The theme for Navy Week 2021 is ‘Indian Navy – Combat Ready, Credible and Cohesive’, and this is an apt formulation for the silent service, also referred to as the ‘Cinderella service’, given its diminutive size and budgetary allocation in relation to its peers – the Army and the Air Force. For the record, in India, the Navy to Army ratio by way of personnel is 1:20.
Admiral R Hari Kumar, who assumed office as the Naval Chief on 30 November, provided a broad overview of the Navy’s activities over the last year on the eve of Navy Day (December 4), and it is more than evident that the credibility of the service has been demonstrated in ample measure in the Indian Ocean.
Punching Above Its Weight
It is instructive to recall that the Indian Navy (IN) came into national focus in a visibly credible manner in the December 1971 war for Bangladesh, and over the last 50 years, the service has grown in a commendable manner despite structural constraints, the most critical being the financial and budgetary support and an inadequate national maritime ecosystem.
The reality of complex threats to national security emanating from the maritime domain was tragically manifest in the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai in November 2008. Corrective measures have been undertaken over the last decade and the composite maritime muscle has improved. However, the last 18 months have been scarred by the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite this setback, it was encouraging to note that the Navy has maintained a credible presence from the east coast of Africa (to deal with the piracy challenge), even while responding to the wider politico-military orientation of the Indo-Pacific, a turbulent region that has acquired considerable salience in recent years.
The simmering US-China bilateral competition is being played out in this space and India’s relevance will be shaped to a large extent by the profile and performance of the Indian Navy.
While the Indian Navy’s credibility and professionalism are acknowledged regionally and by its global peers, it is evident that it is punching above its weight and its platform numbers are modest. Hence, this operational tempo of maintaining adequate presence from the east coast of Africa to Malacca and beyond may not be sustainable in a viable manner for the long term. The central determinant for the long term robustness of any military service is adequate, uninterrupted fiscal support and an indigenous equipment/inventory design and manufacturing capacity.
China Is Doing Far Better
Regrettably, the Navy is in a less-than-favourable position on both counts. It merits recall that Admiral Karambir Singh, the former Naval Chief, noted in December 2019 that the Navy’s budgetary allocation had shrunk from 18 per cent of the overall defence budget in 2012-13 to below 13 per cent in 2019-20. This has not been redressed, and the pandemic pressure on the national exchequer will only exacerbate the overall military allocation. Admiral Singh added that India’s plans to have a 200-ship Navy by 2027 had been trimmed, and he cautioned that a figure of even 175 over the next decade would be ‘optimistic.’
The national maritime eco-system is reflected in a country’s overall industrial base complemented by a vibrant shipbuilding capacity. The Indian track record is well below the median. China offers an instructive contrast. Like India, China is also an Army-dominated military, but in a matter of 25 years – from the mid-1990s – Beijing has demonstrated strategic acumen and national resolve in swiftly climbing the global maritime/naval ladder.
From the Chinese Defence White Paper issued in 2006 to the current period – the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has acquired 355 platforms, and the United States estimates that at this rate of ship induction, Beijing would have a 460-ship Navy by 2030 – which is less than a decade from now.
The blistering pace at which China is designing and building its major naval platforms is unprecedented since the end of World War II, and the contrast in numbers is stark.
In the period from 2012 to 2021, China was able to induct a total of 143 capital warships, while India managed to add 19 major platforms to its Navy. While it is not the case that India needs to aspire for numerical equivalence with China, it cannot be ignored that whereas India takes about six to seven years for one modern destroyer (the INS Visakhapatnam), China peaked at adding 23 warships in one just year, in 2020.
Govt. Must Rethink India's Military Mix
In summary, if India is to remain a credible interlocutor in the affairs of the Indo-Pacific as they evolve over the next two decades, it will have to burnish its trans-border capabilities in a calibrated and resolute manner. The maritime domain is the natural focus area, and the structural challenge for Delhi is to rewire India’s military mix and prudently review how to optimise the size of the land forces.
This is a prickly and complex issue given that Galwan is still festering and the tension along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is palpable. But an objective assessment of the troubled India-China bilateral would indicate that Delhi can at best seek to restore the pre-Galwan status quo with its application of military capability. This would be a defensive and reactive policy option.
However, if India wants to position itself in a proactive manner in relation to China – and play to its natural advantage – the maritime domain is the logical techno-strategic choice. In partnership with more capable nations (the US, Russia and France), Delhi ought to acquire proven competence in the extended global commons, viz. the maritime-space-cyber continuum.
The policy challenge for Delhi would be to shed the boilerplate Army-Air Force-Navy percentage allocation of the defence budget (55-25-14) and prioritise the trans-border elements of military capability.
The raison d’être of any military force is combat readiness, as Admiral Hari Kumar reiterated, and the Indian Navy needs sagacious institutional support and empathy to manage the increasingly roiled waters of the Indo-Pacific.
(Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies, has the rare distinction of having headed three think tanks. He was previously Director at the National Maritime Foundation (2009-11) and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (2004-05). He tweets @theUdayB. 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.)