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India’s Geopolitical Future: How Critical Is Naval Power? – Analysis


By Radhakrishna Rao

Down the centuries, the build up of naval power by seafaring nations remained a crucial factor in shaping history and changing the geography of the world. Colonization of third world countries by European nations with a strong maritime tradition is a clear pointer to the significant role played by naval forces in the global power equations. And notwithstanding the mind boggling technological changes that have now brought about a paradigm shift in the way defence forces operate, the importance of a naval force in the current overall strategic scenario of the world cannot be undermined by any stretch of imagination. For a strong and forward looking maritime force equipped with an array of state of the art war fighting equipment is as critical to the geopolitical security of the country as a land-based army supported by a well organized air power.

Not surprisingly then the well known US based geostrategist, Parag Khanna, who is also the founding director of the Global Governance Initiative at the New American Foundation think-tank, noted,”In terms of geopolitics, India’s influence is still very limited…What underpins that is the reality that India is not going to be what initially was thought and hoped it would be a land based continental rival to balance China. Now India is seen as much more of a naval power – overseeing and having a strategic role with respect to the Indian Ocean and the trade routes there. That actually is the geopolitical future of India. It is a very strong future”.


In fact, in the aftermath of the 26/11 attacks engineered by Pakistan-trained terrorists who reached mainland India through the Arabian sea lanes, there has been a growing realization of the need to monitor and protect India’s coastline much the same way as the landlocked border is defended. Clearly and apparently, the long, porous and poorly guarded coastal stretch had for long remained a safe stamping ground of smugglers, drug-runners, arms-traffickers as well as terrorists and criminal gangs. However, the most complex threat to India’s maritime security arises from the Sudanian origin sea brigands expanding their operations to the Arabian Sea region.

In response to this challenge, the Indian navy along with the Coast Guard has stepped up its vigil in the high seas around India to subdue sea pirates who pose a threat to sea trade routes of vital importance. For instance, ‘Operation Island Watch’, launched by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard in March this year resulted in the capture of Somalian pirates operating west of the Lakshadweep Islands after a fierce gun battle. The Indian navy is fully well aware that India’s island territories could become a target of attack by pirate gangs. “The island territories are becoming increasingly vulnerable in view of piracy. There were as many as 14 incidents of piracy near the Minicoy islands in Lakshadweep recently. Uninhabited islands are being monitored,” said Indian Defence Minister AK Antony. There is palpable concern in India’s defence establishment over the shifting of piracy southwards down the east coast of Africa and threatening the island nations of Seychelles, Mauritius and Maldives, all of which could serve as an ideal base to promote terrorist activities.

Against the fast changing global maritime dynamics, the Indian navy has drawn up an ambitious plan to transform itself into a three-dimensional, network-enabled force to take care of Indian “interests and assets” across the high seas of the world. The Indian navy is clear in its perception that futuristic threat would be dynamic and could emanate from multiple sources. The long-term vision of the Indian navy is to position itself as a robust blue-water maritime force capable of responding to situations across the global seas with swiftness and deep strike capability. To this end, the Indian navy is looking at acquiring ‘space assets’ building up network-centric capability. But in terms of conventional weapons, there seems to be quite a few gaps. In particular, the navy should strengthen its fleet of attack aircraft and helicopters along with submarines.

While boosting the strike capability and reach as well as the technological base of the Indian navy, one would need to take into account a variety of factors including the changing orientation of naval warfare and radical transformation in global maritime scenario. Augmenting a naval force is both a cost-intensive and technology-intensive exercise. Perhaps the most striking feature of the ongoing programme for modernization launched by the Indian navy is its thrust on sourcing its requirements through indigenous routes by harnessing the potential of the Indian industry. The Indian navy has already made it clear that its plan for modernization is not China-specific but based on meeting the multiple threats facing India.

In particular, the sea-based nuclear strike capability being put in place by the Indian navy would provide credible second strike capability. Incidentally, the nuclear strike capability based on a submarine platform has the advantages in terms of stealth and survivability in case of a first attack. In the ultimate analysis, the Indian navy is looking at drawing inspiration from India’s rich maritime tradition to position itself as an ocean-based force multiplier capable of defending Indian interests in all its dimensions.

Radhakrishna Rao
Freelancer, Bangalore
email: [email protected]

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IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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