The commissioning of two naval platforms in Mumbai last week – the guided missile destroyer INS Visakhapatnam and the diesel submarine INS Vela – is an important part of India’s efforts to build warships and is to be welcomed. The 7,400-ton destroyer with some cutting-edge features pays homage to the professional acumen of India’s indigenous warship design skills, and the submarine, which was built with a French collaboration, will reinforce a strategic niche skill.
The Maritime Skills Perspective Plan, which envisaged a 200-ship navy by 2027 now trimmed to 170 platforms.
This humble addition to India’s depleted naval inventory must be seen against the backdrop of China. At the time India was putting naval platforms into operation, media reports suggested that China was building a secret military facility in the port of the United Arab Emirates in Khalifa, and it was doing so clandestinely without the knowledge of the host country.
The Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) is steadily increasing. Beijing acquired a military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa in 2017 and is investing heavily in ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In essence, from Galwan to Gwadar, China’s military challenge is a lasting factor for Indian security planners.
Given the fiscal constraints India is grappling with caused by Covid, the Navy (often referred to as the Cinderella Service as it receives the least amount of financial support from the three armed forces) has had to cut its acquisition plans significantly. The Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP), which envisaged a fleet of 200 ships by 2027, has now been reduced to 170 platforms.
In contrast, the U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has estimated that the PLA Navy could have 425 platforms by 2030 if Beijing sustains the current pace of Beijing warship building. India may not seek or seek quantitative military equivalence with its northern neighbor as China compares itself to the US as a competitor / adversary. However, statistics on the time it took to build a warship in India deserve a closer look.
Construction of the destroyer Visakhapatnam began in October 2013 and the ship was launched in April 2015. Finally, after eight years from the start, the warship entered service in late 2021.
By comparison, Beijing has added 14 to 22 platforms annually to its navy over the past five years. A nation seeking a credible cross-border maritime profile must acquire a level of proven ship design and agile shipbuilding skills. India has proven to be too weak in the latter aspect.
While India has the potential to become a maritime power that would bolster its composite national power and improve the socio-economic indicators of its sizable demographics, it lacks the necessary strategic acumen and national determination.
Maritime power is just one attribute of a nation’s holistic maritime capabilities. Paradoxically, despite its favorable geography with the Indian Peninsula majestically dominating the Indian Ocean, Delhi remains unable to use connectivity for trade and monitor natural bottlenecks to ensure safety – even 70 years after independence , its natural maritime potential.
In his credit, PM Modi added some level of political visibility to the maritime domain when he coined the acronym SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) for the IOR in 2015, Strengthening National Maritime Capabilities.
In terms of tough sea power, the budget allocation for silent service, which had accounted for more than 18 percent of the total defense budget in FY 2012-2013, has shrunk to less than 14 percent. Cost and time overruns in building warships have become a persistent barrier, with one exception in the private sector. Indian ports and ports operate well below the globally recognized median of efficiency. It is a shame that, despite its economic and global trade status, India does not have a single port on the list of the top 20 ports in the world.
So while Defense Minister Rajnath Singh claimed at the INS Visakhapatnam commissioning ceremony, “We have every opportunity to develop India into an indigenous shipbuilding center,” the reality on the ground does not match the political rhetoric.
It is gratifying that the Navy has ordered 39 of the 41 ships built from Indian shipyards and that the initiative is heralded as evidence of commitment to “atmanirbhar Bharat”, but a reality check is more detailed. The facilities at INS Visakhapatnam are exemplary. While the cost of the ship is 75 percent indigenous – or paid in Indian rupees – the inventory that makes the platform a combat unit is largely imported. The main gun is of Italian origin, the Barak missile and fire control radar come from Israel and the gas turbines from Ukraine. These details are glossed over and a rosier picture is sought with regard to indigenization.
While no nation makes every piece of military equipment in its own country, some core expertise in weapons and propulsion is a must. India has yet to achieve this level of “atmanirbharta”, although success in areas such as sonar and electronic warfare is commendable.
The acquisition of specific maritime / marine skills is a lengthy process and requires sustained political support and secure funding. This has remained elusive. Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh, who is stepping down from office at the end of November, has a concise but convincing political recipe: contain China, punish Pakistan, calm Russia, strengthen the IOR and develop relations with the USA.
This is a template that needs to be internalized by the Indian Senior Defense Staff in the decades to come as Delhi seeks to gain a reasonable level of relevance in the IOR.