Since the time of the British domination of the world when they colonized half the planet, the role of the navy has been paramount. The most powerful navy in the world has been the superpower. Before World War II it was Britain and after it is the United States.
When one says superpower, its not just the military power but economic power. Britain used its navy to dominate the seas, colonize and ensured trade was secure. It found sources of raw material for its factories and shipped to to Britain and then shipped around finished goods all without any hindrance because of its powerful navy.
Post World War II, the world order changed. Colonies got freedom and the US primarily began to dominate the seas with the primary objective of keeping the sea lanes open so that trade can take place without any hurdles. Energy security was of prime importance with oil tankers from the Middle East fueling the US and European economies.
India has maintained a respectable navy since independence. It had the foresight to operate carrier battle group when it purchased a carrier from Britain and commissioned it as INS Vikrant. Later added another INS Virat again a second hand carrier from Britain. India was for most part of the last century a brown water navy but kept building capacity towards a blue water navy.
India sits on a strategic part of the world. On its west is the Arabian Sea and the choke point of Hormuz through which large volume of Gulf Oil moves around the world and also to India. On its east is the Bay of Bengal and the choke point of Malaccas through which large volume of oil and container shipment takes place. Indian Navy has increasingly taken the role of a net guarantor of security in the region to keep the sea lanes of communication open. It continuously deploys assets for anti piracy operations.
As India looks forward to the next few decades of high growth that will power it to be the second largest economy in the world behind China or if we grow at the rate of knots even overtake China at some point, the role of Indian Navy to help sustain the high growth rate cannot but be emphasized. India will need even more amount of energy, more raw materials to run its factories, more markets to sell its products and with a large population that lives and works in other countries who remit large sums back home. To protect these will be the role of Indian Navy.
Given India’s demographics of large working age population,it will be inevitable that they will migrate to countries where opportunities are available due to the dwindling working age population of the host countries or in countries that are rich in resources like countries of the African continent. To protect and secure its citizens in such countries during any conflict will be the responsibility of the Indian Navy
India will be a $5 trillion economy at least (at current dollar) by 2025 and at a growth rate of 8% average be a $30 trillion economy by 2050. If we grow at 10% average we will be a $55 trillion economy by 2050 (at current dollar). China will be a 70 trillion economy and US a 30 trillion economy going by various projections. Together these three countries will dominate the world economy.
But to power the economies to those level and sustain it, there will be a battle to control resources, and dwindling resources I may add at the current known reserve levels particularly hydrocarbons that powers their economies. India will have to compete with the already established players and look for newer sources of resources and in an increasingly conflict prone planet and protect its sources. From Africa to Central Asia to Latin America to East Asia. From the Atlantic to the Pacific to even the Arctic may be will be legitimate areas of interests for India and it will be the Indian Navy that will be responsible for its protection.
The primary rival for India will be China with whom it shares a troubled history after the 1962 border conflict. While India and China share a very fast growing trade relations, its rivalry will continue on the grounds of unresolved border, domination of the region and more importantly securing resources.
Chinese navy at the moment is way ahead of India’s in terms of assets available. It has over 70 submarines with indigenously made SSKs, SSNs and SSBNs. It has number of other surface combatants and recently commissioned its first aircraft carrier and building more as well.
The current state of the Indian Navy with its recent history is a cause of worry. Loss of submarine, lack of future acquistion, delays in other surface combatants plague the navy today. India’s submarine force consists of 9 Kilo class boats, 4 HDWs and the recently leased Akula SSN from Russia. India will commission its first SSBN INS Arihant some time next year with five more follow ons being planned.
India has a host of other surface combatants planned. Kolkata class destroyers and its follow ons, Shivalik Class frigates and its follow ons, the Kamorta Class corvettes and its follow ons.
India is also making its own aircraft carriers. At least three are being planned. We already have got the refit Russian Admiral Gorshkov commissioned as INS Vikramaditya. India will operate at least 3 in the near future and 4-5 carrier groups in the medium term.
Its the submarine force which is of concern as to operate the carrier groups which are huge capital ships with a lot of investment, very secure seas are required. Enemy submarines on the look out for our carriers have to be found and kept away. Its the aircraft carriers which are the ultimate symbol of power projection like the US has proved. Today India’s coastline is vulnerable to enemy submarines. The operational level of its submarine is low. Half its total boats go on patrol at any time. It has to cover areas from the Hormuz to the Malaccas to the larger Indian Ocean. Lack of submarines also threatens the security of SSBNs that will carry the most important arm of India’s nuclear deterrent.
India will have to make divide its naval acquisition for a 2025-30 time frame and also plan out till 2050 based on the growth of economy, planned forays for energy exploration and recovery, other mines etc and their protection which will range from Atlantic to Pacific. India will have to work arrangements for logistics and basing rights in various countries. India will have to have expeditionary capabilities across the globe. It will require to build on other capabilities like LPDs, tankers etc.
India has to get its act together and bolster its navy as also the other branches of its armed forces if it has to sustain a fast growing economy.