At long last and after many false starts, India now has a National Maritime Security Coordinator (NMSC). The nation’s first NMSC, former Vice Chief of Navy Vice Admiral G Ashok Kumar, has been handpicked by Ajit Doval, National Security Advisor (NSA) – who he will report to – pipping two other recently retired vice admirals, Murlidhar Sadashiv Pawar and Anil Kumar Chawla, to the much-coveted newly created post.
The selection process is an opaque and secret exercise sans any transparency or accountability; favouritism even in top national security-related appointments can’t be ruled out. We will never know how or why Kumar scored over Pawar and Chawla who have solid reputations and are marginally senior. All of them are retired Vice Admirals, equivalent to a Lieutenant-General in the Army who is a three-star general.
Learning from History
Anyway, Kumar has been assigned the unimaginably tough task of guarding the over-7,500 km-long coastline across 13 states and Union Territories, besides 2 million square km of Exclusive Economic Zone. There are 1,197 islands, too. He is the new point person for the Ministries of Defence, Home Affairs, External Affairs and Shipping, Intelligence Bureau, Research and Analysis Wing, Customs, police and port authorities.
Unlike our land frontiers – notwithstanding Chinese excursions, including the mid-2020 ‘invasion’ that resulted in the loss of 1,000 square km in Ladakh according to the Home Ministry, which the Modi government is yet to deny – the coastline has often been breached with disastrous consequences.
In 1993, RDX and weapons were smuggled into Mumbai by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from the Arabian Sea, resulting in the serial blasts that killed 260 people. In 2008, ten Pakistani terrorists armed with AK-47s sailed in a boat from Karachi, sneaked into Mumbai and killed 140 Indians and 25 foreigners.
We don’t learn lessons from history. If truth be told, Kumar’s appointment was fast-tracked by three new ominous developments haunting the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) today.
Firstly, in September 2021, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) busted a major naval espionage case, sending shockwaves through the National Security Council Secretariat headed by Doval. A serving Commander and two retired Commodores were caught selling classified information about Kilo-class submarine – one of the most sensitive ongoing naval projects – to Korea and other unnamed countries for huge sums of money. But the media had little appetite for the busted spy ring as Pakistan was not the buyer of our submarine secrets nor were the betrayers Muslims. But the possibility of China or Pakistan being the end-users operating from behind a Korean curtain does exist.
A Plush Job
Secondly, in mid-September, nearly 3,000 kg of heroin was seized from two containers at Mundra Port in Gujarat owned by Gautam Adani, the richest Indian known for his closeness to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After the seizure worth $2.72 Billion, Adani Ports said it did not have the authority or wherewithal to examine the millions of tonnes of cargo that pass through its terminals. The gaping holes in coastal security stood exposed as never before.
Thirdly, on 18 October 2021, the Pakistan Navy announced that it had “detected and blocked” an Indian submarine on 15 October from entering its territorial waters. It said the submarine was “detected and tracked by long-range maritime patrol aircraft” and stopped 283 km south of Karachi, just inside Pakistan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that countries have exclusive economic rights over under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
After the botched-up operation, India calculated that Pakistan, which follows a vehement tit-for-tat policy vis-à vis Indian military, would mount a counter operation to test our coastal security preparedness.
Headhunting intensified after Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who is obviously aware of the three developments, told a Parliamentary Consultative Committee on 29 October 2021 that the Modi government is engaged in “seriously assessing” threats to the nation’s coastal security and taking steps to make it “impenetrable”. On 21 November, the government announced the creation of the post of NMSC, triggering a race among retired vice admirals to land the plush job.
The NMSC will be the Indian government’s principal advisor in the maritime security domain. As much as 90 per cent of India’s trade by volume and 70 per cent by value is seaborne. India is fully dependent on sea lanes for its energy requirements.
But we have traditionally suffered from what some experts call “sea-blindness”, because of its land warfare doctrines necessitated by successive wars with Pakistan and China and New Delhi’s ambitions to exercise influence in Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Afghanistan bordering Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
India's Meagre Resources
Very few decision-makers in India have set foot on a ship, resulting in the country’s defence policies being essentially land-centric. But New Delhi seems to have now woken up to China’s sea-based aggressive security doctrine and penetration into the Indian Ocean through naval bases in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, threatening India’s maritime and energy security. Beijing is determined to control the seas up to the eastern seaboard of Africa cutting through the Indian maritime domain. The ties between the navies of China and Pakistan and Beijing’s “string of pearls” strategy is a major threat to India.
To counter China’s naval capabilities, which are far superior to India’s, New Delhi has joined the US-led Japan-Australia India Quad with great fanfare. But India’s importance in the Quad has been diminished by the AUKUS deal, under which Australia will get nuclear submarine technology from the United States and the United Kingdom, eclipsing India’s much-hyped role as a counterweight to China.
India’s weaknesses are many, and the NMSC will have to plug multiple loopholes. For instance, we have badly neglected shipbuilding and the development of ports. Exports have been badly hit by the COVID-induced shortage of containers. The global logistics supply chain has gone topsy-turvy, leaving India in the lurch. India was clueless in August 2021, when the Japanese-owned huge container ship, MV Ever Given, blocked the Suez Canal for six days, disrupting global trade.
It is ironical that on the one hand, India aspires to be a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, and on the other hand, it uses foreign-flagged ships for international trade, which is a drain on foreign exchange and a strategic liability, especially during wartime or outbreak of hostilities, which can be very sudden.
The conspicuous absence of a proper transhipment port in south India has resulted in trans-shipment of containers ‘for and from’ India at Colombo, which entails loss of revenue and also has security implications. All this and much more will be on the NMSC’s plate. I think besides guarding the coastline, the NMSC’s major responsibility will be to monitor China’s naval muscularity and chalk out counter-strategies with India’s meagre resources.
In November 2021, New Delhi announced that its current 130-warship force would increase to 170 by 2031. This is a revision of earlier plans to become a 200-ship naval force by 2027, but budgetary allocations weren’t forthcoming, forcing a rethink. But China already has 355 warships, including at least 50 conventional and 10 nuclear submarines. India currently has just one nuclear-powered submarine with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, the INS Arihant.
Considering that China is estimated to acquire 460 warships by 2030 and now poses a collusive threat with Pakistan – to whom it recently transferred its largest and most advanced warship – India’s vulnerability couldn’t have been more evident.
The worst-case scenario, which we don’t publicly acknowledge or discuss, is a pincer movement by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), with simultaneous targeting by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of India’s east coast. The sea depth of Bay of Bengal is perfectly suited for Chinese nuclear submarine missions.
So, we must grit our teeth and brace for concurrent maritime and continental warfare. The NMSC has no option but to hit the ground running. I hope and pray that he doesn't sprain his ankle.
(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)