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Indian Lake – A Broken Dream


Muhammad Azam Khan |

‘India has long dreamed to be the dominant power in the Indian Ocean’. It envisions of turning the Indian Ocean into an enormous ‘Indian lake’. Not strange therefore, many in Indian strategic community increasingly believe that the Indian Ocean must be, and must be seen to be, India’s ocean’, says David Scott, a former professor at Brunel University, London. It was perhaps this belief that prompted first, the Indian political leadership and later Indian Navy (IN) to assign itself the title of a ‘net security provider’ in the region and beyond.

The expression appears in IN’s 2015 released document, ‘Indian Maritime Security Strategy’ (IMSS). But since publication, IMSS has been widely criticized. It is said that present-day IN does not measure up to the objectives and goals stated therein. This, it is alleged, is neither validated in the demonstrated professional competence nor when measured against combat preparedness of IN. Strong reasons are cited for the mismatch.

A fairly large camp believes that IN must avoid investing in capital intensive platforms like carriers for sea control and instead resort to sea denial against Pakistan.

Consider this: in the last six years alone more than 25 Indian naval personnel have been killed in various mishaps involving a variety of platforms. The highest number of casualties in a single accident occurred in August 2013. Eighteen sailors died following an explosion in the torpedo compartment of Sindhurakshak, a Russian Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine. The submarine had 16 warheads onboard; a combination of torpedoes and Klub land attack missiles.

Fortunately, only two of the warheads exploded, the rest disintegrated. Yet so powerful was the blast that it led to the sinking of the submarine while berthed at Mumbai harbour. The submarine had just completed a mid-life upgrade at a cost of $80 million. A subsequent inquiry revealed a violation of critical Standard Operating Procedures. In June 2016, a toxic gas leak on board Vikramaditya, the Indian aircraft carrier, killed two persons.

Read more: Don’t misuse military for politics: Ex Indian Navy Chief

Then in January last year, India’s prestigious daily, ‘The Hindu’, reported, that IN’s first locally constructed nuclear submarine INS Arihant has suffered major damage due to ‘’human error’’ and did not sail for more than 10 months. Arihant’s propulsion compartment, the report said, was damaged after water entered inside as a hatch on the rear side was left open by mistake while it was at the harbour.

The above should hardly be inspiring for a navy dreaming to become a regional policeman. It assumes significance from another perspective. Over the past two decades or more, IN has received phenomenal strategic backing and patronage from the U.S. This has taken several forms.

The expression appears in IN’s 2015 released document, ‘Indian Maritime Security Strategy’ (IMSS). But since publication, IMSS has been widely criticized.

Joint naval manoeuvres involving carriers, nuclear submarines and other platforms; sale and provision of P8Is, the cutting edge maritime surveillance and submarine hunter aircraft, technical and operational training support for crew of Indian carriers, bilateral logistics agreement, LEMOA, renaming of US Pacific fleet as INDOPACOM etc. are to name just a few. Some of these are, of course mutually serving benefits.

Yet if there were any doubts on the vast chasm that existed between publicized objectives and combat potential of IN, the Pulwama attack on 14 February and stand-off that followed should put these to rest. In a joint press briefing by the Indian military on 28 February, the Indian Navy (IN) spokesperson had this to say, “the IN is deployed in a high state of readiness and remain poised in all three dimensions, on surface, undersea, and in air to deter, prevent and defeat any misadventure by Pakistan in the maritime domain”.

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He went on to add, “I can assure you of a resolute, swift and strong response by the Navy when needed”. On 17 March, reports citing IN stated that India sent nuclear submarines, an aircraft carrier battle group and dozens of other navy ships to the North Arabian Sea (NAS) following the suicide bombing in disputed Kashmir on 14 February. The veracity of the news aside, what prompted IN to issue a belated reclamation flattens common sense. It signals clear incertitude, if not afterthoughts. What purpose could it serve, one may ask?

Was that meant to redeem itself? On March 4, INS Kalvari, the newest submarine of IN, was localized by Pakistan Navy (PN) yet left without being prosecuted. A few depth charges dropped or a torpedo from above by P3C Orion of PN would have made short work of Kalvari. The submarine was fortunate not to have been consigned to the bottom of the NAS under the country’s policy of “restraint”.

The above should hardly be inspiring for a navy dreaming to become a regional policeman. It assumes significance from another perspective.

Pakistan Navy showed restraint for overall peace in the region by not attacking the detected submarine in PN AOR. As if this was not enough of slighting for IN, earlier, INS Parable, a Veer class missile corvette on a scheduled visit to Muscat on 23 February. While at this port the incident at Pulwama took place. It’s indeed amusing that the corvette thereafter remained holed up for seven long days in the said port. Subsequently, during dark hours the ship transited to Salalah port while hugging the coast.

An un-proportionate Indian Naval force comprising CVBG has to move close for safely escorting INS PARABLE from Salalah port to home waters. Pakistan Navy continuously monitored the movement of the ship and entire fleet throughout in the southern IOR. This single incident reflects the fear of Pakistan Navy in the minds of Indian Navy that shuttered myth of their conventional superiority too.

Read more: Pakistan Navy Interception of Indian Submarine points to its Important role…

Regardless, the behind time statement by IN could also denote replay of an old and by now quite worn out the script- to cheerlessly show its relevance to the nation using media as a propaganda tool. The overpowering value of media to shape and inflame minds and to raise false flags, at times even inane is something world witnessed 24/7 on Indian national news networks in the days following Pulwama attack.

In naval parlance, maritime power projection, sea control and sea denial are commonly used terms. Navies undertake power projection operations for a variety of reasons. When used skillfully, it provides a great strategic advantage and is ‘most obviously seen in the implied, threatened or actual use of force’. It is a tool applicable across a range of contingencies, crises and conflicts to send a clear ‘signal of resolve’.

Achieving sea control allows a force the freedom of action to use an area of sea for its own purposes for a period of time and if required, deny its use to the opponent. It is a means to an end and not an end in itself. When a force aims not to control the sea (specific area for a specific time), but to only prevent its use by the opposing side, the term used is sea denial.

Was that meant to redeem itself? On March 4, INS Kalvari, the newest submarine of IN, was localized by Pakistan Navy (PN) yet left without being prosecuted.

One of the most powerful modern-day instruments for maritime power projection and sea control is the aircraft carrier. So what does IN intend to do with its present and future under construction carriers if these cannot be used for purposes just mentioned? Ben Ho, a senior analyst at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, provides an answer. In a recent well-researched article, Ho postulates a full-scale war between Pakistan and India in the NAS in a time horizon of 2025.

After closely examining IMSS and combat potential on both sides, the author rules out any meaningful role of IN carriers in achieving “sea control”, “blockade of major Pakistani maritime nodes” or else, “interdicting seaborne commerce of Pakistan”. The author strongly discards any “offensive role” of Indian carriers during a high-intensity conflict with Pakistan. This fact got effectually validated this Feb-Mar. What role did the large Indian naval armada and aircraft carrier play post-Pulwama; what did that “poise”, if it was, achieve?

Read more: Pakistan Navy foils Indian submarine’s intrusion

It is quite well known that there are deep divisions within IN on the viability of carrier in a conflict with Pakistan. A fairly large camp believes that IN must avoid investing in capital intensive platforms like carriers for sea control and instead resort to sea denial against Pakistan through submarines and other small vessels. The Indian Air Force is onboard with this camp.

It must be a matter of concern for IN that despite being numerically and technologically superior to its small neighbouring navy and massively backed by USN, it was unable to make any significant impression in the NAS, the primary operating area of PN. On the contrary, PN was able to inflict a gash on the opponent’s modern sub-surface combat potential. The Indian dream of ‘India’s lake lies in tatters. The post-Pulwama round was effectively won by PN.

Muhammad Azam Khan is an independent researcher with interest in Indo-Pacific, maritime security and nuclear issues. This article was first published in Pakistan Observer and has been republished with author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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