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India's new naval doctrine

April 29, 2004

NEW DELHI, APRIL 28. The first-ever doctrine to be shortly formalised by the Indian Navy is welcome for two reasons. One, it reflects a decision in the security establishment to overcome the inhibitions of the past to put down a broad set of principles that will guide the future development of the Navy.

Second, it reflects a professional commitment in the Navy to come up with a vision that will match the emerging prospects of India as a major power. Given the widespread implications of the new naval doctrine, it would be wise to have an intensive public debate before the Government finally adopts it.

As India's economic weight in the international system has begun to improve over the last decade and a half and New Delhi enjoys productive relations with all the major powers, many opportunities in the Indian Ocean region and beyond are opening up to the Navy. Although it ranks among the top 10 naval forces of the world today, the Indian Navy has been adrift when it came to defining credible goals for itself. Its thinking about power and purpose has been influenced to varying degrees by its origins in the British Navy, its cooperation with the Russian Navy and the imposing model of the American Navy.

After being torn between these competing impulses for decades, the Navy is finally defining a mission for itself that is in tune with India's new potentials on the world stage. To be effective, however, the Navy needs to avoid a number of old pitfalls.

One is to posit India's naval options as a choice between defence of coastal interests and power projection. Besides defending the interests in its immediate neighbourhood, the Navy will increasingly be called upon to operate at longer distances and in contingencies far away from its shores.

But the question before the Navy is not one of projecting India's power. It is about defining missions in which the Navy can contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security in the Indian Ocean littoral.

The principal goal for the Navy must be to contribute positively to the achievement of collective interests of the region as a whole. This should include protection of sea-lanes, prevention of piracy, and international peacekeeping operations. Promotion of "collective good" rather than the "projection of power" should be the main theme of India's new naval doctrine.

The idea of power projection has often been combined in the past with the slogan that the Indian Ocean "belongs" to Indian Navy. Such a claim is unrealistic because India cannot prevent other major navies from operating in the Indian Ocean. It is also self-defeating for it accentuates regional suspicions that India's "hegemonic" intentions.

Since the end of the Cold War, India has reversed its military isolationism and began to interact with all the major powers as well as key countries to the east and the west in naval cooperation and joint exercises. This engagement has been beneficial and has helped remove widespread doubts about India's political motivations.

India has in recent years sought to reassure its smaller neighbours about its naval intentions and as a consequence there are productive understandings with Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Singapore. A lot more remains to be done with the other neighbours.

The Navy will be tempted to define its long-term objectives in terms of perceived threats from the capabilities of China and Pakistan. This must be resisted for two reasons. One, it is always sensible to define the goals in terms of broader missions rather than of threats from specific countries.

Second, Indian success in developing a trans-regional naval capability will ultimately depend upon the reduction of tensions with China and Pakistan rooted in disputes over land. Only a pursuit of peace with China and Pakistan will liberate India from its obsession with "sacred soil" syndrome. Only then will there be resources to fund a world-class navy.

India has sensibly proclaimed that it sees no threat from China and has begun to interact with Chinese naval forces. A similar engagement, necessarily in a much more wary fashion, must begin with Pakistan starting with naval confidence-building measures.

Until now India has seen itself as a nation with a large "security deficit," where every resource must be drawn to ensure territorial integrity. As it transforms its land environment, India will be in a position to offer security to other states in the region. And the Navy will be central to such a role in future.

The Navy is the most flexible arm of the Indian armed forces and inherently capable of serving diplomacy and national strategy. In fulfilling that role, the Navy cannot be left to the Admirals alone. It will need effective coordination between the three services, and between them and the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office.


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