Indian Naval ships patrol the far reaches of the Indian Ocean and guard its gates, off the Cape of Good Hope and the Madagascar Channel, in the Red Sea, in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Seas, and off the straits connecting the Indian Ocean to the Pacific in the East.
Speaking at the foundation stone laying ceremony for the Indian National Defence University in Gurugram in May 2013, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that India has “sought to assume our responsibility for stability in the Indian Ocean region”. He went on to add, “We are well positioned, therefore, to become a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean in our immediate region and beyond”. These words marked perhaps the first time that an aspiration for a regional maritime security role had been voiced at India’s apex political level. The nation’s interest in maritime security was further expanded during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Mauritius in March 2015, when he said, “We seek a future for Indian Ocean that lives up to the name of SAGAR – Security And Growth for All in the Region.” By expanding its maritime footprint to provide security both to the Indian Ocean and India, the Indian Navy, the nation’s lead agency tasked with defending the nation’s maritime interests, has laid the foundations for the region’s economic growth.
Why is maritime security, particularly in the Indian Ocean, important for the world, the region and for India? In 2017, world merchandise trade exports were $17.73 trillion, or nearly 70 per cent of total global trade (the remaining 30 per cent comprised trade in services, which predominantly uses the cyber commons). More than 60 per cent of this merchandise trade passed through the free and ungoverned maritime commons. 70 per cent of world seaborne energy traffic, half of its container traffic and 40 per cent of bulk cargo transits through the Indian Ocean, making it the vital crossroads of the global economy. Use of the seas is bound to increase as the world becomes increasingly interlinked. The GDP of nations represented at the East Asia Summit (including India), connected almost entirely by the maritime commons, has been estimated at $65.8 trillion in 2017 and is estimated to rise to $95.6 trillion in the next three years. For India, 90 per cent of exports by volume and over 80 per cent of the fossil fuel energy that powers its growing economy travel across the seas, necessitating security not just at the destination, but throughout the predominantly maritime commons from the source.
Challenges in the maritime domain arise from the three broad sources. The first is forces beyond the control of man, such as accident, natural disasters and regional instability. People in the region impacted by these require succour, whether it be by way of search and rescue (SAR) mechanisms or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). The second is from sub-state and non-state actors, who exploit the ungoverned nature of the seas for private gain, resulting in challenges such as piracy and armed robbery at sea, terror, transnational crime, illegal and unauthorised fishing, environmental pollution, etc. Their actions are directed against the common good and security encompasses prevention of such exploitation, or at least appropriate punitive action. The third is revisionist nation states, who seek opportunities to exploit the existing international weaknesses and subvert established international law for their own benefit. Unless deterred, their actions result either in acceptance of diminished security for others, or conflict.
Until the turn of the century, India was content to focus on territorial security and leave security of the commons to extraregional powers. The days of one nation providing security throughout the oceanic space have, however, receded into history. Even USA finds the task beyond its capacity, as was proved when piracy became a serious concern off the Horn of Africa. Dealing with the diverse variety of challenges requires cooperative structures involving all states of the region, to enable awareness of the developing challenge; cooperative decision-making; preventive measures, which will usually necessitate presence; and punitive measures to impose appropriate costs on the offender. The fact, moreover, is that those who provide security get to set the agenda and reap consequential economic benefits. It is this realisation that led to India’s aspiration to become a ‘net security provider’.
The Indian Navy has since then been active in tackling all three sources of maritime insecurity throughout the Indian Ocean. A well-developed apparatus has been evolved to deal with challenges generated by accident, natural disasters and regional instability. Proof of the pudding came from dramatic rescue of Commander Abhilash Tomy, participating in the Golden Globe round the world solo yacht race earlier this year. On September 22, the Indian Navy’s Maritime Operations Centre received a call that the officer had severely injured his back due to the rough seas and needed evacuation. The Indian Navy swung into action, launching a P-8I aircraft and staging it through Mauritius to locate and track him. A French fishing vessel was the first to reach his location and evacuated him to Island Amsterdam, a tiny French island over 5,000 Km South of Kanyakumari. INS Satpura, mission-deployed in the Southern Indian Ocean, diverted to Îsland Amsterdam, evacuated him using the ship’s integral helicopter, treated him and brought him back to India. Numerous similar missions have been successfully carried out in the last one year, ranging from providing relief following cyclone Titli in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, SAR operations in Assam, and the rescue of fishermen off Kochi, to HADR assistance to the tsunami hit residents of Palu, in Sulawesi, Indonesia; evacuation of stranded Indians from Socotra following cyclone Mekunu; liaising with the navies of Nigeria, Ghana and Benin to locate and secure release of the hijacked motor tanker Marine Express with 22 Indian crew on board; provision of relief to Mauritius following cyclone Berguitta; medical evacuation in the Maldives and much more.
The Indian Navy is also at the forefront when it comes to combating challenges from sub and non-state actors. The key requirements here are surveillance to pick up what is happening, as well as presence, to intercept the offender. The Indian Navy’s P-8I and IL-38 maritime patrol aircraft operating from Arakkonam and Goa, augmented by Dorniers, UAVs and satellites carry out surveillance throughout the Indian Ocean, feeding data gathered into the Information Management and Analysis Centre at Gurugram. When coupled with White Shipping Agreements and other inputs from friendly countries, this surveillance enables Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). Indian Navy and Coast Guard units maintain surveillance and presence throughout India’s EEZ. Indian Navy ships positioned strategically at choke points across the length and breadth of the Indian Ocean on a near continuous basis provide ‘presence’ throughout the Indian Ocean. Seven broad areas of deployment have been identified: off the Persian Gulf and across the vital Straits of Hormuz; off the Horn of Africa and astride the key SLOCs passing through Suez and the Red Sea; off Mauritius and the Mozambique Channel; in the Central Indian Ocean, off Maldives and Sri Lanka, where almost all SLOCs passing through the Indian Ocean converge; in the Northern Bay of Bengal; in the Andaman Sea off the Andaman and Nicobar Islands; and finally off the Malacca Straits. The Indian Navy draws sustenance from ports in countries throughout the Indian Ocean, provides reassurance, helps nations secure their EEZs, builds capacity and capability, and generates goodwill for the nation.
Coming to revisionist states, India’s strategic challenge lies in ensuring that its regional relationships prevent inimical extraregional powers from building up a network of bases that could be used against India in the years ahead. India’s chosen strategy involves the Indian Navy at three different levels. The first focuses on enhancing influence by helping regional nations to build capacity and capability to tackle the non-conventional challenges of governing their maritime zones, as well as ensuring that a coup doesn’t topple regimes favourably inclined towards India. The second includes developing an effective voice in regional security concerns, through initiatives such as IONS as well as numerous bilateral partnerships throughout the ocean. The third involves developing the ability to deal with geopolitical challenges arising out of conflict, which may require balancing and alliances with like-minded global powers, necessitating creation of interoperability. Towards this end, the Indian Navy exercises with numerous Indian Ocean and extra-regional nations. Examples include Exercise Malabar, RIMPAC, Varuna, Indra, Konkan, Kakadu, Samudra Shakti, SIMBEX, PASSEX and many more, as well as Coordinated Patrols with Thailand, Indonesia and Myanmar in the Andaman Sea.
So if India and its navy is now deployed across the Indian Ocean, it is in pursuit of a carefully crafted strategy designed to ensure regional goodwill and the ability to be the first responder to incidents. This is why Indian Naval ships patrol the far reaches of the Indian Ocean and guard its gates, off the Cape of Good Hope and the Madagascar Channel, in the Red Sea, in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Seas, and off the straits connecting the Indian Ocean to the Pacific in the East. Maritime patrol aircraft monitor the sea spaces to ensure that India is aware of all that is happening in its defined primary area of interest. Their deployment not only helps in familiarising seamen with their operating environment, but also generates confidence in equipment, builds maritime domain awareness and shows presence, the pre-requisite to deter non-conventional, non-state threats, as well as to build up confidence of IOR neighbours in India’s capability, showing that India is indeed acting as a net security provider for the region. Security requires cooperative effort, and the Indian Navy’s latest slogan, “Indian Navy: Mission Deployed and Combat Ready”, indicates that the Indian Navy is not just conscious of its increasing responsibilities but is also fulfilling them.
The Author is Senior Fellow, Delhi Policy Group, India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road, New Delhi – 110 003