The Navy, the forgotten Service, continues to remain on the sidelines of Indian defence planning and strategy, despite lessons from history and options imposed by geography. For all the vision statements and fanfare surrounding the last Malabar exercise, the Navy has not received budgetary allocations in 2021-22 that suggest any lesson has been learnt. Unlike the other two Services, the Navy takes an extraordinarily long time to ‘make’, but a worryingly short span to defang. And unless drastic steps are taken now, 2049 may well see the Indian Navy bottled up within a worryingly limited area of manoeuvrability. For that is when China is expected to reclaim its ‘natural’ space under the sun.
Budgetary allocations by the Narendra Modi government for 2021-22, while setting the stock markets ablaze, should, in fact, be the cause of concern when it comes to India’s defence. And none more so than for the Navy. While all allocations must be scrutinised with a fine-tooth comb to get a fuller picture, the surest giveaway is, of course, the capital outlay. For that is where the newer hardware is going to come from. The total capital outlay for the Navy under Revised Estimates in 2020-21 was ₹37,542.88 crore. This was a raise from the 2020-21 budgetary announcement of ₹26,688.28 crore, and not an insignificant jump. For 2021-22, the Budget has earmarked ₹33,253.55 crore, also not an insignificant decline from the previous years’ Revised Estimates.
The China dream for navy
While Revised Estimates may be financial jugglery at its best, it does nothing to ‘make’ a navy, just as it doesn’t enable a military planner to prepare a long-term and comprehensive stratagem. Which is precisely what India’s principal opponent has been doing over the last decades with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
Noted academic C. J. Jenner points out in his essay, International Threat-Making in a Semi-Enclosed Sea, that “in 1988, Deng Xiaoping and Liu Huaqing set three governing goals for the development of the PLAN”. These were:
- By 2000, developing naval forces “sufficient to defend its maritime interests out to the First Island Chain, which runs from the Kuril Islands through Japan and the Ryukyu Islands, down through the Philippines, and ends in the Indonesian archipelago”.
- By 2020, securing China’s maritime interests through the “PLAN’s capability to command the ‘near seas’ out to the Second Island Chain, which runs from the Kurils through Japan and the Bonin Islands, then on through the Mariana Islands, Palau, and the Indonesian archipelago with the likely embrace of Java, Singapore, and the Malacca Straits”.
- By 2049, the centennial anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, enabling the PLAN to deploy “aircraft carriers with battle fleets and realising China’s national interests on a global basis”.
Since the early days of the Chinese incursions in Ladakh during the summer of 2020, much midnight oil was burnt in formulating an adequate Indian response. Even the arrival of three Rafale combat aircraft (rest were two-seater trainers) was celebrated in a Diwali-esque manner, but nothing has made the Chinese PLA completely vacate occupied Indian territory. Land and air options never gave India much of a chance for they existed in very unequal scenarios. All that remained was India’s best chance of checkmating China in the seas, especially its trading choke point at the Malacca Straits.
In February 2021 India could still achieve dominance in the eastern Indian Ocean vis-a-vis China’s PLAN. But this is not a paramountcy that will last much longer, especially given the negligence visible in New Delhi. Military capabilities take long-term vision, and an even longer duration of investments, to make them a reality. The propensity to indulge in Revised Estimates is surely not reflective of that vision capability. For these are ad-hoc payments, sometimes forced by circumstances and other times by threat of penalties for overdue instalments. Even the current 15th Finance Commission report was forced to admit, “For the award period 2021-26, the MoD [Ministry of Defence] has estimated that, going by current trends, it will receive an allocation of Rs. 9.01 lakh crore for capital outlay and this is based on a growth rate of 16 per cent. However, the defence plan projection on the capital account is Rs. 17.46 lakh crore for the same period. As a result, the projected shortfall is Rs. 8.45 lakh crore”.
As the smallest and most neglected of the Services, the Navy’s share would be dramatically short of requirements, of course.
Western, and Russian, theorists have elaborated on the sea and national security, but few have been as succinct as the late multi-talented statesman K.M. Panikkar, who, in India and the Indian Ocean (1945), wrote, “The North-West Frontier, and perhaps the North-East Frontier also, will therefore remain important strategic areas for the defence of India. But, an examination of the factors of Indian defence will show that ever since the sixteenth century, from which time the Indian Ocean became the scene of a struggle for the control of the sea, the future of India has been determined not on the land frontiers, but on the oceanic expanse which washes the three sides of India”.
The author is a Congress leader and Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert. Views are personal.