The navy’s P8I aircraft has played a key role to conduct surveillance operations in Ladakh standoff
For years, Chinese experts kept saying that the Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean. Indian experts and naval planners never paid any heed to those comments.
Then, from 2010, in the garb of fighting piracy in the Gulf of Aden, China’s PLA Navy (PLAN) started making forays into the Indian Ocean showcasing its blue-water capability. That was still fine.
Alarm bells rang at the highest levels of the Indian government in 2014, when two Chinese submarines docked at the Colombo port over an interval of seven weeks.
India feared that the Chinese submarines were docking at the Colombo port to mount surveillance on its naval assets in the southern part of the country. Writing in the Australian think tank Lowy Institute’s blog, The Interpreter, in 2017, security analyst Abhijit Singh had said, “The expansion of PLA Navy submarine activity in South Asia is quite in keeping with a powerful navy’s need to familiarise itself with alien operating conditions. The pattern of Chinese submarine visits reveals that the PLA Navy has been incrementally raising the complexity of its deployments, sending both conventional and nuclear submarines to learn more about the Indian Ocean’s operating environment.”
The QUAD Network
As PLAN increased its forays into the Indian Ocean region over the years, India has quietly built a network of allies to keep the Chinese navy at bay in its backyard. For the first time since 2007, the Malabar Exercise in November saw the navies of India, the USA, Australia, and Japan coming together, which in a way sent out a message.
The 24th edition of the Malabar Exercise was hosted by the Indian Navy in two phases. The first phase, involving participation by the Indian Navy, the US Navy, the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF), and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), was conducted off Visakhapatnam in the Bay of Bengal from November 3-6 while the second phase was held in the Arabian Sea from November 17-20.
India also held trilateral naval exercises with Thailand and Singapore in the Andaman Sea from November 21-22 and a bilateral exercise with Singapore from November 23-25.
India, China and the QUAD
India had been preparing a strategy on two fronts — eastern and western — keeping the China-Pakistan axis in mind for years. Now, that axis is looming large over the seas as well. China is already selling eight Yuan-class non-nuclear submarines to Pakistan at a reported cost of US$4-5 billion to strengthen Pakistan Navy’s underwater capabilities. According to the Naval News portal, this will be more than double the size of the Pakistan navy’s submarine fleet.
In June, Bloomberg Quint reported, “When viewed alongside China’s overall activities in the Indian Ocean, it does seem that Beijing is likely looking at using Gwadar [in Pakistan] as a dual-use, economic hub-cum-military base.”
Calling a spade a spade
Taking part in a discussion, ‘Indo-Pacific Red Lines: On course to counter China?’ on the strategic affairs portal StratNews Global, former Indian navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash said, “We have done this huge [Malabar] exercise. What is this all about? Malabar overnight can be turned into an operational exercise. So, it’s time to send a clear message instead of waffling around and tell China that we can do this in peace time and if it comes to the crunch, we can do it operationally too.”
Captain James E Fanell (retd), former Director of Intelligence and Information Operations, US Pacific Fleet, said, “It’s a very significant event in terms of maritime cooperation and coordination. To have large-deck aircraft carriers working together with support ships is no small signal to Beijing.”
The long arm of the navy
Addressing the media on the eve of Navy Day on December 3, Indian Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh said that tensions along India’s northern borders have significantly increased the complexities of the overall security situation. “This dual-challenge scenario continues as we speak, and the country, collectively, continues to battle the pandemic and tackle security challenges. In these testing times, the Indian Navy aims to stand steadfast as a ‘combat-ready, credible and cohesive force’ furthering our national and maritime interests.”
Admiral Singh added that the ‘mission-based deployment’ philosophy had enhanced the Indian Navy’s presence across the region, enabling rapid responses to emerging security challenges. “The Indian Navy has established a persistent footprint in our areas of interest, including at various choke points in the Indian Ocean. Naval deployments also serve as a deterrent to inimical interests, clearly signalling the navy’s reach, capability and intent.”
Admiral Singh said that the navy has conducted operations near the Line of Actual Control by positioning Poseidon 8I aircraft. “The P8I is a potent platform. We have been using it for surveillance over the seas. It has certain equipment which can be used for surveillance over the borders. Based on the requirements of the army and air force, we have deployed the P8I on several occasions during this particular situation [referring to Ladakh standoff]. We have also deployed Heron UAVs from one of the northern bases.”
According to the admiral, maritime security is part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), and the Indian Navy likes to be called the “preferred security partner”.
“The neighbourhood is a focus area. Sagar [sea] has a tide. We all rise with the tide. I don’t see any country around us that should feel threatened. We are actually security partners in the region,” he said.
Regarding the presence of Chinese ships in the Indian Ocean region, he said that only three Chinese ships are in the Gulf of Aden on anti-piracy operations since 2008.
In November, Admiral Singh had visited the naval air station at Campbell Bay in Great Nicobar Island and reviewed the Indian Navy’s operational preparedness in the region. The Andaman and Nicobar Command is India’s only tri-services command, which has been playing a major role in defending the country’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean, a region that has witnessed increasing forays by Chinese warships in the last couple of years.
Underwater domain awareness and underwater capabilities are among the priority areas for the navy, he added. “We are focusing hard to get more awareness of underwater fighting capabilities. The P8I aircraft has been a great force enabler. Once MH-60R helicopters join the navy, they will greatly enhance our capabilities in this domain. We are upgrading Kamov-28 helicopters. Once that happens, it would be far more potent and enhance our underwater fighting capabilities.”
Admiral Singh said that the plan is to go for a 175-ship navy. “The fact is that we know the speed of construction and resource envelope. We focus more on ‘bang for the buck’ for each platform we get through networking, through unmanned systems.”