Walk the talk on maritime security

Maritime security is the flavour of the season at the highest level. Starting off with his visit to the US when Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed cooperation at sea with President Donald Trump, there have been a spate of interactions and articulations which would tend to suggest that India is poised to become a major maritime nation with preponderant interests in the Indo-Pacific. Security at sea figured high in the PM’s discussions with French President Emmanuel Macron and again with the heads of Asean governments in Delhi. So too with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — maritime affairs were very much on the table.

Most recently, in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, principally in his keynote address at the strategically important Shangrila Dialogue, Mr Modi dwelt on maritime security concerns in the oceans around us. Furthermore, he received US Secretary of Defence James Mattis on board an Indian warship specially positioned at Singapore for his visit. To an ordinary person attentive to this scene, it would appear that India is fast moving from an overwhelmingly continental land power nation to one increasingly cognisant of its interests at sea. The ground reality, however, is somewhat different.

With a Rs 2.74 trillion defence budget, the lowest ever as a percentage of GDP, and of which the Navy merits only a 14 per cent share, we are not going to be steaming around in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), much less in the Indo-Pacific. Yes, a ship or two can make the usual trips on friendly visits now and again, and occasionally also carry out some exercises with host navies — even a larger one like the Malabar — but that does not make a great maritime power.

With only a 14 per cent share of the latest defence budget, the cash-strapped Indian Navy is not equipped to sail around the Indian Ocean Region, much less the Indo-Pacific. Defence planners must realise that military power now depends to a much grea
For that to happen, much more investment with change in strategic orientation is needed, and if there is any move in that direction it is immediately neutralised by the articulated strategy of preparedness for a “two-front war” which is being propounded as our key result area. Any such underpinning of capability can never take the Navy’s share beyond what it is now, and that puts paid to dreams of translating the PM’s talk into anything remotely credible.

Fifteen years ago the Navy’s share of the defence budget had touched 18 per cent and it was hoped that 20 per cent was not far away. For that to happen, the fear of being attacked on land, and our territory appropriated by two hostile adversaries, had to be revisited. But this has not come to pass. With the Army’s share being what it is, India’s armed forces will continue to be what they have been these last six decades and thoughts of maritime prowess mere glib talk. The bottom line is that given existing thought processes, India’s ability to field ocean-going platforms cannot be expected to exceed what it is now, leaving aside marginal accretions of relatively minor assets. Therefore, maritime power remains distant.

US attempts to focus on an Indo-Pacific strategy (its erstwhile Command headquartered in Hawaii has now become the Indo-Pacific Command) are understandable; it is a clear response, albeit delayed, to China’s moves in the western Pacific, culminating in the setting up by Beijing of full-fledged aircraft operating facilities in the Spratlys, a territory clearly not its own. While increasing its own presence in the region, the US is keen to involve as many littoral nations as possible on its side, of which India is the prize, Japan and Australia already being in the fold. 

India’s strategy may well envisage a proactive role in that endeavour, but to be a major player it needs to show credible prowess at sea and in the IOR in particular. This it presently does not have and as argued earlier, will not have unless there is a serious reorientation in our thinking and a move away from the fascination with land borders. The fear that our territory is about to be appropriated by hostile neighbours may have had some basis some decades ago, but the situation has changed dramatically in the last several years and we ourselves acknowledge this change in our articulations, but without being able to do much about it. In short, there is a wide gap between what we say and what we are able to do.

For our aspirations to result in anything tangible, India must convert itself from a mere continental power to a substantive maritime nation. If we are to become one of the four or five major players in the world in the next 20 years, we must focus greater attention on creating capabilities at sea. Western powers have historically been maritime nations and even the Chinese have now recognised the reality that a country cannot become a major power unless it is has made credible prowess at sea. This has led China to act aggressively in the East and South China Seas, and concurrently establish its presence in the IOR. Its warship building projects are moving at a fast pace, and building an aircraft carrier in just five years is one example of the way in which it is going about reaching that objective. So, there is not much time to be lost; rhetoric alone will not help.

India’s security environment is undergoing rapid change. We now have to see the world as one in which we must become one of three or four major powers and this requires reach and capability, political, economic and military, the last coming to a much greater extent now from prowess at sea.

The entire size and shape of our armed forces needs a critical second look, not because this can lead to any significant change in the next few years, but because without it we cannot be where we must be two decades from now. To its credit, the present government and the PM in particular have set the ball rolling by articulating this realisation, but that alone is not enough. The time has come to start walking the talk.

The writer is a former member of the National Security Advisory Board