) and an avid follower of Military History, especially its conjunction with Geopolitics.

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9 thoughts on “India’s Dilemma : A Maritime or Continental Power?

  1. 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. Dear sir,

    You have pro land forces views, which is good. German past the 1890s after Bismarck, built a formidable navy, for which both world wars in the twentieth century were reliant. Germans used their navy so effectively that they could have starved Great Britain out of supplies. Alas! the Americans and UK combined had quadrupled their naval strength and carried the day.

    40% of world’s economic activity is within 50 miles of shores, that makes navy more important to prevent catastrophic losses.

    Again your point of artillery deficiency is not valid, although India is a bit deficient in artillery guns of modern kind. But, whatever Indian army has, it is very effective artillery unit. In last one year a huge push for artillery upgrade has been undertaken. Bofor copy made in India is on order locally, South Korean mobile artillery gun with a local joint venture has taken off and these guns will join the army in next three years, light artillery for mountain formations is being imported from US. A T-72 chassis married to a highly effective Russian 120mm gun has been delivered to the army. A Ruag design gun made locally has been given to the army for trials. In this way, artillery units will be fully well prepared in three years. Let us hope war does not break out tomorrow. Anyhow if it does, our enemies are as deficient as we are in modern artillery.

    Dear sir, you have not presented the whole picture. War is not about to break out and whatever is on order has to be taken into consideration. If you do that then picture you present will go upside down.


  3. Firstly we are thrust into the Indian Ocean – whether we like it or not. So it becomes a region of our interest. There has to be a balance between conventional land forces and the maritime forces based on strategic threat perceptions and international politics. The dimensions of warfare are five – Land, Sea (Surface), Sea (subsurface), Air and Space. We have to upgrade our land forces to be able to fight on the Tibetan Plateau. Pakistan is just a roll over, if we cater for the Chinese. There is a large amount of Chinese trade and Oil which passes through the Indian Ocean and the Straits Of Malacca. Why do you think that the Chinese have suddenly endeavored to rapidly expand their Navy since 2000 ? Oil is their weak link. They are wooing the Central Asian Republics and have a pipeline to get Oil to Sinkiang. Shipping Oil from the Chinese Eastern seaboard to Sinking and Tibet is an enormous exercise. Its one of the reasons they are investing in the economic corridor in Pakistan at Gwadar so that they can get Oil to Sinkiang by a shorter route. They do not fully trust the Russians who can turn the Oil tap off from the Central Asian Republics at will. This is where a strong Navy comes into play. If we have a strong Navy we will have the capability to block the Chinese trade through the Indian Ocean and the Straits Of Malacca. In fact India needs to build up the Naval air arm to be able to dominate the Indian Ocean. India should be the last word in the Indian Ocean.

  4. Excellent article. I always wondered about burgeoning navy expenditure. India faces its maximum threat from its western land border as well as Chinese border. Military expenditure should be based on threat perception rather than global trends.

  5. While navy is a projection of power of the Indian sovereign, its land forces are essential components for its survival. Navy as a standalone lacks independent strike capability in the context of India’s geographic location. Hence the larger argument is valid. It is well corroborated with examples from history. So the perspective is well founded across the pages of history. Hence three thumbs up to the author.

  6. I beg to disagree with a few points mentioned in your article:-

    1. The pathetic state of the Indian artillery can never be attributed to low budgetary allocations. It was more due to a phobia towards artillery procurement on the part of the successive governments and a lack of indigenous efforts to support the needs of the artillery regiment from an R&D perspective. A lack of urgency in military matters on the part of all those governments adds onto the problem. A lot of deals to procure artillery guns from abroad have been cancelled after the Bofors scam.

    2. Of India’s annual defense budget, most of the allocation is still for the Army. And Most of the allocation for the army is being used for non-capital expenditure. If at all there is a financial crunch which becomes a hurdle to the Artillery modernization program, then the best way to solve that is to cut the manpower of the Army itself and make it a more mobile lethal force by converting more infantry regiments into mechanized forces and by inducting more lethal artillery firepower.

    3. It is wrong to say that the artillery modernization should take place by cutting funds allocated to the Navy, since the requirement for a strong Navy is being felt now more than ever. Especially with the Chinese Navy’s forays into India’s backyard which may not be an existential threat, but has too serious consequences.

    4. Realities of the 21st century are much different from what it was during the times of all the strategic thinkers that you have quoted here. Wars are won by defending against the enemy’s onslaught and by simultaneously hitting him where it hurts him the most.

  7. Agree with you. Army is essential force in any conflicts. How ever enemy can strike from any where don’t forgot pearl harbour just because of mighty navay U.S able to neutralized Japs as well as Germans. Navy is crucial for onshore war I.e for logistics, Secure shores for troops as well as protect supply lines. In 1971 war Indian navy played crucial role to blockade Paki supply lines and celebrate diwali in Karachi. Mighty navy is need of future to protect trade and martime borders. Empires made by the strongest navy

  8. Rather than projecting itself as a continental, regional or any power, India MUST first focus itself on the fact that it is a SOVEREIGN power. However, as evident from the low conflict situation of last “brawl” (not sure how the political masters want it classified) the Navy did provide a strong deterrent to avoid escalation. Denial of access through and in and around the seas is as good as supporting land based forces in any modern day conflict scenarios. Moreover, Navy extends the defensive and operational reach of land based radar networks providing adequate air umbrella with offensive capabilities. A decade or two of dedicated application of political foresight with real time inputs from the armed forces will correct many a conception along with perception.

  9. None of the Nations mentioned had land border enemies with readily available ports acceded to encircle that Nation at sea as well. None of those had vital installations on their East & West coasts that could be thus very easily attacked. None of them actually had the need of a far stronger navy than what they had. They were already stronger powers within their realm & region which added to their confidence and over-confidence. Their sea-based lanes/ lines of communication were secured in all if not most cases. None of the things are applicable with respect to India.

    As India’s enemies waged asymmetric warfare last several decades, at the same times India’s military strength, especially naval, grew (or rather stunted) asymmetrically. Nation’s wealth was siphoned off leading to neither civilian development nor military. Let us not be ostriches – a single carrier group at any one time does not project one to be a “blue water navy”. Our “authorized” strength is also 3 carriers which is woefully inadequate for a blue water navy for a Nation that’s 50% peninsula and shares the seas with the same rogue nations that threaten the land borders and also with others that are keen to jump into bed with them either for money or religious ideology. India’s sea do not just support bulk of trade but almost all of energy inputs which are more easy to interruption than what comes on land. Wars are not just grabbing territories but ensuring that least is lost, if at all. India which was already years behind recapturing lost territories has slipped to decades behind in terms of capabilities. Hence a dynamic allocation and reallocation of resources based on changing threat perception is necessary. IAF & INS require big-ticket items and hence quantitatively small enhancement prints big in budget. Neither the Army is ignored nor allocations fall short of required optimal resource enhancements. Hopefully, sustained efforts over next decade will clarify the overall picture & perspective.

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