China and India are currently engaged in a frantic race to upgrade and expand their respective navies.
Given China's superior financial strength, India has had to pick up the pace in many sectors of its naval defence.
To counter China’s strategic depth in the Indian Ocean and the vast East Pacific ocean region (comprising the South China sea and the East China sea), India has increased its maritime policy co-ordination and co-operation with Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and above all, the US.
For the next few years, major Indian shipbuilding yards, such as the Kolkata-based Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) and the Mazagaon Docks (Mumbai), have their order books full. Seven indigenous frigates are being built at a cost of $888 million. Each will weigh 5600 tons and accommodate two helicopters.
In addition, four more Russian-built frigates have been ordered. Two will be delivered from the Kaliningrad yard in East Europe, where they were under construction, until certain problems delayed the completion of the work. The other two will be built in India, at the Goa shipyard, as part of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” program. The total cost is around $3 billion. These carry only one helicopter and displace 4000 tons of water.
In consonance with modern warship building techniques perfected in Russia, the objective is to use comparatively faster, lighter frigates equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry and sensors, to ensure “a heavy attacking punch,” to quote one GRSE officer.
At present India has ten serving frigates and destroyers, built or acquired between 2003 and 2013. Six of these are relatively new. To add more muscle to the Navy’s strength, India recently ordered 100 Barak type missiles from Israel costing $77 million. So far 600 missiles have been installed in different vessels. Along with various sensors and trackers, these warships can target helicopters and other aircraft, monitor subsonic and supersonic missiles, fighter jets, sea skimming missiles and other threats.
Defence analysts, explaining Delhi’s urgency, point out that until recently, the Indian Navy had been somewhat neglected in terms of investments and expansion, accounting for only 19-20% of the total military expenditure, on average. This is now changing. The major reason: China’s rapidly increasing military presence in the South and Southeast Asian coastal region.
Currently China has full-fledged naval bases and ports at Gwadar in Pakistan and in Hambantota in Sri Lanka, in addition to operating from significant naval facilities in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Many call this China’s “string of pearls concept”, seeking to overwhelm India with its naval domination.
Opinion among experts remains divided about such strategies. While some view such Chinese moves with concern, others find them somewhat obsolete.
For example, they refer to how a few well-equipped Russian ships recently played a significant role in fighting off the challenge of internationally –backed Islamic terrorism. They used mainly high-powered advanced missile technology, needing no help from large naval fleets, fallback bases or aircraft careers, to crush the IS war machine.
Nevertheless, given the fluctuations in India-China relations and existing political tensions, Delhi felt that the gap between the two navies should not be allowed to get bigger. By the end of 2012, China had 61 submarines to India’s 15, and 502 “strategic ships” (various types of war vessels) to India’s 54. Even Pakistan had 60 such ships in 2012.
By 2020, China plans to acquire at least 73 big warships and 76 submarines, including 12 nuclear subs. The pace of its naval expansion left India virtually with little choice but to step up its own efforts to ensure that it too had a reliable deterrent. India’s present objective to turn its navy into an effective blue water force mainly follows what China has been doing since long before, according to defence experts.
India has also increased its participation in naval exercises and activities with other allies. Its growing ties with Vietnam drew sharp protest from China, though it has not deterred India from going ahead with its long term plans. It also participated in exercises with Japan and the US.
Last year, four Indian ships took part in an exercise in the Mediterranean. The objective: to advance ocean and oceanographic research, conduct better search and rescue ops, increase security surveillance, track drug trafficking, etc. The navy acted in tandem with the Greek Navy.
India proposed to increase the number of its defence-related vessels to over 180 by 2017, and to rebuild and/or upgrade some of its existing 140 vessels that may need modernization.