Wednesday, January 20, 2010

India's maritime challenges in the 21st century


New Delhi, India — Indian Army chief General Deepak Kapoor’s remarks at a closed-door seminar in New Delhi on Dec. 30, 2009, that the army was ready to fight a two-front war simultaneously with China and Pakistan, were ham-handedly projected by the media.

As India grows strong economically, Indians expect a threat to its sovereignty, especially at sea where 80 percent of its trade is plied.

The Indian Navy faces a rising threat from China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy in the Indian Ocean region and from terrorists seeking a sea route to wage attacks on land like the one on Mumbai in November 2008. It is also concerned over the increasing number of incidents of piracy off the Somali coast, from the Kenyan coast to the Seychelles islands and the Malacca Straits, which challenge merchant naval ships in international waters.

China has emerged as the second-largest economy in the world in 2010 and the need for commodities like oil, iron ore, coal, copper, aluminum and uranium to feed its economy’s gargantuan appetite has led to huge imports, most of which arrive by sea. This has led to the ambitious renaissance of its navy.

The neglect of maritime industries since 1949 now weighs heavily on China, as it finds the Indian Navy having invested heavily in shipbuilding, training and manpower over the same period of time.

The speed at which the Indian Navy provided relief aid to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states hit by the tsunami in December 2007 was an eye-opener to many maritime powers.

China’s communist rulers love challenges and will use this peaceful period till 2030 to rebuild the country’s maritime muscle. This is the real challenge to the Indian polity and its Admiralty.

The answer is not a numbers game but to correctly forecast strategic shortcomings and build strong competencies, which can overwhelm likely adversaries at the commencement of hostilities. A better strategy would be to deter adversaries, so that enemy naval planners realize the extent of damage that can be inflicted on prized assets.

A recent article in Newsweek indicated that the age of terror had moved on. Unfortunately, that is not the case, as is evident from the failed terrorist bombing of a transatlantic Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day. Terror in its most virulent form is still alive and kicking.

The rising numbers of suicide bombings in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region against NATO and U.S. forces and the terror attacks on Pakistan’s major cities have severely affected civilian life. Most of it is self-inflicted, as the country has refused to evolve since 1947.

The Taliban and al-Qaida view India as a soft target, as porous frontiers exist along the coast, which were traditionally used by the Dubai-based mafia for smuggling gold.

The Indian Navy’s “brown water” capabilities, which refer to its capacity to carry out military operations in rivers or littoral environments, assisted by the Coast Guard, need a complete revamp. Policing such littoral environments is a slow, tedious, time-consuming and frustrating task, as the identity of every crew member of a fishing craft or sailing dhow must be checked.

On any given day, about 200,000 fishing boats sail along India’s west coast alone, each carrying four fishermen at the very minimum. One way to police the waters is to restrict sailing space.

Piracy of serious magnitude in international waters first surfaced off the West African coast. The scene shifted to the Malacca Straits in the late 1980s and was put down determinedly by littoral states in the 1990s.

The failed state of Somalia and the lack of governance have resulted in the present imbroglio off the Horn of Africa and have spread hundreds of kilometers to the east coast of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Recent interceptions by coalition navies and the Indian Navy indicate a change in the complement of pirates from Somali residents to foot soldiers of al-Qaida. This has ominous portent.

Presently, India is caught within the imperatives of the blue water and brown water navy, as both are important and necessary and both have short-term and long-term implications.

The three-layer response to augment the navy, Coast Guard and Marine Police is a good start. What is needed is to ensure that neither fatigue nor flagging energy with time sets in. Terrorists need just one mistake by security forces in “brown waters” to succeed in their task.

India’s blue water navy must respond to China’s PLA Navy and sea pirates. Well-trained staff will be a recurring requirement as much as technology. For example, network-centric capabilities are excellent for above-sea surface requirements, while being dependant on an x-ray band spectrum that cannot penetrate seawater will yield no results.

Blue water sonar systems for subsurface warfare are constrained in their performance in littoral waters. India’s likely adversaries are building a formidable fleet of submarines, both conventional and nuclear-powered. These are major examples, besides others, of the realities facing specialist naval planners.

Major navies of the world, including the Indian Navy, have adopted network-centric capabilities as core competencies today. The combat areas in the 21st century have shifted to littoral waters. Will this result in suboptimal utilization of the assets built? Only time will tell.

Maritime diplomacy needs to be refashioned with the Ministry of Defense (Navy) and the Ministry of External Affairs joining hands to complement each other, especially in the Indian Ocean region. Most countries in the region have weak maritime capabilities. This can be vigorously worked upon with generous assistance from India.

The private sector in India seeks a major foothold in defense contracts today. The Indian government must assist the private sector in building merchant marine vessels or simple warships like offshore patrol vessels, on easy credit terms in Indian private shipyards, for our neighbors.

The strength of our economy will be enhanced by catering to the maritime needs of our neighbors, similar to what the United States has done for Canada and Mexico.

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