To Contest, Deny, and Control: Strategic Challenges before the Indian Navy


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Realism Driven by Uncertainty

If the maritime strategist is to come to terms with the current state of reality and to act upon it with any long term impact, then, some sort of a theory is necessary in order to prognosticate and smooth a stormy future. To pause and look back at the quarter of a century gone by may provide some prescient indicators of challenges that lurk. The end of the Cold War and the break down of the antagonistic bi-polar paradigm it represented brought in its wake scholarly works that sought to prognosticate what future international relations and order held. Wide ranging theories were advanced, amongst the more celebrated was the emergence of one world in which harmony, democracy and an end to conflict was prophesized, and with it an end to a turbulent history of man’s ideological evolution with the grand terminal formulation that western liberal democracy had prevailed.[1] Some saw the emergence of a balanced multi polar order with the diminishing of Russia, rise of Germany and Japan and the arrival of China, not withstanding the warts of Tiananmen and the brutal stifling of the Falun-Gong. Yet others saw in the First Iraq War, the continuing war in the Levant, the admission of former Soviet satellite nations into NATO and the splintering of Yugoslavia an emerging clash of civilisations marked by violent discord shaped by cultural and civilizational similitude.[2] However, these illusions were, within a decade, dispelled and found little use in coming to grips with the palpability of the post Cold War world as each of them represented a candour of its own. The certainty of the day (if there is one) is the tensions of the multi polar; the tyranny of economics; the anarchy of expectations; and a violent polarisation along religio-cultural lines all compacted in the cauldron of globalisation in a State of continuous technology agitation. If at all a theory can be developed from this then it is “realism driven by uncertainty”.

In maritime affairs such a theory places in perspective the events that we are confronted with and provides a context within which challenges can be identified, strategies developed and force structures put in place to come to terms with an uncertain future. China’s quest to secure a maritime silk route backed by a continental economic belt girding the Pacific and Indian Oceans and bracing the Eurasian continent are little more than proprietary trade routes and economic zones of influence (reminiscent in many ways to imperial Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere). The value and logic of China’s anti access area denial strategy from this standpoint is obvious; it also provides the strategic rationale for claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea.

The Unease of Nations

As struggles of the post cold war era are played out the first casualty is the still born hope of an enlightened global order. Endemic instability world wide is characterized by the number of armed conflicts that erupted between the periods 1989 to 2015 which total in excess of 50.[3] The nature of these wars, more than anything else, reflected what may be termed the ‘Uncertainty Paradigm’ for they ranged from wars of liberation and freedom to insurgencies, civil wars, racio-ethnic-religious wars, proxy wars, interventions, armed settlement of historical scores and conflicts motivated by the urge to corner economic resources. In all cases it was either the perpetuation of a dispensation, political ambitions, radical religious ideologies or the fear of economic deprivation that was at work below the surface.

The unease of nations in this milieu is driven by four vital traumas. First, is the perpetuation of the State, its sovereignty and its dispensation; a feature that every nation lists as primary national interest, and yet it is here that the roots of uncertainty often lies. Second is the fear that impedance to ambitions of growth may come about due to internal or external stresses or a combination of the two; in all cases the State was bound to ensure through polity, diplomacy or military power that these stresses are effectively put down. Third is that the remaining interests that the State considers critical must be recognized and accepted by the International system; this places the system on the horns of a dilemma, particularly when interests overlap at which time there is a real potential for friction. Lastly, is a conundrum faced by all major powers or those that aspire for such status, and that is, when the State deems it necessary for military power to be applied, it must do so with the confidence (at times misplaced) that they will prevail. Against this backdrop, when politics of territorial creep and competitive resource access is linked to survival and development of State; we have before us the recipe for conflict. It is against this canvas that the future development and structuring of Indian maritime power must be gauged.

Challenge of China

Of all the uncertainties that influence strategic stability, it is China, a stated revisionist autocratic power that will impact and challenge globally; particularly so, in the maritime domain. And therefore it is appropriate that the planner examine in some detail the challenge of China.

In the 18th century, China under the Qing dynasty enjoyed a golden age. It was a period of shengshi, an age of prosperity. Currently some Chinese nationalists say that, thanks to the Communist Party and its economic prowess, another shengshi has arrived.[4] Significant to political influence is its matching economic growth and strategic military narcissism.[5] Power, changes the very character of nations it transforms their outlook towards the world and places primacy to their beliefs and interests in the international milieu giving it new drive to shape global affairs in a manner that promotes their well being. This search for geopolitical space that the emergence of a new cognizable revisionist power precipitates, historically, has been the cause for global instability and tensions. Add to this that the principle of nationalism is inextricably linked, both in theory and practice, with war.[6] We are, in the circumstance faced with a situation when the military dimension of power will throw up conflicts. In this context the slogan of the Qing “the dream of a prosperous country and a strong army” has new connotations.[7]

China released its most recent Defence White Paper in May 2015.[8] It announced the arrival of a self-confident China recognizing its own growing economic and military prowess. Beijing’s intended military strategy of “a more active defence” without too much elaboration on how active their defence strategy would be left the analyst with more questions than answers. Not withstanding, the paper places a premium on wide area maritime combat preparedness and manoeuvre and a thrust to attain a first rate cyber warfare capability. At the same time, criticality of containment of various internal fissures that growth had precipitated remains on top of the agenda. The paper significantly points out that struggles for cornering strategic resources, dominating geographically vital areas and tenanting strategic locations have, in fact, intensified. Power as a natural currency for politics remains a preferred instrument. Under these circumstances the portents for friction are ever present and would therefore demand preparedness, modernization and a strategic orientation that would neutralize the fall out of such friction.[9] Active defence would demand that the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) develop advanced assault capabilities, enhancement of mobility and strike capabilities in all three dimensions. Doctrines to back such capabilities involving sea-air-land integrated operations would be central to strategic posture. Development of ‘Anti Access Area Denial’ and control strategies would be decisive to military maritime operations.[10] Progressively, China appears to be challenging not just today’s economic orthodoxy and order, but the world’s political and security framework as well without bringing about a change within her own political morphology.

China’s claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea; her territorial aggressiveness; her handling of dissent within Tibet and Sinkiang; her proliferatory carousing with rogue states such as North Korea and Pakistan are cases, amongst others, that do not inspire confidence in change occurring within that nation without turbulence. It is also noted with some foreboding, the breaking out of China from it’s largely defensive maritime perimeter into the Indian Ocean region.

 A Theory of Maritime Warfare and a Concept for Force Structuring    

A fourfold classification of maritime forces has dominated naval thought since the Second World War. The grouping is largely functional and task oriented. The differentiation comprises of aircraft carrier groups with strike units, escorts and scouts, denial forces and auxiliaries (the last include logistic and other sea and space based surveillance support etc). In addition contemporary thought has given strategic nuclear forces a restraining role to define and demarcate the limits within which conventional forces operate.

The formulation that remains consistent with our theory is that upon the escorts and scouts depends our ability to exercise control over the objective sea area; while on the aircraft carrier group and its intrinsic air power assisted by strike and denial forces depends achievement and security of control. It is here that the true impact of the aircraft carrier group is felt for it permits escorts to proceed unimpeded with their specialized tasks.[11] Control and Security of Control is the relationship that operationally links all maritime forces.

Oceanic Vision and Policies to Match

With uncertainty driving geo-political dynamics, the first imperative for India is to bring about policy coherence between strategic space, growth and security interests. It begins by defining the geographical contours within which a strategy can be developed to contend with challenges identified. The broad parameters in this definition must factor in the regions from where trade originates, energy lines run, sea lines of communication pass, the narrows contained therein which an inimical force would endeavour to secure and the geographic location of potential allies. In this context the sea space between the 30 degree East Meridian and the 130 degree East Meridian extending to the Antarctic continent provides the theatre within which Indian maritime strategy will function. This Oceanic body is dominated by ten important choke points and narrows.[12] In essence the theatre gives to global trade efficient maritime routes and sea lines of communication that power the regions growth. It accounts for over 70% of global trade, 60% of energy flow and is home to more than 50% of the world’s population; it also provides the strategic context within which Indian maritime strategy must operate.

The quest for strategic economic, political and security leverage in the maritime domain is founded on an oceanic vision and the idea must be backed by the development of a strategic posture that characterizes our resolve to fulfil the quest. Inspiration may take the form of a policy declaration in relation to a geographic region such as the ‘Look East (and now) Act East Policy’, the ‘India Africa Forum Summit’ declaration or the Antarctic Treaty. Policy provides a frame work that has wide-ranging application but will remain in the spotlight for purposes of force planning to develop a strategic posture in support. The current membership of the original ten ASEAN grouping plus 6 is symptomatic of the shifting centre of gravity of geopolitics to the East. From a security angle, the inclusion of India, USA, Russia, Japan and South Korea in addition to China provides the rationale for strategic equilibrium.

India and China along with ASEAN are set to become the world’s largest economic bloc. The grouping is expected to account for about 27 per cent of Global GDP and will very quickly overtake the EU and USA economies. The buoyancy of the Indo-ASEAN relationship is backed by surging trade figures which is slated to hit USD 100 Billion in the current year. With such burgeoning stakes the US strategic rebalancing in the region comes as a natural consequence and provides the settings for establishing strong and stable security ties. The expansion of the ASEAN and the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum are suggestive of the littoral’s aspirations to counter balance the looming presence of China. USA’s presence will dominate activities in the region in the immediate and middle term future. Flash points such as territorial claims both in the maritime and continental domain will remain a source of friction that would necessarily demand military capabilities and a strategic orientation that assures restraint.

Force Planning and Structures

While our focus would be to concentrate on maritime forces, it would also be necessary to recognize that all elements of national power would be required to realize an oceanic vision and contend with the shape of challenges. Force planning must be driven by three overarching considerations. Firstly, articulated national policy; secondly, challenges that may arise in the short and middle term to this policy and lastly, an estimate of potential harm that may occur to our national interests if forces were not generated to address the first two considerations. Infrastructure and logistic planning to deploy must factor not just the expanse of this region but also the ability to reach and sustain operations between 3000 – 4000 nautical miles from Indian ports and bases that may be provided by like minded littorals. Ideally, development of infrastructure for such long range operations lies in the Andaman and Nicobar islands which offers the necessary springboard into the Pacific Ocean and for the South Indian Ocean, forward operating bases in like minded East African littorals cultivated through the IAFS will be needed. Such focused development endows us with the Mahanian logic of being able to provide the very “unity of objectives directed upon the sea.” A major infrastructural centre in the Andaman Sea must be accompanied by establishing base support facility arrangements in Indonesia (Djakarta), Vietnam and Japan in the Southern islands. To the west, the Indian Ocean littorals such as South Africa, Malagasy, Tanzania, Mauritius and Seychelles will have to be cultivated. Such infrastructural back up would serve policy admirably. It would also call for diplomacy of a nature that we have not thus far seen practiced.

The types of military maritime missions that the Navy may be tasked with may encompass the following:

  • Maritime combat operations which includes Sea Control, Access Denial, littoral warfare and strategic surveillance.
  • Strategic deterrence which would be a persistent feature consistent with our nuclear doctrine.
  • Coercive maritime deployments: This may include deployments in Straits and along SLOCs.
  • All missions will demand seamless interoperability with allies and capabilities that include special operations, ballistic missile defence, cyber warfare and ASAT.
  • Co operative missions including intervention, peace enforcement and peace keeping, diplomatic missions, policing and benign role which may include disaster management, humanitarian relief, search and rescue etc.

Forces that would be required at all times to fulfill these missions would comprise of one carrier group along with strike elements on task at all times with an amphibious brigade assault group attached and with suitable fixed and airborne ASW and surveillance and Escort assets. The SSBN nuclear deterrent would be on a patrol when deemed necessary. Auxiliaries required to sustain forces would have to be attached or be taken up from trade. To summarize, forces will include the following:

  • 1 x deployed Carrier Group.
  • 3 x LPDs – with a Brigade lift capability.
  • 1 x Squadron SU 30s with air to air refuelling.
  • 1 x Squadron Long Range Maritime Patrol aircraft (LRMP)
  • Squadron of long range surveillance UAVs.
  • 1 x Amph Div Stand by A&N Islands.
  • 1 x SSBN on deterrent patrol under Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) control.
  • Nuclear attack submarine force to deny hostile aircraft carrier operations. Conventional submarine force for littoral operations.
  • Non lethal anti shipping devices.
  • Appropriate forces for surveilling, seeding and monitoring of straits.
  • Appropriate ‘marking group’ to shadow hostile nuclear forces, ASAT batteries and cyber warfare teams.
  • Forward submarine operating base and enhancement of air stations.
  • Appropriate in theatre logistic support facilities.

Concept of Anti-Access Denial

Having brought about a modicum of coherence between security dynamics, strategic space and growth, it would now be appropriate to define and derive objectives of the concept of Anti-Access Denial Strategy as applicable to the larger Indian Maritime Military Strategy.

Anti-Access Denial seeks to contest and deny regional or extra regional countries the ability to unilaterally project military power to secure their interests either through aggression or through other destabilizing activities. The instrument to achieve denial is by convincingly raising the cost of military intervention through the use or threat of use of methods that are asymmetrical in form and disruptive in substance. The strategy’s first impulse is to avoid a hot conflict.

To ‘contest and deny’ would suggest a clear understanding of where the centre of gravity of power projection forces lie. In China’s case it is the triumvirate of the Aircraft Carrier; security of the narrows and of it’s ‘string of pearls’.[13] The ‘Pearls’ assure sustenance of forces and safety of hulls that convey resources and energy vital to fuel growth. Use of aggressive means is clear enough, but prying open faults that could destabilize and therefore distract the main exertions, are not at all patent. In India’s case both internal as well as external stresses obtain that could be leveraged in order to subvert and undermine the primary thrust to contest and deny the ability to project power; more importantly China not only has the will and capability to exploit these opportunities but also has a willing ally in Pakistan, this must robustly be guarded against.

‘To raise the cost of military intervention’ is a matter that resides in the mind of political leadership, yet there will always be a threshold, the verge of which is marked by diminishing benefits of intervention or power projection. It will be noted that it was a similar calculus (albeit in reverse) that must have come to play in the 1995 Taiwan Strait crisis that inhibited and forced China to reconcile to humiliation in the face of a possible debilitating confrontation. Also the logic of weakening out-of-region motivation clutches in, diluting the efforts of the intervener. Lastly the threat of ‘use of force’ must not only be credible but also the ‘value exchange’ in terms of losses must weigh against the power projecting force. At the heart of Anti Access Denial in the Indian context must remain deterrence.

Leadership and Doctrines

Leaving aside, for the moment, material aspects of generating capabilities, the most critical issue is one of timing, that is, what would be the enabling circumstances that would trigger operationalizing (say) the Indian anti access denial Strategy? While the short answer may be “when national interests are threatened” this does not in any way assist in formulating a doctrine empowering operational level leadership to plan and act. Leadership will note that two considerations must, however, dominate. The first is that initial moves must be so calibrated that the intervener is unequivocally made aware that a threshold is being approached and that the next rung in the escalatory ladder is a ‘hot’ exchange. This may take the form of ‘marking’ or through hotline communications. The second is by initiating demonstrative action which may disrupt and disable operational networks or even measures instituted in some other theatre where correlation of forces would suggest Indian superiority.

A maritime Anti-Access Denial strategy unlike a continental standpoint, abhors ‘Lakshman Rekhas’ for there are no readily definable geographic ‘redlines’, what is of greater import is context, circumstances and events. This brings us back to the original dilemma of characterizing the conditions that would bring strategy into play. Under this order of things, we may in general terms define our ‘red lines’ as follows:

  • Any large scale military attempt to change the status quo in our territorial configuration.
  • Large scale military build up either at Gwadar , Sittwe or on any of the “string of pearls” with the explicit purpose of threatening India.
  • Aggressive deployments that disrupt our own energy and resource traffic or dislocate command networks.
  • Any attempt to provide large scale military support, covert or otherwise, to promote an internal war against the State.

In execution, the anti-access denial Strategy may be implemented in three distinct phases. Phase I: selective Access Denial deployment, surveillance and marking in our maritime theatre of interest; Phase II: demonstration through cyber action and possible ASAT intervention; Phase III: hot action including sea control, blockades and SLOC severance. Phases I, II and III will be preceded by and concurrent with bilateral and multilateral diplomacy to stabilize and defuse the situation keeping in perspective that conflict avoidance remains principal. Any one of the Phases may be brought in to play singly or sequentially as a part of an escalatory ladder. We have in an earlier section identified maritime forces required in order to enable this strategy in addition to other missions that these forces may be tasked with. For obvious reasons details of ASAT batteries and cyber warfare teams along with NCA controlled strategic forces will remain discreet.

Technology Plan

The next issue that requires our attention is what nature of technologies would have to be fielded so that the strategy becomes a reality and relevant for the middle term. In developing a technology plan two considerations will influence our approach; the first being an incremental approach to adapt and modernize existing knowledge tools, skills and hardware, while the second is to develop new technologies. Viewed in this perspective areas that would merit the notice of our scientific community are identified below:

  • ASAT capability and deployment.
  • Deployment of seabed sensors for tracking nuclear submarines.
  • Development of non lethal devices to disable merchant ships.
  • Deploying cyber warfare teams for both defensive and offensive tasks.
  • Development of high speed networks with failsafe firewalls for command and control and information sharing.


The reality of the international system is the place that power enjoys in the scheme of assuring stability. Uncertainty in international relations queers the pitch, in view of the expanded space of possibles. India’s relationship with the USA and her allies is robust. India has shown itself, through restraint, pluralistic and popular form of governance to be a responsible State that upholds the status quo yet invites change through democratic forces. Its rise, in the main, is not only welcomed but is seen as a harmonizing happening that could counterpoise China. But of the uncertainties that influence strategic stability, it is China, a stated revisionist autocratic power that will impact globally; particularly so, in the maritime domain where it appears to be challenging not just economic orthodoxy, but global political and security order without bringing about a change within her own political morphology.

The next step would logically be to establish an Indo-US-Japan-Australia strategic framework in the maritime domain, if we are to resourcefully contend with the challenges that are present. The question of when or under what condition a strategy is to be brought to bear is a dodgy call for if Phase III is arrived at, it may well signify a point of no return, at the same time uncertainty cannot be allowed to determine the course of events.



End Notes

[1]Fukuayama, Francis. “The End of History.” The National Interest, 16 (Summer 1989), pp 4, 18.

[2] Huntington. Samuel, P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Penguin Books, India 1997, pp 30-39.

[3] The World at War United Nations defines “major wars” as military conflicts inflicting 1,000 battlefield deaths per year. In 1965, there were 10 major wars under way. The new millennium began with much of the world consumed in armed conflict or cultivating an uncertain peace. As of mid-2005, there were eight Major Wars under way [down from 15 at the end of 2003], with as many as two dozen “lesser” conflicts ongoing with varrying degrees of intensity.

[4] The Economist, June 25th – July 1st 2011, special report China.

[5] Shankar, Vijay. The Perils of Strategic Narcissm: China. Posted on IPCS web site in June 2014.

[6] Howard, Michael. The Lessons of History, Yale University Press New Haven and London, p39.

[7] Gries, Peter Hays, China’s New Nationalism. Pride, Politics and Diplomacy Berkeley & London, University of California Press, 2004, p 105.


[9] Ma Cheng-Kun, PLA News Analysis, “Significance of 2015 China’s National Defense White Paper” no. 15, pp. 49-60

[10] Ibid                                    

[11] It would also explain why currently there are 18 aircraft carriers that are either operational or building in the region: China 5, India 4, Japan 4, Australia 2, Thailand 1 and South Korea 2.

[12]From West to East these ten choke points and narrows may be identified as follows:

  • The Cape of Good Hope: The Cape of Good Hope is a way point across which transoceanic shipping traffic plies to and from the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean. The International transport Forum in 2010 reported that between 3-4 million containers (twenty-foot equivalent unit) transit the strait annually. This sea line of communication is critical for China and for trade between the BRIC nations
  • The Strait of Babel Mandeb: The Strait of Babel Mandeb is a strategically important strait that separates the Arabian Peninsula from Eastern Africa. At its narrowest it is 17 miles wide and provides the oceanic link between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Through this strait passes 3.3 million barrels of oil/day (global demand 43mbl/day in 2006) approximately 60% of which transits eastward to the littorals of the west Pacific
  • The Strait of Hormuz: The Strait of Hormuz is a key energy corridor shipping 40% of seaborne oil traded globally. At its narrowest the navigable channel is 2 miles wide. Through these narrows pours 16.5-17mbl/day of oil; it is forecast that by 2020 the figures are likely to be 30-34mbl/day. 50% of China’s energy imports is sourced from this region.
  • Dondra Head: Provides the passage which connects the sea lines of communication (SLOC) from the 9 degree channel to East Asia provides a deep water route for a third of global traffic while it provides considerable sea space to the south it remains a critical passage for commerce particularly so for very large container carriers discharging at Colombo for onward carry to the sub continent.
  • 6 Degree Channel: The 6 degree channel is the primary route that feeds into the Strait of Malacca. It stretches for 90 miles south of the Great Nicobar Island and its deepest channel runs within 60 nautical miles from Indira Point. Between 200 and 220 ships transit this Channel everyday of which more than 15 % are oil tankers bound for East Asia, 10 % of which is to China.
  • The Malacca Straits: At the heart of the Eastern Ocean lie the Malacca Straits which links the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. Being the most commercially viable sea route with considerable depths, it offers the most cost efficient SLOC, connecting the energy and mineral rich African continent and the oil rich regions of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East with the Eastern Ocean. At its narrowest it is 1.5 nautical miles in width.
  • The Sunda Strait: The Sunda Strait has north east – south west orientation with a maximum width of 15 nautical miles. It is very deep at its western end and narrows to the east as soundings decrease to 20 metres. While it can accommodate very large crude carriers and very large container carriers it is not easy to navigate due to strong tidal flow and the presence of both natural and man made obstacles. Ships whose draught inhibits movement in the Malacca Straits generally choose the Sunda Strait. It is admirably suitable for fast passages underwater or on the surface.
  • Lombok Straits: The Lombok Straits is an alternate passage to the Malacca and Sunda Straits. While it provides stealth, the strong cross currents inhibit passage of commercial traffic; it also involves a diversion of close to 1500 nautical miles. It s virtue lies in it’s the discretion it provide for the transit of nuclear powered submarines.
  • Makassar Straits: The Makassar Straits is a natural route for ships transiting the Sunda or the Lombok to and from ports in the Celebes Sea, Sulu Sea and the South China Sea.
  • The Luzon Strait provides the Pacific passage into the South China Sea.

[13] The String of Pearls theory is a geopolitical theory about China’s strategic intentions in the Indian Ocean.  It refers to the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities and relationships along its sea lines of communication, from the Chinese Mainland to Port Sudan. The routes run through several major maritime choke points including the Straits of Mandeb, Malacca, Hormuz and Lombok as well as other strategic maritime centers in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Somalia. The term as a geopolitical concept was first used in an internal US Department of Defense report titled “Energy Futures in Asia.” The term has never been used by official Chinese government sources.

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