Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar
(This article is forthcoming in the December 2019 issue of Geopolitics.)
The Act of Passage on the Sea
World change has set in motion a shift that will affect security of the Indian nation. In this churning, the context of revision and how the involved actors must relate to it is critical. Each step towards change will illuminate facets that will reveal the reality of their purport, challenges they characterise and the threats that they hold. In addition strategic thought in the Navy must transcend the temptation to consider these as a continuing current of the past. The question really is, how can we best recast the Navy without having to wait for the full exposure of the new world and not having to play catch-up-if-you-can?
Students of maritime history will not forget that at the turn of the 20th century it was thinkers like Mahan and Julian Corbett who set ablaze the maritime spirit of that century. The former identified principles that influenced naval forces during the first half of the twentieth century; he believed that national greatness was inextricably associated with the commercial use of the sea in peace and its control in war. Sea power was seen as the handmaiden of imperial expansion. This vision, although uncontroversial in his day, lost its strategic flavour in the post-war age of decolonisation. Corbett, on the other hand, believed naval influence to be a part of national policy and saw the fleet not merely an instrument of destruction of the enemy fleet but as an accompaniment to assuring the “act of relative passage on the sea.” It was from this critical tenet that concepts of Sea Denial, Sea Control and Power Projection evolved. In 1915, his essay titled “The Spectre of Navalism” underscored the hazards of arms restructuring when attitudes considered “all power that was not one’s own was a menace that force alone could remove” (a belief amongst Germanic people in the run-up to the First World War and may today be found to thrive in the region). Perhaps his abiding legacy to contemporary naval thought was the idea that “freedom of the seas was an irreducible factor in sane world politics” for in his outlook the sea was not territory that could be conquered; nor were the oceans defensible. What it constituted was a substantial factor in the growth of a nation and prosecution of war. He suggested, “…great issues of nations at war have always been decided … either by what your army can do against your enemy’s territory, or else by the fear of what the fleet makes it possible for your army to do.”
Context of Change
Within an international system that hovers between a facade of order and anarchy, variegated pace of growth among states engenders rivalry over access to resources, control of technology, flow of commerce and entry to markets; resulting in friction amongst competitors. At the same time, abstractions of national honour, prestige and other sovereign interests that separate the state from its citizenry are often at odds with the violence of the “Language” of war (Clausewitz). Experience of the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, East Pakistan, West Asia and Afghanistan will suggest that perceptions of the people that come face-to-face with the “language” of war learn to abhor it and eventually prevail. Add to this the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction with their intrinsic menace of ending political purpose and we have the coming of indirect, relatively scaled down version of conventional wars albeit with high destructive potential and brutality fought under the overhang of a nuclear holocaust.
A Short Primer of Maritime Warfare
A fourfold classification of maritime forces has dominated naval operations since 1945. The grouping is largely task oriented. It comprises of aircraft carriers, denial forces, escorts and auxiliaries (the last include logistic and other support elements such as shore based aircrafts, landing ships, mine layers, tenders, space and cyber assets). In addition contemporary thought has given strategic nuclear forces a restraining role to define and demarcate the limits within which conventional forces operate. The principal demand of the theory is to attain a strategic posture that would permit control of oceanic and littoral spaces for a designated period of time in order to progress and influence the course of conflict, generally, on land. Upon the escorts depends our ability to accomplish control; while on the Aircraft Carrier and its intrinsic air power assisted by strike and denial forces depends the security of control. Control and security of control is the relationship that operationally links all maritime forces. If the doctrine of destroying the enemy’s armed forces asserts itself as the paramount objective then, our maritime exertions would concentrate on the singular aim of dealing that knockout punch. However, the vastness of the hydrosphere is of a nature that encourages dispersion, at the same time the antagonist may hardly be expected to expose his main forces in unfavourable circumstances. As Corbett so eloquently put it “the more closely he induces us to concentrate to face his fleet, the more he frees the sea for the circulation of his own forces, and the more he exposes ours.”
India’s armed forces have traditionally evolved and trained to cope with operational scenarios. But the operational canvas (inexplicable not to have been apparent), is a transient that eschews futuristic force planning. So it was every-year-after-five years the planner was condemned to an exercise that perceived possible threats and/building forces that attempted to cope with those threats. It was, therefore, the instantaneous intimidation that drove plans which unfortunately is a pretender that serves to fill the strategic space and struggles to keep pace with a future that the planner neither sought to shape nor forecast.
The War in Shadows
Corbett’s formulation, adapted for the present, of ‘control-for-causes’ is far more sophisticated and finds application in an era when calibrated escalation of power, coercive diplomacy and sanctions as opposed to a destructive and economically debilitating conflict; finds favour as a political tool. The current situation in Crimea, Syria, Iran, West Asia, North Korea, weaponising of space, access denial strategies, disruptive control of cyber space and indeed the South China Sea imbroglio are marked by just such a ‘War in Shadows’ where the principal tools are persuasive in their threat to dent the adversaries comprehensive power. Three factors play a disproportionate part in evolving such a strategy. First is generation of strategic capability in all dimensions. Second, is the resolve to power of national leadership. And lastly, is the state’s ability to cope with and manipulate strategic outcomes. This blend of the abstract with the realist’s point of view characterizes the ‘War in Shadows’. The reader will no-doubt note shades of the South Asian Regional situation in this plot. 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, it is China, a stated revisionist autocratic power that will impact regional stability; particularly so, in the maritime domain. The planner must in the circumstance examine in some detail the challenge of China. Of significance is the shift in global balance to the Indo-Pacific intricately linked to the stunning growth of China as a contender for regional dominance. Its ascendancy is backed by military forces that are developed to the point where they expect to challenge any adversary that may attempt to deny its interests.
China’s latest defence white paper of July 2019 describes “Taiwan, Tibet, and Turkistan as separatists that threaten national unity. While drumming the theme of “people’s security” it persists with its re-education camps in Xinjiang revealed recently. It hammers home the brutal repression of Muslim ethnic minorities, mainly Uighurs, and their mass incarceration. The paper warns of the dangers of territorial conflicts erupting in the South China Sea and hazards of strategic competition for resources and control of the seaways.”
The consequences of China enabling its Anti-Access and Area Denial strategy and moves to establish proprietary sources of raw materials, domination of sea lines of communication euphemistically called the “maritime silk route” and working to realise the String of Pearls (currently a patchy network of Chinese military and commercial facilities along its silk route). These manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Region evoke increasing anxieties and resistance by players in the same strategic settings. Debt traps that have been set by China to inveigle some of the hapless littorals of the Indian Ocean of their maritime facilities are symptomatic of a new form of colonial venture. The paradoxical effects of China’s actions are to undermine its own strategic standing, hasten counter balancing alignments and urge a global logic of cooperative politics over imperial strategies.
Through all this, China remains quite oblivious to the legality of their discordant Air Defence Identification Zone, the 9-Dash line delineating their claim over most of the South China Sea, contravening the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea and breaching international law by constructing and militarising artificial islands. China appears to be challenging not just today’s economic orthodoxy, but the world’s political and security framework as well.
Defining the Strategic Space
With uncertainty driving geopolitical dynamics, the first imperative for India is to bring about policy coherence between strategic space, growth and security interests. It must factor regions from where trade originates, energy lines run, sea lines of communication pass, narrows therein and potential allies. The Oceanic body encompassing the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific provides the back-drop. It is dominated by ten important choke points and narrows. In essence the theatre gives to global trade efficient maritime routes and sea lines of communication that power the region’s 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 context within which Indian maritime strategy must operate.
Determinants of Future Force Planning
The quest for strategic leverage in the maritime domain is inspired by policy declarations such as the ‘Look East (and now) Act East Policy’, the ‘India Africa Forum Summit’, and formation of alliances. Current membership of the original ten ASEAN grouping plus 6 is symptomatic of the shift in strategic centre of gravity 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 balance. 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 (despite the RCEP) is backed by surging trade slated to hit USD 100 billion. With such burgeoning stakes strategic rebalancing in the region comes as a natural consequence. The expansion of the ASEAN and the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum are also suggestive of the littoral’s aspirations to counter poise the looming presence of China.
Having thus brought about a modicum of coherence between security dynamics, strategic space and growth, it would now be appropriate to derive the broad contours of our strategic objectives and how they may be achieved.
A Denial Strategy
Denial seeks to contest and discredit the ability of regional or extra regional countries to unilaterally engage in 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 decisive in substance. To ‘contest and discredit’ would suggest a clear understanding of where the centre of gravity of the intervening forces lie. In China’s case, it is the triumvirate of the Aircraft Carrier; nuclear attack submarine and security of the narrows and of its ‘string of pearls’; these would have to be checkmated.
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 two considerations. First, initial moves must be so calibrated that the intervener is unequivocally made aware through diplomacy and notices from allies that a threshold is being approached and that the next rung in the escalatory ladder could well be a ‘hot’ exchange. This may take the form of ‘marking’ and surveillance. Second, 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. 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 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.
For obvious reasons details of ASAT batteries and cyber warfare teams along with NCA controlled strategic forces will remain discreet.
The next issue that requires our attention is what nature of technologies would have to be fielded to realise the strategy. In developing a technology plan two considerations will influence our approach; the first being an incremental approach to adapt and modernize existing tools, skills and hardware, while the second is to develop new technologies. Viewed in this perspective areas that would need the notice of our scientific community are identified below:
- ASAT deployment.
- Development & Deployment of seabed sensors for tracking attack 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 Quadrilateral Cooperative Security Dialogue (Quad)
The Quad has evolved in response to increased Chinese revisionist trends and the need to lend stability in the Indo-Pacific. The founding countries United States, Japan, India and Australia driven by a concept of co-operative security, launched the idea in 2007. With early withdrawal of Australia the Quad almost “miscarried”. It has been recently revived to counter China’s unrelenting thrust for an exceptionable proprietary mercantile empire stretching across the region. The alliance, however, remains fragile. The only historical parallel to the Quad is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Established to contain Soviet expansionism; three remarkable articles are at the core of its Charter: Article 2, lays the under structure for non-military cooperation. Article 3, provides for cooperation in military preparedness while Article 5, the allies agreed “an armed attack against one or more of them be considered an attack against all”. The Charter of the Quad is yet to be fleshed out; but conceivably it may follow the NATO template. It may have three objectives. First, to reinforce a rule-based regional Order that rejects nationalistic ‘Navalism’ of the kind that has emerged. Second, to promote a liberal trading regime and freedom of navigation. Third, to provide security assurances.
As the Quad pushes to get their initiative to fly, success will likely hinge on how they face pressure from China, nature of security architecture and an understanding of the peril-to-the-whole.
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 possibilities. India’s relationship with much of the world 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.
China on the other hand is a declared revisionist autocratic power that will impact globally; particularly so, in the maritime domain where it appears to be challenging not just economic orthodoxy, but geo-political and security order without bringing about a change within. This cannot be allowed to pass without a strategic riposte.