Author : Arun Kumar Singh

In 1962, as tension began to mount, with an increase in Chinese Army intrusions on the Indo-China border, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, before embarking on a flight abroad reportedly told the media that he had “ordered the (ill-equipped and ill-prepared) Indian Army to throw the Chinese out”. These famous last words led to independent India’s first and only disastrous military defeat. History now appears to be repeating itself.

In July 2011, a Chinese warship confronted an Indian navy ship Airavat shortly after it left a Vietnamese port in the South China Sea. The unidentified Chinese warship demanded that INS Airavat, an amphibious assault ship, identify itself and explain its presence in what it said were Chinese waters, shortly after it completed a scheduled port call in Vietnam. This incident indicates that Indo-China rivalry is now moving to the oceans, much earlier than anticipated. India’s ministry of external affairs (MEA) has acted with unusual alacrity in two important areas — agreeing to train the Afghan Army, while also going ahead with the ONGC’s plan for oil exploration in the Vietnamese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea, which China claims as its own waters. The MEA and the ministry of defence (MoD) should have been advised by the Indian Navy on the inadequate force levels available to deal with the emerging scenarios in the Indian Ocean region and the Asia Pacific region. The MEA and the MoD must be aware of the dozens of Chinese incursions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

India has given repeated explanations that frequent Chinese air and land incursions are due to “perceptional differences” over the contested LAC. This has further emboldened China, which respects only a combination of military, diplomatic and economic power.

In pure strategic terms there is nothing wrong with India “training the Afghan military” and also exploring for oil and minerals there. But it should first ensure that the Indian Army gets the money to buy critically needed artillery guns, improve border roads and induct additional troops needed to man the Indo-China LAC.

Similarly, on the maritime front, there is nothing wrong with the ONGC Videsh Ltd, exploring for oil in the South China Sea, or “mandating” the Indian Navy to provide security to the island nations of the Indian Ocean region provided the Indian Navy gets the additional forces. Even the powerful US Navy has been treading with caution in the Asia Pacific region, given China’s huge deployable air and sea power.

What will India do if the ONGC exploratory rig is “blown up” by an unexplained explosion in the South China Sea in a repeat of the 2010 “Cheonan” incident, where a North Korean submarine sank a South Korean warship in the Yellow Sea, but nothing could be done despite “available proof”? To put things in perspective, the Indian Navy currently has sufficient forces to tackle piracy, counter maritime terror and meet its coastal security needs. To provide a sustained “credible” presence by a single aircraft carrier battle group in the Asia Pacific Region, the Indian Navy will need to create a dedicated “APR Maritime Task Force” and a “logistics base” in Vietnam.

Raising and equipping an “APR Maritime Task Force” will need time and billions of dollars. The Indian Navy will need more capability in the Indian Ocean region to counter the inevitable sustained Chinese Navy presence by 2030. In simple terms, to meet its “emerging tasks” the Indian Navy will need to double its size and quadruple its existing annual budget. While aircraft carriers are definitely needed in some scenarios, some other interim, “cost effective” options need to be put on the table, or else India will go bankrupt in trying to meet its new strategic challenges.

These measures include exporting MTCR compliant Brahmos (290-km range) anti-ship cruise missiles and Prithvi-2 (250-km range) ballastic land attack missiles to Vietnam, South Korea and possibly Taiwan.

The Navy’s aging and depleting conventional submarine force, under prolonged “benign neglect” needs to be bolstered by ordering a second conventional submarine indigenous production line under the much-delayed Project 75(I).

Also, an additional four conventional submarines and four nuclear attack submarines need to be imported, so that at least one of them is on patrol in the Asia Pacific region and Indian Ocean region at any given time, to provide “invisible” presence-cum-deterrence, without the need for a logistics base for warships and aircraft, given the long endurance of submarines.

This “invisible” submarine presence would avoid incidents at the South China Sea. These same submarines could also be used in wartime to interdict Chinese shipping using the Indian Ocean region choke points and complement the Indian aircraft-carrier battle groups.

Boosting India’s sea power is essential to meet the emerging challenges in the Indian Ocean region and Asia Pacific region. Another innovative option would be to use some of our numerous island territories as “unsinkable aircraft carriers” with the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force aircraft, coastal radars and coastal Brahmos anti-ship missile batteries. Indian land and air power, too, needs a boost to deter any misadventures by our adversaries on our land borders. Diplomatically, India is making the right moves with Vietnam, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Iran and other island nations. It must, however, avoid a strategic overreach, keeping in mind the prevailing military balance.

India needs to remember what Prussian king Fredrick the Great meant when he said: “Diplomacy without military power is like music without instruments.” Our policymakers could make a start by reading Kautilya’s 2000-year-old Arthashastra and investing wisely, and quietly, in strategic national defence, which will be an insurance against war.

(The writer retired as Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command, Visakhapatnam. This article first appeared in the Asian age on October 30, 2011)

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