I consider it a privilege to be here this evening, to deliver the YB Chavan memorial talk, honouring an illustrious Defence Minister during whose tenure the IDSA was founded.
Shri YB Chavan, freedom-fighter, social-activist and veteran politician was the Chief Minister of Maharashtra when his services were sought by PM Nehru, at a crucial juncture in our history; to shoulder the defence portfolio in 1962. His firm and resolute handling of national security issues after the trauma of the Sino-Indian war evoked admiration all round. After holding a succession of key portfolios, Sh. Chavan eventually rose to be deputy PM in 1979, but he is best remembered for his contribution as one of India’s ablest Defence Ministers.
With Navy Day just around the corner, this seems to be a most appropriate time to be discussing nautical issues, and there could not be a topic more pertinent than maritime security.
This is a term which connotes different things to different navies. While some perceive maritime security in a narrow sense as measures for force-protection and defense against sabotage, others include actions to combat terrorism and illegal activities like piracy and trafficking; still others expand it to embrace the protection of territorial waters and sea lanes. Adopting an inclusive approach, we in India define maritime security as; comprising a collection of all the issues that pertain to the seas, and have a bearing on national security. These include, inter-alia, seaborne trade and infrastructure for its pursuit, management of sea resources, environmental issues and employment of naval forces.
However, for those of you whose mental picture of ‘maritime security’ evokes images of warships and submarines, a lot has happened in the recent past to draw comfort from. The nuclear reactor of India’s first ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) went critical on 9th August 2013 in Vishakhapatnam, to be followed, three days later, by the launch of the indigenous aircraft-carrier in Kochi. Earlier, in 2012, a Russian nuclear-powered attack submarine had been inducted on a 10-year lease. Over the next decade, the Indian Navy (IN) navy expects delivery of; seven stealth frigates, six diesel submarines, and 30 other warships, apart from over 150 fighters, maritime-patrol aircraft and helicopters. And even as I speak, our brand-new aircraft-carrier INS Vikramaditya is preparing to sail from Russia on her homeward-bound voyage,
All these acquisitions will cost the exchequer in the region of about 25-30 billion US$, and we must note two important aspects in this context. Firstly, there are not many navies, world-wide, which have seen, in recent years, or are likely to see; in the midst of a global economic downturn, such significant accretions to their order-of-battle. Secondly, this force build-up, once complete, will not only enhance the Navy’s combat capability by an order of magnitude, but would also alter the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, provided necessary strategic guidance is forthcoming from government.
The question that begs an answer, then, is: if such a happy prospect prevails at sea, why do we need to discuss maritime security in today’s forum?
One reason, as I just mentioned, is the ambivalence about what constitutes maritime security. The other is that maritime security has many dimensions, of which some, like force-structures, capabilities, threats and strategies, find frequent mention. For this evening’s discussion I intend to give priority to some lesser known and neglected aspects of our maritime-matrix, which require attention, and then I will address threats and challenges at sea.
Let us, first, take a look at history, in order to recall the roots and provenance of India’s maritime growth and to trace the decline of its maritime power. Otherwise, we are in danger of invoking George Santayana’s curse that those ‘who forget history are condemned to re-live the past’.
Although India’s ancient maritime tradition pre-dates Greek, Roman and Carthaginian exploits in the Mediterranean, not enough is known about it, because we had neither a Herodotus nor Thucydides to record history; and our past suffers from a lack of documentation. For this reason, we have had to accept accounts, authored by Western historians, which rarely make mention of the seafaring skills of the ancient Arabs, the Chinese, or Indians. And yet, tangible evidence of India’s widespread cultural, religious and linguistic imprint – dating back 2-3 millennia - is available. It is found, not just around the Indian Ocean rim, but extending, from the Mediterranean to the Pacific.
A lone Indian voice in this historiographic void is that of Sardar KM Panikkar; statesman, diplomat and visionary. According to Panikkar, due to its earlier civilization and its predictable system of monsoon winds, it was the Indian Ocean region, and not the Mediterranean or Aegean Seas, which saw the world’s first oceanic sailing activity. Arguing that ancient Hindus possessed the skills to construct sturdy ocean-going ships and knew the use of a magnetic compass for accurate navigation, he clinches his extensive arguments by stating that: “Millenniums before Columbus sailed the Atlantic and Magellan crossed the Pacific, the Indian Ocean had become a thoroughfare of commercial and cultural traffic.”
Panikkar paints a fascinating picture of India’s maritime past as he describes the activities that took place in the 4th century BCE Mauryan Empire. He provides evidence that the waters of the Bay of Bengal witnessed a continuum of commercial colonization as well as cultural and religious osmosis by sea from India’s east coast ports to south-east Asia. The existence of ancient Hindu kingdoms right across SE Asia, then known as Suvarnabhumi, is still vividly evident in the architecture, culture and religious beliefs of this region.
Panikkar also reminds us that this cultural empire could not have been sustained without the endeavours of skillful and courageous Indian seafarers who braved the turbulent Bay of Bengal for generations. Significantly, Panikkar debunks the thesis that overseas travel for Hindus had been banned by a Brahmanical fiat; saying that the ‘ban’ perhaps applied only to people in north India.
How did, then, the maritime decline of India come about?
From the 5th century AD command of the eastern waters and Malacca Straits passed into the hands of a great Indian maritime power, known as the Sri Vijaya Empire, based in Sumatra. The Sri Vijaya kings retained mastery over the surrounding waters through a powerful navy, and controlled all shipping traffic. In the year 1007 AD, the Indian Emperor Rajendra of the south Indian Chola dynasty fitted out a powerful fleet and challenged the Sri Vijayas. The ensuing 100-year war weakened both empires and heralded the serious decline of Hindu sea power.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, as Central Asian hordes poured down our mountain passes to conquer the rich Gangetic plain, India’s maritime power gradually withered, and oceanic trade passed into the hands of the Arabs. In May 1498, when the Portuguese adventurer Vasco da Gama arrived off Calicut, the Sultanate of Delhi was ruled by the Afghan Lodhi Dynasty, while Southern India was divided between the Bahamini and Vijayanagaram kingdoms. None of them were blessed with a maritime vision, much less a navy; and India’s maritime prowess went into rapid decline.
Panikkar, however, reminds us that there were brave and resolute sea captains who led indigenous naval forces, and put up determined resistance against seaborne interlopers. While nautical heroes like Kunjali Marakkar and Kanhoji Angre constitute bright spots in an otherwise bleak maritime scenario, they commanded coastal forces which could never match the oceanic supremacy of the Europeans.
Fifteenth century Europe had seen many advances in the areas of shipbuilding and ocean navigation as well as metallurgy and cannon founding. We must note that it was this technological edge, which enabled European merchant-adventurers, to undertake long-distance voyages into uncharted oceans, and to overwhelm natives of eastern lands. The toe-holds they gained, in the form of trading posts, eventually metamorphosed into full blown empires.
Panikkar consistently emphasizes that India’s fate has been determined not on land frontiers, but on the oceanic expanse that washes its three sides. He declares that India will be in peril if the Indian Ocean ever ceases to be a ‘protected sea.’ Lamenting our inherited sea-blindness, Panikkar sounded a clear warning in 1945: “While to other countries, the Indian Ocean is only one of the oceanic areas, to India it is the vital sea. Her future is dependent on the freedom of its waters.”
Having established India’s historical maritime credentials and the criticality of our maritime security to national survival, let me change tack from Panikkar to Mahan and seek the latter’s wisdom regarding the purpose of sea power.
American strategist Admiral Mahan, writing in 1902, says: “War has ceased to be the natural, or even normal, condition of nations, and military considerations are subordinate to the other great interests they serve; economics and commerce.” He insists that since the true path to national prosperity and greatness lies in peacetime trade, ensuring access to sources of economic well-being, i.e. foreign trade, commerce and natural resources are of paramount importance; sea power being only a means to this end. A hundred years after he made this pronouncement, we, in India, need to pay heed to Mahan’s words.
In our own context, the dramatic growth of India’s economy has been stimulated by the powerful phenomenon of globalization; leading to not just large foreign direct investment in India, but also heavy Indian investment abroad. Thus, along with an Indian diaspora of over 20 million, we also have growing economic interests world-wide. India’s economy as well as progress and prosperity depend on international trade, which is carried overwhelmingly by sea; as is energy, the lifeblood of our industry. These factors, coupled with the prospects of harvesting oceanic resources and India’s growing international profile, have helped awaken an overdue realization of our dependence on the seas.
A fortuitous sequence of events has also alleviated the inherited continental-mindset of India’s decision-makers, which engendered the so-called ‘sea-blindness’ syndrome. Over the past decade and a half, the trauma of rampant piracy, the 26/11 exposure of India’s soft coastal-underbelly, its ‘Look East’ initiative, and the looming menace of China’s Navy have stimulated a sharper focus on maritime security.
The fact is that India is a maritime nation, not just by historical tradition but also because its geophysical configuration and geo-political circumstances makes it as dependent on the seas as any island nation. Let us remember that with 11 maritime states and island territories India probably has more seafaring people than the population of most European countries. When we say that a ‘maritime awakening’, has recently occurred in India, we must remember that it is largely confined to the national-security elite. It has not affected most decision-makers in other sectors of the government, as well as much of the populace.
We need to be quite clear that contrary to popular perception, a country’s maritime strength does not reside, exclusively, in its navy; which is merely one of a number of components that complement each other in contributing to maritime security. In fact, by creating an expensive navy and neglecting the other constituents of maritime power we are indulging in self-delusion. There is an urgent need to focus on the other aspects, many of them belonging to the civil sector, that are needed to make India a complete maritime nation.
Before I explore the linkages of the civilian maritime sector with maritime security, let me touch upon the kind of support that our navy seeks, but rarely receives from national industry.
It is a quirk of fate that India has become a significant military and economic entity, with great-power aspirations, before it has become a significant industrial power or even a major trading nation. Thus India finds itself in an anomalous situation wherein it possess nuclear weapons and boasts of the world’s 5th or 6th largest armed forces, but is forced to support their operational requirements through massive imports. There is inadequate realization of two facts; one, that every piece of hardware that the Indian armed forces acquire from abroad places them at the mercy of the seller nation for the lifetime of the equipment; and two, that if our peacetime arsenals remain half-empty –whatever the reason - how will we ever fight a war?
The nonchalance with which we continue to import huge quantities of defence hardware not only undermines our security but renders all talk of ‘strategic autonomy’ quite meaningless. India is fortunate in having a vast defence technology and industrial base (DTIB) which could be the envy of developed nations. This base comprises thousands of talented scientists working in a network of sophisticated DRDO laboratories backed by the advanced production facilities of the ordinance factories and defence production units. And yet, India’s DTIB has rendered our armed forces hollow, by failing to deliver, for six decades, capabilities they direly need. A willing and capable private sector has been kept out of defence production while many PSUs have hoodwinked the nation with spurious claims of ‘transfer of technology’ and ‘indigenisation’.
In a related context, it is preposterous and irrational that while the MoD has no qualms about importing billions worth of weapons from abroad, it should strongly resist any suggestion about private Indian companies entering the defence sector. This single measure has deprived the navy of the support that a capable private sector industrial base that could have provided, in peace and in war. Consequently, the navy’s operational readiness remains hostage, on one hand to the inefficient and complacent public sector, and on the other, to unreliable foreign suppliers.
If all these shortcomings are worrisome, of equal concern is the continuing inability or unwillingness of the political leadership to address them in a meaningful way. But let us now turn to the civilian aspects of the maritime domain.
Considering that 97% of our trade is carried by sea, the civil maritime sector, defined by the Ministry of Surface Transport as encompassing port operations, the merchant fleet, the shipbuilding industry and trained human resources, is a vital component of maritime security. Interestingly Admiral Mahan, while stipulating the conditions vital to the maritime power of a nation, also included ‘character of the government and its institutions’. In our case, this lacuna is sadly apparent in the neglect shown by the Government of India towards the maritime sector since independence.
Today there is no single government agency, which has either the span of responsibility or the authority to act as the focal point for India’s maritime policies and interests. As many as sixteen different ministries, departments or organizations (including the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard) are involved in ocean related matters and most of the time there is complete lack of coordination between the different organs of the government. Moreover, generalist bureaucrats have been placed in positions which require specialist maritime knowledge and expertise. This has resulted in a lack of direction and even confusion in certain areas like coastal and port security, traffic management, pollution control, fisheries regulation and anti-piracy measures.
Organizations like the Directorate General of Shipping and respective Port Trusts which are mandated to exercise regulation and control in all such matters, have neither the means nor the inclination to act. On the other hand, timely help and advice is never sought, from professional maritime organizations, like the Coast Guard and Navy, which possess adequate means and ability.
Today happens to be the 5th anniversary of the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai, but even the trauma and humiliation of this tragic event was insufficient to shake the government out of its apathy to undertake formulation of a maritime security policy or constitute an advisory body for maritime security. All that happened was some re-allocation of duties between the navy and the coast guard, which has further confounded an already confused coastal security scenario; while state police forces remain most reluctant to have anything to do with the seaward patrolling.
All this is not to say that the government is oblivious of the huge potential of the maritime sector and its shortcomings. Proof of this lies in the fact that three successive Ministers of Shipping and Transport have, in a period of just seven years, issued three ‘maritime perspective plans’; the latest being ‘Maritime Agenda 2020’, issued in 2010. The common thread that runs through all these plans is their grandiose concept and unrealistic targets, without any mention of a roadmap, a time schedule or a monitoring mechanism. Obviously they have been drawn up to impress the public.
Three major aspects of the civil maritime sector addressed by these perspective plans are ports, the shipping industry and shipbuilding. Since all of them impinge either directly or indirectly, on maritime security I will touch upon them briefly.
The navy is a regular user of all major ports, and resident in many of them. Naval operations are profoundly affected by the functioning of these ports, and the navy is often asked for assistance in times of crisis. In wartime the navy will need to guard them and ensure their efficient functioning – often in the face of enemy action.
To a mariner, India’s 13 major and 176 minor ports present a distressing prospect. Badly congested, poorly managed and lacking in facilities for dredging, mechanization and storage, they are grossly inadequate to meet the cargo-throughput requirements of our growing economy. Indian ports stand out in stark contrast when compared with the efficient cargo handling and quick turn-around times available all over the Asia-Pacific, including China and even neighbouring Sri Lanka.
The new Maritime Agenda, ambitiously, aims to quadruple cargo throughput by 2020, but most Indian ports are already operating at close to 100% capacity and any enhancement will require massive expansion programmes. Considerable planning and investment would be needed to bring Indian ports to anywhere near international standards. Moreover, unless hinterland connectivity in terms of efficient railroad and fast highway connections are available investment in ports may be rendered infructuous.
A nation’s merchant fleet is yet another strategic asset, and now crude-oil and natural-gas carriers and container ships are almost as important as warships in the security matrix. During war, a key objective of the belligerents will be to deprive the opponent’s industry of vital raw materials and fuel, and to starve his civilian population by attacking merchant shipping. Ideally, therefore, the country should own and control as much of its shipping as possible so that it can ensure adequate reserves. It would interest you to know that in order to meet India’s daily need of 3.1 million barrels of oil, at least two VLCCs (very large crude-carriers) must unload at the Vadinar terminal in Gujarat every single day of the year.
India’s merchant fleet, 15th largest in the world, has been almost static, for some years, at 1000 ships totalling 10 million tons. This fleet can carry less than 10% of our foreign trade, and is not only woefully inadequate for India’s needs, but also lacks container, product and specialized carriers. Dependence on foreign shipping means not just a loss of earnings but also represents a strategic vulnerability. Considering the fact that the Indian seaborne trade is set to double or triple by 2020, the Indian shipping tonnage needs to be speedily augmented in order to arrest further decline in the share of Indian ships.
Our most spectacular failure has, however, been in the field of shipbuilding.
While the basic driver of shipbuilding is global seaborne trade, it is a strategic industry which an emerging power like India has been gravely remiss in not nurturing. Apart from constituting the foundation and support of a nation’s naval power, the shipbuilding industry generates huge secondary and tertiary benefits in terms of ancillary industries, skilled manpower and employment creation, which can transform the economy.
Of all the Indian flagged merchant vessels, just over 10% have been built in Indian shipyards; because of higher costs, lengthy delivery periods and, sometimes, due to indifferent quality. Countries like China, South Korea, Japan and even Vietnam and the Philippines have, marshaled their strengths to create a shipbuilding industry which produces quality ships at competitive prices. While these nations have monopolized the world’s ship-building market, it is a measure of India’s myopic vision that we have failed to capitalize on our many natural advantages and to create a dynamic shipbuilding and ship-repair industry.
Indian shipyards contribute just 1% of the global market share. The target of achieving 5% share of global shipbuilding in next seven years set by the Maritime Agenda-2020 is quite unrealistic, because even a marginal increase capacity will call for a herculean effort; especially during the current shipping slump. Any endeavour to boost the shipbuilding industry will require drawing up of a national strategy which designates shipbuilding as a priority sector and provides active support in terms of levies, financial subsidies, and availability of raw materials and training of manpower.
So much about civil shipbuilding, but what ails our defence shipyards? After all, of India’s 28 shipyards (China has over 800) eight are owned by the MoD.
No nation has ever become a maritime power by importing naval hardware from abroad, and competent warship building shipyards are the sine qua non for achieving ascendancy at sea. In their long-term vision of creating a competent maritime force, India’s naval leadership has remained steadfast in their resolve to have it built in Indian shipyards; even in the face of acute scepticism. Regrettably, this commitment to indigenization has not been reciprocated by the industry with equal passion.
The public sector work-culture has kept the efficiency and productivity of these shipyards at dismal levels. Most warship building projects have been afflicted by huge time delays and embarrassing cost overruns. This has not only had an adverse impact on the navy’s force-levels but also eroded its credibility with the Ministry of Finance. These yards, under the tight control of the Department of Defence Production are not funded to undertake modernization or up-gradation. Nor are they encouraged to demonstrate commercial, financial or technical innovation, and they would all benefit from adoption of modern technical practices and human resource management methods.
The real cause for serious concern relates to the tendency which makes us declare that a newly delivered warship is, for example, ‘75%-80% indigenous’. While some may consider this an acceptable piece of public-relations hyperbole, such statements actually cause grave harm because they lull us into complacency. The truth of the matter is that the propulsion, weapons, sensors, electronics and many other systems that go into every warship, that we build indigenously, are either imported or assembled in India under licence. Therefore the chances are that the ship may actually be 75%-80% imported by value!
The last issue I want to mention, in passing, is that of seabed exploration. India is the owner of a huge EEZ, and was granted status of a ‘pioneer investor’ in a large patch of Indian Ocean by the International Seabed Authority as early as in 1987. The seabed promises to yield vast resources of mineral wealth, embedded in poly-metallic nodules, which lie on the ocean floor.
Unfortunately, India’s Department of Ocean Development and now Ministry of Earth Sciences has dabbled perfunctorily in seabed research. On the other hand, China has established a huge lead in the area of seabed exploration technology by producing the world’s deepest diving vehicle which can go down to 7000 meters. If information about the presence of strategic rare-earth metals on the seabed is true, India needs to accelerate its own programmes so that it is not left too far behind.
Against this, somewhat gloomy but realistic backdrop, let me now shift gears and provide a brief glimpse of the strategic challenges that we are likely to face in the foreseeable future, their maritime implications, and how well equipped we are going to be to deal with them.
India’s main strategic challenge comes from its prosperous northern neighbour; China. Without entering into a detailed discussion about respective capabilities and intentions, it can be said that China and India, are going to make uneasy neighbours. For the two nuclear-armed nations to rise, almost simultaneously, without conflict will require either adroit diplomacy or a miracle; possibly both. The all weather Sino-Pakistan alliance, with its strong anti-Indian slant, further complicates our security problems.
The Kashmir and Sino-Indian border disputes, although far from the sea, could have maritime repercussions if India attempts to employ countervailing strategies in the Indian Ocean. Our cautious and hesitant reaction to border intrusions by both China and Pakistan, earlier this year, raised questions about India’s political resolve and military preparedness in the face of repeated provocations. The incidents also conveyed the warning that we need to be prepared for collusive action by both armies. To exacerbate India’s security predicament, the Pak Army-ISI combine awaits the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan to unleash its strategic reserve of Taliban on Kashmir.
Within the Sino-Indian strategic equation, the maritime dimension is a relatively new factor. The rapid growth of both economies has led to increasing reliance on energy and raw materials, and transported by sea. This has focused sharp attention on the criticality, for both economies, of uninterrupted use of the sea- lanes for trade and energy transportation. Thus, while the PLA Navy makes forays into the Indian Ocean, the IN has newfound commitments in the South China Sea.
The seas around us are rife with hazards and uncertainties; whether it is rampant piracy, maritime terrorism, and proliferation or inter-state tensions. Natural disasters and the impact of climate change, too, present a severe threat to coastal nations and low-lying islands in our region. After its sterling performance during the 2004 tsunami, it will be the unstated expectation of our neighbours that the IN will promptly come to their assistance in times of natural calamity.
Against this backdrop, and given the trans-national reach and versatility of maritime power, not only is the IN going to find greater salience in India’s national security matrix, but will also play a vital role in sustaining India’s economic prosperity. India’s long-term maritime roadmap, therefore, requires special focus on three vital factors.
The navy’s biggest challenge is going to be the timely replacement of ageing platforms and obsolescent equipment. The envisaged order of battle of about 150-170 ships and submarines, and possibly 250-300 aircraft assumes certain delivery rates from shipyards and aircraft factories; which they seem incapable of meeting. At the same time, our other major source, of hardware, the Russians, have brazenly reneged on costs as well as delivery schedules, in violation of solemn agreements. One of the more serious challenges before the navy’s leadership will be to persuade the Russians as well as Indian DPSUs to deliver on time and within cost.
The failure to acquire even a reasonable level of self-reliance in major weapon systems in the past 66 years has made India the biggest importer of arms world-wide; and this must count as a failure of the DRDO and DPSUs. Crafting a viable and time-bound strategy which will persuade the DRDO to develop, reverse-engineer or import the technology for weapons and sensors for our indigenously built warships will constitute another major challenge for the IN.
China’s pursuit of a, so called, ‘string of pearls’ strategy tends to draw considerable attention in strategic circles due to its high-profile economic connotations. While India may not be able to match China’s financial munificence, the navy’s ‘foreign cooperation’ initiatives have ensured creation of a favourable maritime environment in the region. Apart from activities such as exercises, joint-patrolling, port calls and flag-showing deployments, the navy’s out-reach also includes provision of maritime security on request by neighbours. Agreements exist with almost all IOR countries that permit IN ships, submarines and aircraft to avail of refueling and turn-around facilities at very short notice.
Against this background, there is expectation that the IN could tilt the balance in the South Asian power-game. While a Maritime Strategy is in place, given India’s current national security outlook, the crafting of a cohesive national strategy appears an unlikely prospect. Nevertheless some aspects of the Navy’s force-accretion plans, which will endow the nation with a number of powerful maritime capabilities, bear mention here.
As a former naval person I feel that a strong and balanced navy is vital for India’s march towards major power status. Such a force will soon be a reality; largely through the navy’s foresight and indigenous efforts. However, it is necessary for the decision-makers to understand that the navy, by itself, constitutes just one pillar of the country’s maritime capability, and without the rest of the structure, including strategic guidance, to complement and provide support, the edifice of naval power will remain hollow and vulnerable.
Asian countries which have brought holistic focus on their maritime sector have not only reaped tremendous economic benefits but also reinforced their maritime security. While the neighbourhood has moved on, India’s ports and infrastructure remain inefficient, our shipbuilding industry is sluggish, merchant shipping grows at snail’s pace, seabed exploitation is stagnating, and human resource development is inadequate. Our trade-dependent economic progress is undergirded by these essential components of maritime power, but a lack of strategic vision has resulted in failure to exploit the maritime sector; with adverse implications for maritime security.
A nation with India’s maritime assets, challenges and opportunities urgently needs a multi-disciplinary maritime advisory body to conceptualize a vision, draw up plans and monitor activities in the maritime domain. The first task of such a body should be to craft an overarching Maritime Security Policy and thereafter to undertake its integration with India’s Maritime Strategy. Only such a synergy can ensure that we draw maximum advantage from the maritime sector - to benefit our economy and also to reinforce maritime security.
That concludes my presentation and I thank you for your attention. Jai Hind.