Naval power will be the key to India's emergence
India thinks of itself as a continental power and therein lies the disconnect between its actions and aspirations.
New Delhi: India's defence policy has always lacked the strategic perspective. India adopted a non-aligned posture during the tumultuous days of the Cold War and saw itself as a non-interfering moral power which did not require the brute military force that is associated with great powers. However, since soon after Independence India faced a low-intensity conflict with Pakistan when the latter pushed in tribal raiders in its bid to capture Kashmir, India's defence posture was geared towards maintaining conventional superiority over Pakistan.
It was meant to be a deterrent. Policy makers thought that India's conventional superiority would make the war planners in Rawalpindi GHQ think twice before launching an assault.
That has clearly not worked. After the stalemate of 1965, though India had more to smile as they held about 710 square miles of Pakistani territory as against 210 square miles of Indian territory held by Pakistanis, again in 1971, Pakistan launched an attack on India's western borders and the war soon spread into both East and West Pakistan, eventually ending with the dismemberment of East Pakistan and birth of Bangladesh.
If nuclear parity had convinced pacifists on both sides that a war between the conjoined twin nations, separated at birth, had become impossible, they were dealt a severe reality check in 1999 when Pakistan captured unmanned Indian high altitude posts along the Line of Control (LoC). Kargil War was in that sense the first modern limited war fought in areas with altitudes ranging between 4000 and 5500 metres.
Kargil is a reminder that limited wars in South Asia is still very much a possibility with India having unresolved border disputes with both China and Pakistan.
The Sino-Indian War of 1962 was a wake-up call not just for the Army but also India's armaments and weapons producers. The units of the Ordnance Factory Board produced well beneath their capacity, Indian soldiers fought with World War II guns with little or no gear in combat at freezing altitudes. They did not even have proper shoes.
The five wars India has fought have fixed the policy makers' gaze on its northern and western borders. India still thinks of itself as a continental power and therein lies the disconnect between its actions and aspirations.
India wants to emerge as a key global player over the next ten years. Since economic might is at the centre of realization of such a plan, it's evident that the country's own resources and energy sources would not be able to sustain the desired growth. With Indian companies buying up mines and oil wells in Africa, Russia and West Asia, it would be incumbent on the Armed Forces to ensure that operations at the centres and supply from the same are smooth and undisturbed.
In such a situation, India's maritime power will be of paramount importance. New Delhi is also slowly waking up to this fact. The frequent anti-piracy patrols by Indian warships off East African coast, installation of radars on 26 atolls in Maldives and connecting them to the Indian Navy's own network, proposed upgrade of the amphibious brigade in Andaman and Nicobar Islands to division strength, creation of two naval hubs on the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal respectively are all pointers in the right direction.
But the Centre's defence budget allocation somehow does not reflect the same.
The defence budget for 2011-12 stands at $34 billion. The defence capital acquisition for 2011-12 has been hiked to $12.22 billion while capital expenditure for the same has been raised to $15.38 billion.
As for the break-up of the total budgetary allocation, the Indian Army has been granted $14.2 billion, Indian Navy $2.35 billion, Indian Air Force (IAF) $3.53 billion and state-owned Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) $1.25 billion. Out of the $15.38 billion capital outlay, the Army got $4.21 billion, Navy $1.26 billion, Naval Fleet $1.62 billion and Air Force $6.82 billion.
As compared to this, the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) receives almost 45 per cent of the total defence budget of around $100 billion. Since naval might was the one area where India had traditionally held a qualitative and experiential edge, PLAN is going all out to get the upper hand. New generation of nuclear submarines, introduction of large aircraft carriers and the Sovremenny Class of destroyers with anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) systems may prove to be potential game changers in case of conflict in the high seas.
Another game changer in the equation has been China's operationalisation of the hypersonic DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, the first and only one in the world. Even the US Navy considers it as a mortal threat for its Carrier Battle Groups (CVBGs).
In such a situation, India has been augmenting its surface warfare strength. Introduction of the Talwar Class of frigates and Kolkata Class of destroyers is adding to the Navy's surface warfare capability. When INS Vikramaditya and IAC-1 join the service, the surface strength of the Indian Navy is expected to protect Indian interests in the Indian Ocean region.
But one area where the Navy lags behind not only the PLAN but also possibly the Pakistan Navy is in the Indian Navy's submarine arm. Launch of the INS Arihant, India's first indigenous nuclear submarine, will be a welcome step in the right direction as a major power has to maximize indigenization of its defence production.
But as of now, India's underwater warfare arm might struggle to contend with the Agosta submarines fielded by Pakistan because of the crucial delays in building and launch of the Scorpene series, the first of which now only enter service in 2015. So for three years, the Indian Navy will have to make do with four HDW Type 209 and ten Kilo class submarines before the first of the six Scorpenes is ready to dive deep.
There are plans to further augment India's carrier battle forces. Some defence insiders say India will have four aircraft carriers by 2025 and that after Vikramaditya and IAC-1, India's next carriers will be much bigger with at least 65000 to 70000 tons of displacement.
While carriers are undoubted kings in the game of force projection in far-off shores, a carrier goes to sea with a battle group accompaniment consisting of destroyers, frigates, submarines, supply ships, hospital ships, tankers and tugs. So having four carriers will involve creating and absorbing these assets.
However, if the current defence budget is an indicator, out policy makers are still espousing the policy of plugging in bigger holes than looking at the bigger picture. India's interests lie in the seas. That is where India's growth and dominance can be halted. India needs to emerge as a key maritime power and the principal guarantor of stability in the Indian Ocean region while at the same time not compromising its land borders in the north and west.