By: Neeta Lal

Under fire from defence analysts and the federal auditor for its luckless and ill-equipped navy, long a victim of political and bureaucratic apathy, the Indian government is scrambling to bolster it against the backdrop of an increasingly assertive China which is intruding into the Indian Ocean in force.

The two Asian giants have been locked in a tense standoff for a month in India’s eastern state of Sikkim. A United States that can’t be trusted any more to maintain the Asian geopolitical balance under a truculent president means that, as with NATO, pro-west allies in Asia are going to have to fend for themselves.

Accordingly New Delhi has initiated what is being called the “mother of all underwater defence deals” after a prolonged 10-year delay, with a slew of eager nations – France, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Spain and Japan – vying to build six advanced stealth submarines for an estimated $10.9 billion in collaboration with an Indian shipyard.

Shipbuilders vie for contracts

As reported by The Times of India, the long-awaited submarine program, called Project-75, will likely be the first major project under the new “strategic partnership” policy finalized by the defense ministry. Six shipbuilders – Naval Group-DCNS (France), ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (Germany), Rosoboronexport Rubin Design Bureau (Russia), Navantia (Spain), Saab (Sweden) and the Mitsubishi-Kawasaki Heavy Industries combine (Japan) – are being tapped for the project.

As per approved plans, the Navy should have 18 diesel-electric submarines as well as six nuclear-powered attack submarines and four nuclear-powered submarines with long-range nuclear-tipped missiles for effective deterrence against China and Pakistan. Currently, the force falls far short on most of these requirements.

In a report tabled recently in Parliament, the Comptroller and Auditor General was scathing in its criticism of the navy for causing inordinate delays in the construction of four anti-submarine warfare ships. The office said two of the four warships delivered to the navy were not fitted with required weapons and sensor systems, which not only compromised the vessels’ safety but resulted in less than optimal performance. The federal auditor was also deeply critical of the navy’s Directorate of Naval Design for delay in finalizing the design of the warships, saying approved designs were amended 24 times.

Accidents galore

According to the report, the Indian Navy’s ships and submarines were involved in 38 accidents over the nine years since 2007, adversely affecting its operational preparedness. The auditor attributed the mishaps to fire, explosion and flooding, adding that the Navy has had no institutionalized framework to deal with safety since its inception. A dedicated organization for dealing with safety issues was set up by the Indian Navy in 2014 but is still awaiting state sanction.

Analysts say the loss of a ship and submarine diminishes the Navy’s operational preparedness as acquisition of new ships and submarines takes nearly a decade. This procedural delay is largely because the Ministry of Defense has been enmeshed in a series of corruption scandals, especially under the UPA, the country’s last political coalition, which was voted out of power in 2014.  The ministry scrapped a US$200 million contract for 98 Black Shark heavyweight torpedoes this summer following corruption allegations involving a European defense contractor and Indian politicians.

“The cancellation will deprive the Indian Navy’s new submarine fleet of adequate defense capabilities against enemy subs and surface warships in the event of a conflict,” said a senior Indian bureaucrat.

India dithers while China moves

This lack of preparedness also augurs ill against the backdrop of an increasingly complex geopolitical chessboard on which China is exponentially expanding its military and strategic footprint. Beijing is also seeking to bridge the naval gap with the US with a heightened sense of urgency and anxiety. India continues to be at the receiving end of Beijing’s aggressive overtures as the latter continues to nibble away at Indian territory along the borders while cozying up to Pakistan to build infrastructure across the latter’s terrain endangering India’s territorial sovereignty.

China has also deployed a submarine in the Indian Ocean Region, as the month-long standoff in the Doklam plateau between the Indian and Chinese People’s Liberation Army continues. The Yuan class conventional diesel electric submarine which is better than aging Indian subs is not the first, but the seventh to be deployed in the area.

China sets sail for Indian Ocean

Military analysts have underscored the heightened Chinese People’s Liberation Navy activity in the Indian Ocean Region where Chinese warships and submarines appeared three years ago – ostensibly for “anti-piracy operations” in the Gulf of Aden. From a modest beginning of a flotilla of just three warships, in 2013, the numbers have spiralled up considerably. Recently, Indian satellites and naval assets detected at least 14 Chinese Navy warships in the Indian Ocean Region. These include the latest Luyang-III or the Kunming class stealth destroyers.

Though India has taken some measures to ward off Chinese threats, the most recent being the conduct of trilateral Malabar naval exercises with Japan and United States in the Bay of Bengal that annoyed the Chinese office, defense analysts say much more needs to be done.   

“New Delhi is pitted against a neighbor who has long given up its `peaceful rise’ pretensions and will stop at nothing to increase its stranglehold over newer and newer geographies. The only way to fight this relentless colonisation is to be always prepared,” said Associate Professor, History, Dr. Kulbhushan Thakkar of Delhi University.

Durng the Bush-Obama presidencies, Thakhar said, New Delhi and Washington agreed that China’s expansionism posed the main strategic threat to both America’s primacy in Asia and to the security of India and Asia generally. But few expect Washington to uphold the liberal international order under Trump, and, given China’s belligerent nationalism, to honor its commitments to its Asian friends.

“Trump’s approach is transactional and will be shaped by his perception of US world interests and India’s economic performance relative to China. His protectionist, isolationist, `America First’ policy has sadly replaced the visionary outlook his predecessors displayed towards Asia,” Thakkar said. 

Neeta Lal (neetalal@hotmail.com) is a New Delhi-based longtime regular contributor to Asia Sentinel