Over the last six weeks, the Indian Navy commissioned three frontline warships, boosting its fleet to 140 vessels. Another 41 warships are being built in the country, including the 40,000-tonne aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant. All these will join a "blue water" navy that will radiate influence across the Indian Ocean.
This navy's strike power will centre on at least two carrier battle groups (CBGs), self-sufficient flotillas built around a floating air base - the aircraft carrier. Each carrier will be escorted by multi-role corvettes, frigates and destroyers, which together handle threats from all three dimensions - underwater, surface and air. With its arsenal of weapons and sensors, the CBG dominates a huge chunk of ocean, establishing "sea control" wherever it moves.
Sea control is central to the outlook of the Indian Navy, which draws inspiration from Alfred Thayer Mahan, the 19th century US strategist. Mahan argued that a navy's primary task is to locate and destroy the enemy fleet, thereby dominating the sea and controlling commercial shipping. Essential for this is the powerful surface fleet that India is building.Naval guru Julian Corbett presented an alternative philosophy, placing naval warfare in a larger political-economic-strategic context. More defence-minded than Mahan, Corbett emphasised the importance of sea lines of communications (SLOCs), essential for the movement of warships and merchant fleets. Corbett's outlook shapes the "sea denial" strategy of weaker navies like Pakistan. Their smaller fleets - inadequate for sea control - instead deny the enemy unfettered use of the sea by using platforms like submarines to interdict SLOCs, ambush his shipping and laying mines at straits, narrows and outside his harbours, or by using missile boats for swarm attacks on large warships.
Given its Mahanian outlook and superior surface fleet, the Indian Navy would, in any future war with Pakistan, seek sea control over the northern Arabian Sea by sending one, or even two, CBGs to destroy or degrade Pakistan's surface fleet. With that done, the attack would shift to coastal installations and to supporting the land battle through amphibious landings.
"Indian sea control would complicate Pakistan's defence dilemma. In addition to defending 2,900-odd kilometres of land border, Pakistan would then have to defend an additional 1,046 kilometres of coastal boundary," points out Vice Admiral (Retired) Pradeep Chauhan, a highly regarded naval strategist who has commanded the aircraft carrier, INS Viraat.Yet, sea control must go hand-in-hand with sea denial. While CBGs seek battle with Pakistan's navy, Indian submarines would cut oil supplies and war material from Pakistan's West Asian allies; and bottle up shipping in Karachi, Gwadar and the new naval base at Ormara. For this, Indian submarines would lurk outside this ports, while also deploying in the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Hormuz.
This combination of sea control and sea denial would also play out in a war with China. Sea control would be quickly imposed over China's SLOCs through the Indian Ocean, since our CBGs would enjoy proximity to bases; and to shore-based air support from the "unsinkable aircraft carrier" that is the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Even as China's oil supplies and trade are strangled, Indian submarines would block the People's Liberation Army (Navy) from the Indian Ocean, at the straits of Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Ombai Wetar. With 77 major surface warships, 60 submarines, 55 amphibious ships, and 85 missile boats, it is vital to hold the PLA(N) at bay.
Here lies India's Achilles' heel. With just 14 submarines in its fleet, the navy's sea denial capacity is less convincing than its ability for sea control - which stems from a far-sighted decision in the 1950s to include aircraft carriers in the fleet. (Part II of this article tomorrow will deal with sea denial).Sea control against Pakistan
In establishing sea control across the northern Arabian Sea, the Indian Navy would fight a tricky battle in coastal waters against the Pakistan Navy. The latter, outnumbered and outgunned, knows it would get quickly wiped out on the open seas. It is likely, therefore, to withdraw close to the Pakistan coast where the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) would provide it air cover.
To close in with this fleet, India's CBGs must have the air defence capability to beat off the PAF. Key to this would be the MiG-29K fighter, flying from aircraft carriers; and air defence systems like the Barak, and the much-awaited new Long Range Surface to Air Missile. The LR-SAM, which the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) is developing with Israel, will be deployed on warships by end-2015. These missiles would also protect the CBG against anti-ship missiles - like the Harpoon and Exocet - fired from Pakistani submarines, warships and aircraft.
"The Israeli Barak missile, which was bought in 2001, for the first time provided the Indian Navy with genuine air defence capability. The LR-SAM will make air defence even more reliable," asserts Chauhan.Until the LR-SAM is operational, Indian warships remain critically vulnerable to air and missile attack, but the navy believes it will be worth the wait. "This (delay) is the price that you pay when you go in for high-tech, state-of-the-art systems", says Vice Admiral Satish Soni, who heads Eastern Naval Command.
The LR-SAM will also defend Indian warships against a feared ocean predator - long-range maritime patrol (LRMP) aircraft like Pakistan's P3C Orion, which will fly 12-hour missions from Karachi to scour the seas, locate Indian warships, and launch anti-ship missiles from 50 kilometres away.
The LR-SAM's 70-kilometre range lets it engage the LRMP aircraft even before it launches its anti-ship missile. If the aircraft manages to launch a missile, the LR-SAM is designed to shoot it down before it strikes a warship. For the LRMP aircraft, an attack on a CBG would be suicidal. Its presence betrayed by the launch of a missile, MiG-29Ks fighters scrambled from an aircraft carrier would quickly overtake it and shoot it down.
After coming within range of Pakistan's surface fleet, Indian warships would launch an air-sea attack - striking Pakistani warships with anti-ship missiles like the Brahmos, from ranges of up to 300 kilometres; and with fighter aircraft launched from the aircraft carrier.Detracting from India's convincing naval superiority in the Indian Ocean region is only its vulnerability to enemy submarines. This stems not just from a depleted submarines force, but also neglect of the capability to detect and destroy enemy submarines.
This is the first of a two-part series on naval strategy. Part II: In submarine operations, the Indian Navy's Achilles' heel