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Friday, October 16, 2009

Asia's rising powers thrive on maritime capabilities

New Delhi, India — The 21st century is witness to the rise of the economies of India, Japan and China. A fourth economy could be added if the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is considered as a bloc. Although globalization has been the growth engine behind these economies, a large part of their success in this decade has been due to the rise of their maritime capabilities.
Heavy sealift capabilities have enabled these countries to import and export goods globally across the seas using bulk carriers, very large and ultra large crude carriers. The large volume of trade carried on the seas by countries like India, China and Japan required naval protection, which prompted them to invest in building their navies.
Presently, east of the Suez and west of the Pacific, the Indian Navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy are naval powers to reckon with. Their respective areas of operations start with the Sea of Japan, which then traverses the South China Sea and then moves into the Indian Ocean.
Also, the sea areas east of Japan up to the international date line, which represents the West Pacific Ocean are of interest to the three naval powers especially considering resources invested in submarine acquisitions.
The U.S. Navy also remains a potent power in these waters but with a rapidly weakening economy and withering interest in overseas deployments, especially after the tumultuous former President George Bush’s term, it is likely to slowly withdraw from the Indian Ocean. The low number of combat ships in its fleet is affecting its abilities worldwide.
In April, the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy’s international fleet parade in the eastern port of Qingdao to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its founding was impressive. A critical analysis of ships, submarines and naval aircraft capabilities reveal that PLAN is capable of defending China’s interests in their littoral waters. However, their SSBN nuclear-powered strategic ballistic missile submarines and SSN attack submarines commissioned into service have not yet been deployed overseas. The SSBN represents the “bastion” strategy while the SSN focuses on the “sea denial” strategy learnt from the War College in Leningrad of the former Soviet Union.
China’s naval missiles on display at the fleet review in April and more recently during the Oct 1, National Day parade in Beijing were new variants. The showpiece DongFeng 21C medium range ballistic naval missile, billed as an anti aircraft carrier missile, was displayed prominently. An analysis of these types of missiles from Soviet times indicates, “Target acquisition will be technically challenging.”
PLAN’s sea denial strategy and the focus on Taiwan were evident in the missiles paraded. But its poor capability in strategic anti-submarine warfare was also noticed. That and the lack of aircraft carrier capability puts PLAN behind China’s land based warfare. The PLAN, in effect, is similar to the former Soviet navy of the 1960s and needs drastic enhancements over the next 50 years to evolve into a sea control strategy.
The Japanese navy euphemistically called the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force due to its constitution adopted after the second world war is actually a very capable conventional service and is a builder’s navy today.
Lately, there has been much though in political circles about enhancing JMSDF’s capabilities, which remain severely hampered. While they provide logistical support to coalition forces, the current rules of engagement preclude developing offensive capabilities.
The new political leadership in Tokyo has to rethink strategy to counter the threat of missile launches by North Korea. As an island nation they perhaps need to study the United Kingdom’s defense debate more closely. As the second largest economy in the world with reserves of US$1.2 trillion, Japan can afford to refashion its maritime strategy.
The Indian Navy is also undergoing a renaissance with strong political support, which has been evident across the political divide since 1980. The change from an overseas acquisition model to indigenous production has been markedly evident. The game changers have been the nuclear submarine program, the aircraft carrier program, indigenous naval missile programs, indigenously launched satellites with naval capabilities and the focus on C4ISR concept -- command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance -- in service.
The pace of induction however remains an area of concern and improvements in naval diplomacy in the Indian Ocean littoral are sluggish. The change in the rules of engagement has however brought recognition to the service internationally.
A more proactive Indian navy is visible today that provides disaster relief to tsunami-hit areas like Indonesia and conducts anti piracy patrols in the Horn of Africa, Somalia and Kenya. It was also commended for launching its largest-ever civilian evacuation operation overseas, when it rescued over 700 Indians and nationals of other countries from trouble-torn Lebanon in July 2006.
With rising requests for naval assistance by countries in the Indian Ocean region, the Indian navy has placed orders for frigates and offshore patrol vessels. With a strong history of operating in the Indian Ocean since the 1960s, it has a strong reservoir of human talent and tradition, which is an essential ingredient for the rigors of extended naval service.
India’s former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru carefully enunciated the sea control strategy of the navy in the 1950s when he said “To be invincible on land we must be supreme at sea.”
The induction of nuclear tipped K15 missile that can be launched from submarines has stirred a debate. Open source material indicates that the maneuvering ballistic missile has a 45-kiloton fusion-boosted-fission warhead with a circular error probability of 16 meters with a launch radius of around 1,000 kilometers in its present avatar. Most analysts state that this capability makes a mockery of India’s no first use of nuclear weapons status as it can demolish any hardened missile site on land.
The genius of India’s former President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam is evident in this program, amongst others, as he carefully listened to the user naval service requirements when presented to him. As this program is into its next phase, the range of this missile is reportedly being more than doubled and fitted with Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle capability.
The Indian Navy would be operating three aircraft carriers by 2015 and Sea Harriers, MIG 29KUB and Naval Light Combat Aircrafts will operate from the ships. The land based Long Range Maritime Patrol Anti Submarine Warfare aircraft of the navy will soon be on the Boeing 737 platform. Eight such aircrafts built to U.S. naval standards will arrive in the Indian navy’s arsenal. More intelligent systems are under the anvil.
The new Asian century has commenced with the three largest economies building maritime capabilities in both civil and military spheres. This has been possible due to the shift of economic gravity to Asia. An area of concern for China and Japan is the ageing population vis-à-vis India’s under 30 profiles.
Truly, the wheel of time has brought Asia back into the reckoning at a time when hard-core colonialists, communists and now capitalists have been rendered “hors de combat.” Interesting times are afoot.
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(Captain Devindra Sethi is an alumnus of India's National Defense Academy, the College of Defense Management, the College of Naval Warfare, and the War College in St. Petersburg, Russia. He is a successful entrepreneur in the maritime industry and fluent in English, Russian and Hindi. ©Copyright Devindra Sethi.) 

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