Saturday, February 6, 2016

Indian Navy’s New Strategy Fails to Track the Oceanic Decline

In less than a decade, the Indian Navy has revised its strategic outlook. The latest vision statement, Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy was released on October 26, 2015. Besides internal communication there are two reasons that the capital-intensive navy has to periodically justify its role and mission. First, to address the controllers of the national purse strings and secondly to cater to the changing international security environment. The budgetary authorities find the history of European navies that brought colonialism to Asian shores an inadequate justification for a strong Navy. Therefore, the latest document attempts to educate the defense bureaucracy that the Indian Navy needs multi-billion dollar investments in modern naval platforms because it is all set to assume its pan-oceanic role and is no longer confined to performing coastal and constabulary functions.

The second palpable reason for publication of the strategy is geo-political changes since the publication of Freedom to Use the Seas: India’s Maritime Strategy in 2007. The growing Chinese challenge to American hegemony in Asia; the repositioning of US naval assets to Asia-Pacific; Japan’s metamorphosis from a pacifist to a ‘normal’ aggressive power and India’s ambition to pop out of the strategic closet, to make security of oceanic trade lanes the dominant discourse.

The strength of the strategic document is the clarity with which it articulates the Indian Navy’s need to grow in tune with the government’s ‘Act East’ policy and the desire to play a larger role in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and beyond. It balances Navy’s obligations in coastal waters with its customary zeal to perform ‘out of area’ while remaining rooted to ‘principles of self-defense and the tenets of Panchsheel’.

Navies and trade are Siamese twins. The US Office of Naval Intelligence reiterated this reality in its 1922 document - The US Navy as an Industrial Asset that articulated the Navy’s role in protecting and furthering overseas investments for US business leaders. The ‘way points’ – the guiding principles in the latest strategic outline refer to navy-business association in terms of ‘Navy for National Development’. However, it explicitly states that its primary role is to play a decisive role in ‘preventing war and conflict’ and ‘bringing it to conclusion’. The document does not shy away from acknowledging the centrality of ‘sea control’ during conflict as a prerequisite for most naval operations’. The earlier documents refrained from talking about this aspect primarily because establishing ‘hostile zones’ and being a net security provider is a difficult proposition.

The document makes nuanced distinction between coastal security and coastal defense. Coast Guard is one of the main stakeholder in coastal security however, defending the coast against external aggression and invasion falls within the naval purview. This is important because a stream of post-Cold war invasions by the US Navy in the Middle East have shown that small and medium navies are incapable of offering resistance against assault by big navies. The total paralysis of Iraqi and Libyan navies in the wake of the US invasion informs that coastal defense strategy should be the lynchpin of any naval strategy rooted in defending the nation. Traditional ways are grossly inadequate. Medium navies must focus on devising innovative technologies to tackle invasions.

The recent Indian Maritime Security Strategy doesn’t skirt the issue of new technologies and grants it adequate space. However, there is much more ground that needs to be covered. Take for example, LOCUST- Low-Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Swarming Technology program, the latest technology that the US navy is on the verge of perfecting. LOCUST systems are designed to launch a number of networked autonomous, surface, subsurface and aerial drone’s in offensive mode. A simpler analogy is to visualize the coordinated attack by ‘Tidi Dal’ on cotton crops in India. The US started research on these technologies about fifteen years ago and is now experimenting with 3-D printers to build these swarm drones on board ships. By now these concepts should be a part Indian Navy’s strategic lexicon.

The strategy-blue print sends important signals to two important maritime stakeholders. Emphasis on future naval warfare informs design and technical institutes in the country to imagine the possibilities of using civilian technologies like 3-D printers for naval use. It also forewarns naval architects to be prepared to face the challenges of integrating newer technologies with old platforms that are likely to be in operation till at least 2035.

Like most strategic discourses, Indian Maritime Security Strategy adheres to the concept of ‘fixity’ that hinges on rigidity and repetition. One disagrees with the basic premise of the document that ‘the 21st century will be the century of the seas for India and that the seas will remain a key enabler in her global resurgence’. Both technology and shifting power balance in the global political economy is challenging the Western ‘Command of the Commons’. Cyber technologies, and changes in oil economy are denting the importance of Sea Lanes of Communication. However, the biggest threat that sea power faces today is from the Chinese ‘Belt and Road’ initiative that envisages providing alternative routes for international trade. The Eurasian rail and road links, extending from China to Europe through central Asia and Russia are designed to attract a huge amount of international trade away from the Oceans. In a few years’ time it may become factually incorrect to say that 90 per cent of the global trade flows through the Oceans. Once Oceans are not the first choice for international trade, the relevance of the Western navies will be challenged. This could be the biggest blow to Western hegemony that has sustained itself for past centuries by commanding the service sector – the insurance and re-insurance regimes- on the global commons. This aspect needs to be included in all our strategies because our alliances and force levels will be largely determined by changes in the global political economy.