To preserve its edge, the silent service must innovate | Analysis
Navies are often referred to as the silent service and, in the case of the Indian Navy (IN), this description is apt. It is anecdotally recalled that in the preparatory stages of the 1971 war, the then Prime Minister (PM), Indira Gandhi, would meet the three service chiefs and receive a detailed briefing from the Army and Air Chiefs. The Navy, it was believed, had a marginal role and, towards the end of the meeting, the PM would glance at her watch and then the Naval Chief (Admiral Charles Nanda) and ask if he had anything to say and end the deliberations even before a no could be said.
However, the IN acquitted itself with aplomb in that war and adopted innovative tactics — such as towing small missile boats to locations in the Arabian Sea that allowed them to attack Karachi on December 4 with devastating effect and deploying the aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, in the Bay of Bengal with unexpected efficacy. Yes, the IN lost the INS Khukri to an enemy submarine, but the silent service had demonstrated its credibility and December 4, 1971, is enshrined in its collective memory with quiet pride.
In his annual comments in the run-up to Navy Day, naval chief Admiral Karambir Singh outlined the orientation of the IN as a force that is ”combat-ready, credible and cohesive” (3C) and highlighted operational details, which were impressive given the IN’s diminutive size.
The raison d’ etre for any military force is to be prepared for war should the exigency arise and the dialectical element, as raksha mantri Rajnath Singh alluded to at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, is that the more a nation acquires a credible combat capability and related political resolve, the lesser the probability of a potential adversary going down the path of adventurism.
Despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic, the IN has carried out a number of operational mission-based deployments in the Indian Ocean to maintain the appropriate ”presence” to safeguard India’s maritime security interests. This allowed the naval chief to assert that while some Chinese research and fishing vessels had been deployed in the Indian Ocean, there had been “no infringement” of India’s maritime boundaries.
The IN also evacuated 4,000 Indian nationals as part of the Covid-19 effort from the neighbourhood and provided food aid to a set of African nations, even while engaging in disaster relief and anti-piracy operations.
While the recently-concluded Malabar naval exercises has received considerable attention, the IN participated in a total of 13 bilateral /multilateral exercises and PM Narendra Modi’a advocacy of security and growth for all in the region (SAGAR) was given a fillip in a variety of ways.
But while the IN remained active through the year, it is not evident that this tempo that can be satisfactorily sustained in the next few years with the current funding trends. Admiral Singh, in December 2019, had noted that the allocation for the IN had dropped to under 14% of the total defence budget and this was not adequate for the long-term acquisition plans that had been mooted.
That was a pre-Covid-19 observation and the fiscal picture this December is bleak. India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will shrink substantially, and the next few years will be ”lean” years for the Indian military. As the Cinderella service (one that gets the least funding), many big-ticket items of the IN may have to be placed on the backburner even as the national security matrix remains complex.
Limited resources will have to be innovatively utilised by the IN to retain the 3C sheen and here, a remark by Admiral Singh may point to the way ahead. Acknowledging the budgetary constraints that the IN would have to factor in, the naval chief indicated that leasing options could be examined. India had obtained a nuclear submarine on lease from the former Soviet Union in 1988, and this is a niche that could be reviewed in a meaningful manner — particularly with the United States (US) in the current geopolitical context. The US has a template for leasing assets to allies and how this will play out in a “partnership” would have to be negotiated but it is feasible.
In this phase of Covid-induced austerity, the IN will benefit from investing in information technology in a strategic manner and shape it into a force multiplier.
Surveillance across all three domains (surface, sub-surface and space) with adequate focus on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and spectrum dominance could be the key to IN retaining the edge that it needs to remain credible. China has been investing heavily in autonomous (ie AI-enabled) drones that operate in communications-denied and GPS-denied environments and this has the Pentagon worried.
India’s hi-tech human talent, which is being harnessed by the world’s leading corporates and universities, needs to be given the necessary incentives to irrigate the Indian techno-strategic ecosystem in a more effective manner. The silent service should explore these uncharted waters as its relevance in the affairs of the Indo-Pacific acquires greater salience.