There is a glaring disparity and a growing gap between the Indian Navy (IN) and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The Indian Naval fleet has an assortment of 18 conventional and nuclear submarines. According to the annual report to the US Congress PLAN has more than 60 submarines and places a high priority on modernization of its submarine force. In contrast the IN doesn’t have the critical mass of submarines. Adding to the shortfall is a fleet of old conventional submarines. And the gap is increasing due to delays in submarine projects.
After the Doklam crisis a belligerent China has once again threatened the peace by clashing with India troops at Pangong lake in Ladakh and the Nuka La area in Sikkim. This has led to the death of 20 Indian soldiers including a Colonel. China has increased troop deployments and is constructing military infrastructure on the border. Strategically in response to China threat the Indian Army (IA) is upgrading military infrastructure and the Indian Air Force (IAF) has deployed air assets in the Himalayas. But the IN is constructing and inducting Aircraft Carriers (ACs) instead of investing in submarines. The IN has inducted the former Russian AC Gorshkov while another is being indigenously constructed and two more are on the drawing boards. The IN is inducting Scorpene class submarines while the size of its submarine fleet is depleting. India’s naval fleet largely consists of old Kilo class submarines close to the end of their operational framework. A majority of them have completed 80% of their service lives and a few have been upgraded. This has led to a huge gap in India’s undersea strategy considering two hostile neighbors on its flanks.
In asymmetric warfare ACs are vulnerable to submarines and Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs). Cold War era research on warfare between the two superpowers has often focused on the Soviet submarine threat to US ACs. Soviet naval strategy emphasized the construction and deployment of submarines armed with ASCMs. The Soviet Battle of the First Salvo doctrine focused on the destruction of US ACs by launching ASCMs in a first strike with escort ships being ignored. Today Russia has deployed several ASCMs like the P 900 Alfa, P 800 Oniks, 3M-54 Klub and KH 59MK. Russia is testing hypersonic ASCMs like Tsirkon and Kinzhal to be deployed on ships, aircrafts and submarines with the primary objective of attacking ACs.
India’s strategy of constructing and deploying ACs is flawed and glamorous. ACs are sovereign territories deployed to project power at considerable distances as deploying the air force is not possible due to the restrictive range of fighter aircrafts. Air bases may be unavailable due to non-cooperative or hostile countries around enemy territory. Strategically ACs are deployed within striking range of the targets. US navy operates Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs) in far flung places across the world. The first air strikes during the Gulf War 1990 and the war on terror were conducted by aircrafts launched from ACs. Pakistan is within the striking distance of the IAF. China is far away for a non-nuclear powered Indian CBG to launch air strikes against centers of gravity like Shanghai and Shenzhen. The CBG will be hampered by replenishment, fueling and logistical issues.
The Naval Blockade
Geographically India is strategically located as it controls the sea lanes passing from Europe and Africa to China primarily through the Malacca Straits. China can be deterred in the Himalayas through a naval blockade between India and Maldives. This will prevent ships from entering the Malacca, Sunda, Ombai, Wetar and Lombok Straits. The naval strategies of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Julian Stafford Corbett are relevant for India. Mahan’s theory mentions the importance of commerce through the production and exchange of goods by sea trade while Sir Corbett emphasized the significance of naval blockades. Blockades are a classic combination of naval warfare and economic warfare.
A submarine blockade will impede China’s international trade and energy supplies. This will have a devastating effect on the second largest economy in the world. US deployed submarines to greater strategic effect from 1943 onwards by establishing one of the most successful blockades in naval history to lessen Japan’s economic value. India can deploy similar strategies by imposing a blockade against China. For a blockade to be successful India has to induct conventional submarines. Presently the deterrence value of IN submarines is low and PLAN submarines will operate unimpeded against a blockade. India doesn’t have nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines to operate independently off the Chinese coast as deterrent to Chinese misadventures in the Indian Ocean.
Submarines operate clandestinely behind the scenes. During a war the IN will impose a blockade against Pakistan. Pakistan will resort to swarm attack tactics comparable to the German Wolf Pack. Pakistan is inducting the Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarines which are difficult to detect even for countries with advanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities. AIP submarines can conduct hit and run and ambush operations against the ACs from shallow littoral waters on India’s coastline.
Honey bee swarm tactics of weaker powers
ACs are vulnerable to asymmetric tactics like a salvo of ASCMs launched by submarines in a multivector, networked and an automatic attack mode. It will be difficult for the CBG defenses consisting of an integrated layer of ships, missiles and air assets to protect the AC. The outer layer of AWACS and ASW aircraft will be vulnerable to fighter aircrafts. The second layer of surface combatants will be overwhelmed by the ASCMs. The last layer of point defense weapon systems like Barak 8 LRSAM system and Gatling guns on the Indian carriers will have to be replenished with ammunition. This is a difficult task amidst an ongoing swarm attack. These are the honey bee swarm attack tactics applied to naval warfare.
Countries like Iran, China and Pakistan are employing asymmetric strategies to counter powerful adversaries. Pakistan’s navy cannot challenge the advanced IN while China’s main targets are ACs. Submarines and ASCMs are the favorite weapons of both countries. PLAN has equipped the majority of its warships with a wide range of ASCMs like YJ-18, YJ-62 and YJ-83. It has also deployed YJ 12 which is a derivative of the potent Russian KH 31 missile. PLAN has installed the Russian SS-N-22 Sun Burn missiles on its four Sovremenny class destroyers. China has also deployed the potent land based DF 21 Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile which directly targets ACs. The Pakistan Navy has deployed Babur 3 ASCMs on its submarines. It has also deployed the Zarb ASCM on its Azmat class attack craft. This missile closely resembles the YJ-62 installed on the PLAN’s Type-052C Luyang II destroyers. The Chinese and Pakistani ASCMs have been reversed engineered from US and Russian missile technologies.
Enemy at the borders and peaceful coastlines
Strategy is dependent on intentions, capabilities, tactics, weapon systems and geography. India is constructing and inducting ACs to the detriment of undersea warfare capabilities. A war will be fought on India’s borders with Pakistan and China. The IN will not directly engage its adversaries in the Arabian Sea or the South China Sea. While the IA and the IAF will be deployed in a primary role the IN will engage the adversaries in a secondary role by imposing a blockade. Pakistan is deterred by the IAF and China will be deterred by Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and submarines. The role of ACs is diminished as India is a peaceful country, does not have expansionist policies and refrains from intervening in international conflicts.
Submarines are low priced and high impact weapon systems as compared to a CBG. The interplay of undersea warfare and economic warfare through a naval blockade will be a deterrent for China. Lessons learned from Iraq wars indicate that a different strategy is required for asymmetric wars. Weapon systems have to align with the requirements of national security policy and military strategy of a nation. An understanding of military history, warfare, case studies, lessons learned and strategy is crucial before constructing or buying ACs.
Historically China has been causing crisis on the Indo China border. The crisis is usually resolved through diplomatic dialogue and various levels of border management. But border violations by China are not going to end as the border issue is a leverage for China against India. Coercive diplomacy backed by force is a deterrent against China. India can threaten a blockade if China doesn’t halt its intrusions across the border. China will not be able to go on the offensive in the Himalayas as a blockade will stifle its economy. India can solve the border crisis permanently without going to war with China.
Without strategy ACs are symbolic portrayal of naval power. Surface warfare has taken precedence over undersea warfare for the IN. The construction of submarines doesn’t match big ticket and fascinating projects like ACs. The IN has neglected one of the powerful weapon systems in the history of warfare. Induction of nuclear submarines as a deterrent against China and conventional submarines to operate against Pakistan will be a game changer for the IN. The age of asymmetric warfare has started after 9/11. Submarines will play a significant and a destructive role in future wars and history is witness to it.
*Mangesh Sawant is an alumnus of Columbia University’s masters program where he concentrated in international security policy, is a subject-matter expert on military, homeland security and defense. Mangesh more than 17 years of experience in military strategy and tactics, weapons systems analysis, studying warfare, global security, counter terrorism, geopolitical risk analysis and country and political risks, conducting research, policy analysis and formulation, developing case studies and lessons learned and incorporating global best practices.