The Indian Navy traces its glorious legacy to the 17th century when the great Maratha warrior Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj raised Maratha Navy as the naval wing of his armed forces, which first participated in the Battle of Surat in 1664. It captured the island of Khanderi in an audacious attack that will make even modern-day tacticians very proud. Even the Navy’s new insigne unveiled on 2nd September 2022 is an acknowledgement of the great warrior by adopting the golden border of the octagon from the Seal of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Since then, the Navy has undergone various avatars and as an ode to all the brave sailors, it has continued to evolve. In the British period, the Indian Navy was a relatively better-organised naval force. In 1858, it was initially named Her Majesty’s Indian Navy, during World War I. , it was reconstituted as The Royal Indian Marine and in 1934 it was rechristened as The Royal Indian Navy. Its operational deployment included some of the roughest waters it operated in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Gulf. The capture of Massawa from the Italians in April 1941 by the then Royal Indian Navy in the Red Sea was perhaps the most glorious combat conquest of the period.
The post-independence Indian Navy faced major organisational and operational constraints forced upon it due to Partition. The division of assets between newly independent states created a serious resource crunch. The Navy steered its way through some very challenging periods while proving its professional competence multiple times – in the 1961 annexation of Goa, operation Dwarka during the 1965 war, and the bombing of Karachi Harbour on December 4 in the 1971 war, which is subsequently celebrated as the Navy Day. The Indian Navy holds the great responsibility of safeguarding India’s huge coastline of more than 5400 km encompassing nine coastal states, 2094 km coastline of island territories, keeping multiple sea lanes of strategic importance secure from adversaries & piracy, acting as the first responder in coastal calamities, besides ensuring a measured power projection whenever the nation required. It’s a gigantic obligation and as a reassurance to their capabilities, every time the Navy has been called upon it has delivered beyond expectations.
The Indian Navy since attaining identity as the Naval force of independent India has displayed commendable perseverance as a service; the naval forces have not only overcome difficult times but have successfully paced their modernisation in sync with anticipated future challenges. While maritime boundaries remain the same, newer threats have emerged for the nation directly impinging upon the Navy to address them. Tactical threats that the Indian Navy is juggling through today include – the security of island territories, infiltration through the sea, blocking of maritime borders, snooping by unfriendly nations, freedom of economic activities in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and piracy. The naval forces face complex three-dimensional threats from the air, surface and sub-surface offensives and have to consistently strive to stay ahead of them. Being a key stakeholder in national security, the Navy didn’t even have a choice at that. From a humble beginning to the present force strength of 2 aircraft carriers, 6 amphibious warships, 10 destroyers, 17 submarines and 300 naval aircraft. The Indian Navy has graduated from a Buyer’s Navy into a Builder’s Navy. Today, the Indian Navy ranks fourth strongest Navy with a fleet strength of approximately 285 vessels. The Navy among all three services holds the largest canvas of operation. It is not restricted by the land boundaries or airspace of the nation but has a multidirectional reach and multidimensional capability. All nations have their maritime boundaries which is 12 nmi further from land boundaries but in addition, they get an extended EEZ of 200 nmi. Beyond that, they can still operate in international waters abiding by the 1982 UNCLOS, provided it has the capability to do so. Simply put a Nation worth its sovereignty must be able to not only secure its maritime borders and EEZ but should be able to dominate international waters to prevent any aggressive manoeuvres from hostile nations. This massive scope of operation puts the Navy ahead as the Security Fulcrum of the nation.
Bigger Better Bluer
Today the Indian Navy is very different from what it was perhaps even three decades ago. The major difference is its incredibly higher capacity for indigenisation. Currently, India is successfully developing cutting-edge naval assets at homegrown mega shipyards aided by in-house developed technologies, a critical parameter for operational freedom; reach and regional connect are the other two key ingredients. How critical Naval supremacy can be, is seen in the perspective of how the world’s sole superpower harnesses its Navy for global power projection.
The US Naval force comprises almost 3.5 lakh active combatants making it the second-largest service after their land force. It straddles the continents dominating all major oceans and crucial seas with 11 aircraft carriers by seven Fleets. Out of six operational Fleets of the US, its 5th & 7th Fleets are based on either flank of India in Bahrain and Japan, which is a testimony of the vital strategic value of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The US 7th Fleet, the largest among all, includes two Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) 1 & 3 operating in the South & East China Seas. As if to give an unambiguous strategic signalling CSG 1 Carl Vinson and CSG 3 Abraham Lincoln conducted an interoperability exercise in the South China Sea in January this year.
The US very well understands that the Indian and Pacific Oceans will be heavily contested in the near future for the battle of supremacy. The assessment has led to the repositioning of its 7th Fleet boosting PACOM, which has since been renamed Indo-Pacific Command in 2018. Indo-Pacific is now emerging as the Centre of Gravity for a fierce global power tussle.
With India positioned right in between, these geostrategic developments haven’t been lost on the Indian Navy which till now has played the role of security guarantor in the Indian Ocean as the most influential regional Navy and that makes it well poised for the next leap forward. At this time, the Indian Navy is operating right from the Horn of Africa, the Malacca Straits, East & South China Seas to the Western Pacific. Besides making numerous Port Calls for creating better ties with friendly nations, keeping in line with futuristic security commitments, India has inked bilateral logistics support deals with the US, Russia, France, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Australia and currently is in the process of finalising such an agreement with the UK and Vietnam. Such agreements are especially great enablers for the Indian Navy designed for its strategic endeavours.
India is also proactively looking for overseas bases and naturally being strategic assets, the government would not give any confirmation on that. However, if reports are to be believed, the Navy is in an advanced stage of populating its overseas base if it already hasn’t done so. The importance of such an asset can be judged by the fact that China has such a presence in Cambodia, Djibouti and probably now in Sri Lanka as well. These bases act as strategic listening posts, as a springboard for undertaking operations while considerably enhancing operational areas of influence. Coupled with strategically located island-based A&N command; the Indian Navy has graduated towards effective domination of both axes with significant reach.
The Indian Navy is proactively working on interoperability with friendly Navies through multi-nation exercises such as Malabar, Milan & RIMPAC. But undoubtedly most critical and less spoken of all is the completion of the Strategic Triad of which the Navy forms the most crucial component due to its inherent flexibility and enhanced survivability. This has led to enhanced confidence in the nation to manage critical security threats of the nature of Galwan. As the waters for the Indian Navy become Bluer and stakes continue upwardly swing, it will be faced with the greatest challenge of Choked Strategic Space, and it better be prepared for that with the capabilities it now commands!
(This article has featured in a National Magazine!)