While China has been focusing on its naval build-up, from carriers to destroyers, Indian Navy’s budget keeps decreasing

Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh commissioned the fourth of the Scorpene-class submarines — INS Vela — Thursday. A few days back, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh commissioned the first of the Visakhapatnam class of destroyers. There is no denying that the commissioning of both these vessels into the Indian Navy is a boost to the maritime force as it gives a fillip to India’s capacity and firepower to counter threats, both above water and below.

The fact of the matter is that the one area where China can feel Indian military pressure is on the maritime front. At least for the time being. The best that India can manage to draw out with China on the land is a stalemate. And a stalemate is not in India’s advantage, but China’s.

As I had earlier reported, Vice Admiral Satish Namdeo Ghormade, the Vice Chief of Naval Staff, had last week said that 39 submarines and surface ships are under construction at various Indian shipyards, besides the two frigates being built for the Indian Navy in Russia. He also said that the Navy, which currently has about 139 ships, is aiming to reach its target of 170 ships over the next few years.

While this is good news, one needs to go beyond what is being spoken and look at where India stands when it comes to military modernisation, especially in comparison to China, which is aiming to dominate not just the region but also the world.

Chinese Navy Is Planning Much Ahead

One of the primary focuses of the Chinese military build-up is its navy. The second, of course, is its missile technology. The maritime front is what holds the key to the future, and China is well aware of that. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the fastest-expanding maritime force in the world.

Former Navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba (Retd) had in 2019 said that no navy has grown so rapidly in the last 200 years as the Chinese Navy. He also said that China has added 80 new ships in the last five years, a startling pace of military build-up, which the US has termed as a “threat”.

As an editorial in Business Standard noted, India has commissioned just 1-2 capital warships in each of the last five years – not enough to even replace warships that are retiring.

It will be prudent to note that China’s shipbuilding is focused on bigger fleet of large destroyers, amphibious warships and aircraft carriers. The recently released report of the US Defence Department on China’s military capabilities notes that PLAN has numerically the largest navy in the world with an overall battle force of approximately 355 ships and submarines, including approximately more than 145 major surface combatants.

As of 2020, the PLAN is largely composed of modern multi-role platforms and in the near-term, the PLAN will have the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes against land targets from its submarine and surface combatants using land-attack cruise missiles, notably enhancing China’s global power projection capabilities.

“The PRC is enhancing its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities and competencies to protect the PLAN’s aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines,” the US report added.

It is important to understand the scale of Chinese shipbuilding tactics and prowess.

While India’s latest four Visakhapatnam class of ships measures 163 metres in length, 17 metres in breadth, with a displacement of 7,400 tonnes, China has already moved away from its 7,500-tonne vessels to the massive 13,000-tonne, Type 055 Renhai-class destroyers.

Also, the scale of China’s military production and approach is completely opposite to India’s.

While India goes in for a limited number of vessels of the same class (Project 15B caters to only four Visakhapatnam- class destroyers), China goes in for larger number of vessels (at least a dozen) before moving on to the next upgraded and bulkier versions. This allows not just the production to stabilise and bring the cost down but also increases the scale and shipbuilding capacity.

As I write this, China is all set to launch its third aircraft carrier, which will have the catapult technology for take-off rather than the traditional ski jump-style, even as India debates whether to have a third aircraft carrier or not. It is estimated that China may end up operating six aircraft carriers by 2030.

Target of 170 Ships By India Is Actually A Scale-Down

While one of the headlines from the press conference of India’s Navy Vice Chief was “The Indian Navy’s plan to become a 170-ship force on track”, it will again be prudent to remember that this is actually a scale-down.

In 2019, the Navy reworked its aim of having a 200-ship strong fleet by 2027 because of acute financial crunch over several years and brought down its figure to 170.

While China has been focusing on its naval build-up, in India’s case, the Navy’s share of defence budget had decreased from 18 per cent in 2012-13 to 13 per cent in 2019-20, as was highlighted by current Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh in 2019.

The 2021-22 budget is no different as the Navy continues to reel under the pressure of financial constraints. I am not getting into an actual comparison of numbers between India and China when it comes to destroyers, corvettes, submarines. It is too depressing as PLAN outnumbers Indian Navy by a huge margin and a simple Google search will give you the results.

Yes, there is an argument that while PLAN may have the numbers, it is not yet completely experienced to operate such large fleets or fight an actual war in the sea, but then it is a matter of time before it does.

What is needed is a focused approach to ramp up India’s naval prowess to at least offer minimum credible deterrence to China, which is looking to counter the US and does not see India as an equal, economically and militarily.