India has an ocean when other nations just have seas but it is not doing a great job of protecting its naval interests

When Admiral Karambir Singh bemoaned the lack of funds to the Navy, he stated not just a fact of life but also hinted at just how poorly India has treated its maritime force. This is peculiar given not just India’s huge coastal border and the need to protect it but also the need to project itself as a power in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Indian interests in the IOR and that of its geographic neighbours are being challenged by the eastern neighbour giant, China, which has been busy acquiring assets across the IOR.

China’s “String of Pearls” is one that can potentially be used to strangulate India economically and militarily in case of a potential future conflict with assets like Gwadar in Pakistan. Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port is the most telling example of how China is developing a form of economic imperialism and the potential of deploying that against India. India’s dwindling allocation to the Navy as a percentage of all defence funds has the sea service upset, and rightly so, from 18 per cent of overall funds in 2012-13 to 13 per cent in 2019-20.

While some could dismiss this as inter-service rivalry and the constant jostling inside the forces for money, a reality in all large military powers, the Indian Navy is currently moth-eaten. New projects have taken eons, best exemplified by the inordinate gestation and commissioning process for the Project 15 and 15A guided missile destroyers. By the time the Project 15B ‘Vishakhapatnam-class’ ships come into service in 2021-22, India’s 10 modern guided missile cruisers will be outnumbered by China’s 34 Type 52C, 52D and Type 55 Destroyers. Even for coastal defence, a decision to purchase modern minesweepers have continued for two decades.

The Indian Navy, however, does need to share some blame with an unhealthy obsession with aircraft carriers, a need for power projection that has cost us. Carriers are inordinately expensive, take years to produce and in the Indian context, are of little tactical or strategic value against China, although things are slightly different against Pakistan. India should concentrate on rapidly building up its submarine and smaller surface vessel fleet, which with modern weapons can punch well above their weight. India is an old maritime power and we have an ocean when other nations just have seas. We should be proud of that and protect our interests at all costs.