India - A Maritime Power of the Future

Any restriction in safe and smooth transit of public goods in the Indo-Pacific Region must be met with full power of maritime forces. For India, supporting this role in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), must remain within the reach of the Indian Navy.

Issue: 6-2020 By Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (Retd)Photo(s): By US Navy
The Author is former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. A naval aviator of fighter stream, he has flown over 2700 hours and steered naval aviation acquisition as the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff. He retired in 2014 as the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Naval Command.


Navies of US, Australia, Japan and India have come together to cooperate on taking up issues like freedom of navigation and open seas

Navy Day is celebrated on December 4, a date that was decided upon after the war in 1971. In this war that was fought by the Indian armed forces to liberate Bangladesh, the Indian Navy played a stellar role. 93,000 soldiers of the Pakistan Army led by Lt General A.A.K. Niazi in erstwhile East Pakistan, surrendered to the Indian armed forces and the Instrument of Surrender was signed on December 16, 1971 in the presence of Lt General J.S. Aurora of the Indian Army. In the recent history of warfare, surrender by 93,000 troops has been unheard of.

Role of the Navy in 1971 War

In the war that was fought to liberate Bangladesh, the Indian Navy played an offensive role as expected which forced early surrender by the adversary resulting in victory for India and dismemberment of Pakistan.

Leading the offensive operations by the Indian Navy were OSA class missile boats under the command of Lt Commander I.J. Singh (later Commodore) who launched the first surface-to-surface Styx missiles from Indian Navy Ship (INS) Nirghat on Pakistan Navy Ship (PNS) Khaibar off Karachi harbour on the night of December 4/5, 1971. The Pakistani destroyer was hit by the missiles fired by the ships of the Indian Navy and it sank with 222 men on board. Later, INS Nipat fired its missiles on PNS Shah Jahan which too was badly damaged. The accompanying merchant ship Venus Challenger with ammunition for the Pakistani Armed Forces, exploded after it was hit by a missile and it sank. INS Nipat continued with its venomous attack on the Keamari oil farm South of Karachi harbour. The fuel storage tanks caught fire and were completely destroyed. INS Veer sank the PNS Muhafiz, a minesweeper. This was the beginning of the collapse of the Pakistan Navy and its overall will to prevent the Eastern part of Pakistan from being separated to become Bangladesh. It was indeed a daring feat on the part of the Indian Navy as missile boats do not have the operational capability required for a mission of this nature. The ships of the Indian Navy participating in the war, were towed up to the Gujarat coast and then were released for the biggest fireworks ever seen in the Indian Ocean, particularly on the Makran Coast. This was followed by INS Veer and two frigates Talwar and Trishul attacking a group of Pakistani ships off the coast of Karachi. The fleet tanker PNS Dacca was damaged beyond repairs thus degrading the sea sustaining capability of the Pakistani naval fleet.

On the East Coast, the aircraft onboard the sole carrier INS Vikrant, played havoc over East Pakistan. On December 04, Sea Hawk fighter aircraft launched from Vikrant, struck ships in Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong harbours sinking and incapacitating most of these. Devastating attacks continued till December 10, 1971 and subsequently on December 14 targeting Khulna, Mongla, Dacca Cantonment and Cox’s Bazar military targets. The enemy was choked inland thus preventing escape of troops by the sea route. East Pakistan was totally blockaded.

The saga of 1971 reflects the ability of the Indian Navy in exploiting and innovating existing weapon platforms and systems to win a war. The performance of the Indian Navy was indeed legendary.

Challenges Ahead for the Navy

In the present context, the Indian Navy could have even more complex challenges as the nature of warfare has changed significantly. The Indian Navy always fought or intended to fight contactless wars. The advent of Cyber, Space and Artificial intelligence will be used for larger scale of warfare for which, the Indian Navy needs to be prepared. India is headed towards becoming a $5 Trillion economy. The contestation for resources amongst countries in Asia has turned the attention of hardcore continental mindset countries towards the seas. Capturing islands in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of other countries, developing them into potent combat bases, flouting the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and economic coercion of smaller countries to compel them to swap their ports and lands for debt, has earned them strategic advantage in the Indo-Pacific Region.

The Indo-Pacific Region is the new fulcrum of geopolitical activities with new alignments. India and the Indian Navy are looking for safe transit through these turbulent seas which would ensure prosperity of the nation

Not having succeeded much in its continental strategy over 60 years, India has uncovered its blinds towards the seas. The lawmakers have begun to realise that development and prosperity of a nation lies over the seas. Prosperity depends on free and open seas for global commons of trade and commerce flowing as per rule of law. Differences if any, need resolution by dialogue and in accordance with UNCLOS. The Sea belongs to all for its peaceful and legal exploitation. The prime function of the Indian Navy is to protect own commerce in Sea Lanes of Communication. The Indian Navy is required to have platforms that are capable of reaching out to nations in the Indo-Pacific littorals for creating favourable maritime environment. The foundation of the Indian Navy of the future has to be laid now as shipbuilding is a time consuming and expensive venture. It is to be remembered that capital budget outgo is in instalments spread over many years and therefore overall costs get amortised over longer duration.

Becoming a Maritime Power

Attention of the world has turned towards the Indo-Pacific Region since largest volume of world trade traverses over the seas in this region. Any restriction in safe and smooth transit of public goods must be met with full power of maritime forces. For India, supporting this role in the Indian Ocean, must always remain within the reach of the Indian Navy whereas in the context of the Indo-Pacific Region as a whole, multilateral cooperative arrangement amongst countries of converging interests, would be necessary. This understanding has led to coming together of Quadrilateral Maritime Security Dialogue or QUAD. The US, Australia, Japan and India have come together to cooperate on taking up issues relating to international order, freedom of navigation, over flights and inclusive open seas. These four democracies have their Navies come together for Exercise MALABAR in the recent past, for ensuring interoperability and common standard operating procedures (SOPs) for handling complex tactical problems.

The world is transiting through rough seas and shifting geopolitical realities. The Indo-Pacific Region is the new fulcrum of geopolitical activities. There would be new alignments and some misalignments as well. India and the Indian Navy are looking far ahead for safe transit through these turbulent seas which only would ensure prosperity of the nation and its citizens. Platforms needed over the next decade, need to be invested in now to cater for long gestation periods. Exercises need to be condeucted with countries with strategic convergence and overlapping interests. The Government would be looking at institutionalisation of QUAD, making its charter well defined with regular follow up, specify its linkage to an emerging security architecture eg MALABAR and develop SOPs for enforcing rule of law on the seas. Training and maintenance to absorb emerging technologies hold the key to exercising technologically complex combat power.

The leadership of the Indian Navy will need persuasive effort to point the government in the right direction for the country to find its rightful place in the comity of nations. Traditional wisdom is slipping into oblivion, new era post-COVID-19 is on the threshold. Time to make bold alterations is now and here.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for “AtmaNirbhar Bharat” is timely and crucial. India cannot become a global military power with imported weapons that are vulnerable to sanctions. Fortunately, the Indian Navy has been a “Builder’s Navy” for decades. Our predecessors have had great foresight in realising India’s leadership role in the Indian Ocean Region and the need for indigenous shipbuilding. The present government has given it the right impetus. India cannot rest on its oars as the turbulence is unlikely to subside. In the twenty first century, the future of the nation lies in the Indian Ocean and India has to remain its undisputed leader.