Navy Day is celebrated annually on 4 December to commemorate a famous Indian Naval (IN) victory, and to remind Indians of their forgotten maritime heritage. It was on this day in 1971, that a squadron of IN missile-boats stealthily approached Karachi harbour and unleashed a barrage of guided-missiles.
This audacious and unorthodox attack not only sank two Pakistani warships, and set alight a fuel storage facility, but also blockaded Karachi port. Thereafter, no unit of the Pakistan Navy ventured out, nor did any merchant shipping approach the harbour. In the Bay of Bengal, a task-force – led by the aircraft-carrier INS Vikrant – blocked seaward egress from East Pakistan, destroyed airfields, shipping and ports, thus expediting Pakistani surrender.
The Bangladesh War marked an important milestone for the Indian Navy, because the service, still smarting from the ignominy of (government imposed) inaction in 1965, had determined in advance, that it would play a pivotal role in the coming conflict.
This war should have brought home to our decision-makers, the immense potential of the navy as a potent instrument of state power. But, unfortunately, it did not. The persistent ‘sea-blindness’ of our decision-makers has forced the Indian Navy to make the best of consistently minuscule budgets.
India Faces The Prospect Of A Long, Painful, Expensive Stand-Off In Ladakh
Observance of Navy Day this year, will understandably be muted, given the adverse impact of all three crises – the pandemic, the economic downturn and the military confrontation – on the service. Our Admirals will, no doubt, reflect upon the irony that it is the recent border face-off in the Himalayas, and not their entreaties, that has brought focus on India’s maritime domain!
It is now clear that, statesmanship and diplomacy having failed to persuade the Chinese to resume status quo ante, we are faced with the prospect of a long, painful, and expensive stand-off in Ladakh.
India-China Crisis: Why Everyone Is Looking Seawards For Options
Given the economic, technological and military asymmetry between China and India, and the Sino-Pak axis, if hostilities do break out, the best that India can hope for is a precarious stalemate on its northern and western borders. This seems to be the reason why everyone is looking seawards for options, other than ‘boots on the ground,’ which could reinforce India’s negotiating position.
An obvious option is to use two closely related maritime templates; the naval exercise ‘Malabar’ and the ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’ or Quad (both with a common membership), for creating a more equitable balance of power vis-à-vis China.
The US Navy Chief, perhaps, went too far when he declared, during Malabar 2020, that operating with Quad partners was critical to “building a more lethal fighting force.”
But India, as it prepares to fight its own battles, needs to rally this quartet of democracies, and create a consensus for ensuring that a ‘rules-based order’ prevails in Asia and the Indo-Pacific.
Other nations too must be mobilised and motivated to show solidarity in the common cause of reigning-in a hegemonic China.
How ‘Maritime Interception Operations’ Could Upset China’s Economy
In terms of direct naval action, India’s best option would be to employ conventional ‘naval deterrence,’ to dissuade China from pursuing its course(s) of action.
As the world’s largest trading nation and energy importer, China’s seaborne trade and energy constitute a vulnerable ‘jugular vein’. While imposing blockades and waging trade-warfare are complex operations that call for naval superiority, there is a simpler form of compellence, termed, ‘maritime interception operations.’ It involves the stopping, seizing or diversion of suspect ships.
Regardless of buffer stocks, any disruption or delay of shipping traffic could upset China’s economy, with consequent effects on industry and population.
The IN, in spite of fiscal constraints, has emerged as a compact but professional and competent force, and India’s fortuitous maritime geography will enable it to dominate both – the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. We must, however, bear in mind that China’s PLA Navy (PLAN) – which now outnumbers the US Navy – is backed, not only by a prolific shipbuilding industry, but also the world’s largest merchant fleet and a huge coast-guard, assisted by a maritime militia. It is possible, that we may, one day, see a Chinese Indian Ocean carrier task-force, based in Djibouti or Gwadar.
Reflecting On India’s Maritime Security Dilemmas
In the emerging maritime scenario, the IN will need warships, submarines, helicopters, minesweepers and much else. Some of these are under construction, or on order. But given the dismal state of India’s economy, warship retirements, and a lethargic shipbuilding industry, the IN is unlikely to get a significant force-levels boost in the foreseeable future.
Therefore, on Navy Day 2020, as we reflect on India’s maritime security dilemmas, let us hark back to two historical events.
In August 1971, in a major deviation from its policy of non-alignment, India signed the 20-year Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, specifying ‘mutual strategic cooperation’.
This alliance sent a strong signal to both Washington and Beijing, to remain ‘hands off,’ and was a crucial factor in India’s 1971 victory.
It served India’s vital interests, at a crucial juncture, and did no harm to its image or standing.
India Must ‘Borrow A Garden Hose’ To Pre-empt Flare-Ups In The Indo-Pacific
In 1941, when the Allied nations – reeling under the German onslaught – sought US help, President Roosevelt signed the ‘Lend-Lease Act,’ under which the US ‘lent’ war materiel, including warships, tanks and aircraft, to the UK, France, China and even the Soviet Union. In return, the US received leases on naval bases during the war.
Roosevelt explained it thus: “Suppose my neighbour’s home catches fire, and I have a garden hose… if he can borrow my hose… it may help him put out the fire.”
It would be a fitting demonstration of India’s ‘strategic autonomy,’ in supreme national interest, if we could ‘borrow a garden hose’ to pre-empt any conflagrations in the Indo-Pacific.
Especially if it buys us a breathing spell for attainment of ‘Atmanirbharta.’
(Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd) has formerly been Chief of the Naval Staff of the Indian Navy, and Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. He tweets @arunp2810. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)