In recent years, the focus of India’s military strategy has broadened, with a growing emphasis on building up its naval power.
- An expert says a strong Indian navy would help “deter China from military adventurism in the Indo-Pacific”
- Much of India’s military development has been aided by Russia, but it is now also looking to the West
- India plans to build a new fleet of 12 submarines and a third aircraft carrier
India now spends up to $110 billion annually on its military, and the navy, which had been somewhat overlooked, has become an increasingly large part of its armed forces.
Last week, it bolstered its naval power with its first locally made aircraft carrier — the $3.7 billion INS Vikrant — at sea.
“The security concerns of the Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean region were ignored earlier, but it is our top priority today,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi Modi said at the ship’s commissioning ceremony.
However, experts say this goal is hampered by its lack of a significant domestic arms manufacturing industry.
How is the situation in the region?
India’s move to build up its naval power comes – not coincidentally – as China is rapidly building up its own.
Historically, land borders with Pakistan and China have been India’s biggest concern, and while they would continue to be significant, things had changed, Ashok Sharma of the ANU’s Strategic and Defense Studies Center told the ABC.
“Earlier, it was the entire India-Pakistan border, the India-China border, so the navy was ignored,” he said.
“It is the rise of the Indo-Pacific in strategic importance that has pushed India to invest more and more [in its navy].”
Ian Hall of the Griffith Asia Institute said India remained the dominant maritime power in the Indian Ocean, able to project its power into the South China Sea and even the western Pacific.
But China has gone from zero to three aircraft carriers in service in the past decade, with plans to have a fleet of six in the near future.
In total, it has more than 300 ships and is building another 50 or more.
“China’s navy is growing very fast,” said Dr. Hall to ABC.
“India is unlikely to acquire that many ships soon, so China will at least soon have a numerical advantage.”
While INS Vikrant is one of the world’s largest naval vessels, manned by 1,600 sailors, it is overshadowed by China’s newest carrier.
Launched in June, Fujian is named after the province across from Taiwan.
“Fujian is almost twice the size of INS Vikrant,” said Dr. Hall.
According to Dr. Hall is the challenge for other countries, including Australia, to figure out how best to combine their navies to ensure China is deterred from using all that power.
“Tensions are already high [in the region]” said Dr. Hall.
“If anything, a robust Indian military, including a capable navy, will help deter China from military adventurism in the Indo-Pacific.”
Maritime military conflict ‘unlikely’
Edward Chan from ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific said China’s only naval base with direct access to the Indian Ocean was in Djibouti.
But Beijing had also built a network of military and commercial facilities, he said.
“Chinese companies have invested and bought ports in coastal countries along the Indian Ocean, claiming they are for civilian purposes rather than military purposes, which is something that strategists are watching closely,” he said.
Since the Chinese navy’s main function in the region was to protect the country’s economic interests, he said, there would be some strategic tension between Beijing and New Delhi, especially as China’s presence increased.
“But it is unlikely to turn into a military conflict,” said Dr. Chan to ABC.
He added that China’s navy was powerful because of its numbers, but was limited by a lack of operational experience and joint operational warfare.
“It is getting there with education and structural reforms,” said Dr. Chan.
“The Chinese carriers are still unable to fully navigate to the Indian Ocean due to the lack of operational experience and complexity in the South China Sea.”
India wants another carrier and nuclear attack subs
Dr. Hall said INS Vikrant would help India defend its interests throughout the Indian Ocean and beyond and could also provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
“However, the only challenge facing India at this point is to get hold of the aircraft and helicopters it needs for this new ship,” he told the ABC.
India has long been the world’s largest importer of arms, and like its other carrier, the former Soviet INS Vikramaditya, much of India’s military development has been aided by Russia.
“India is expanding and modernizing its navy, but the navy does not get the largest share of the defense budget, so progress is slower than it could be,” said Dr. Hall.
“A third aircraft carrier is planned, and there are plans for a new batch of six conventional and six nuclear-powered attack submarines, along with new nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.”
New destroyers, frigates and helicopter dock ships are also under construction, with much of the work done locally.
“India has had assistance from Russia in the past and is particularly looking to the US and France for help with new projects, including the transport ship and submarines,” said Dr. Hall.
Construction of the 262-metre-long INS Vikrant began in 2009 and was due to be completed in 2016, but the project suffered from costs and delays.
Despite INS Vikrant taking longer than expected and costing more than first estimated to build, Dr. Hall that he believed India would speed up its shipbuilding program.
“China’s navy is now present in the Indian Ocean, and relations between the two have deteriorated significantly in recent years,” he said.
“The Ukraine war has made it more difficult to acquire Russian-made aircraft, and New Delhi may have to buy French or even American aircraft for INS Vikrant.”
Is Dependence on Russia Hurting India?
India’s dependence on Russia for arms supply and support may hamper its ability to act freely on the geopolitical stage.
All of India’s Quad allies – Australia, the US and Japan – have hit Russia with sanctions and provided military and economic aid to Ukraine in the wake of the invasion.
But India has so far refused to join them.
Modi has called for peace in Ukraine, but India has abstained from several key UN votes condemning Vladimir Putin’s aggression.
Some estimates suggest that more than 60 percent of India’s weapons rely on Russian technology.
“This is a huge challenge,” said Dr. Hall.
“Shifting away from that addiction will take decades.”
India is likely to have to maintain a working relationship with Moscow – even if only for ammunition, maintenance and spare parts – “for some time to come”, said Dr. Hall.
“It will condition its position on the Ukraine war,” he said.