Failure-bound maritime strategy

The public perception of the Indian army being smacked around on the border by China needs correction. Actually army units with the Leh-based XIV Corps do “power patrolling”, matching the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) move for aggressive move, including active use of drones, something not publicised by an incomprehensibly reticent Indian government. Thus, while it is known, for example, that the camera installed in the post on the Chumar heights was destroyed by intruding PLA troops, what isn’t is the fact that it was quickly replaced by the Chinese with a new surveillance system once they were told that five of their cameras in similarly exposed sites would be destroyed in retaliation.

The negative impression of a lax and unready army has gained traction, leading to murmurings of a 1962-type of disaster in case of war with China, which’s wrong. An indecisive Indian government has constrained the Indian army with its delayed decision on the offensive mountain corps and the painfully slow construction of border roads and military-use infrastructure. But notwithstanding China’s advantages in these and other respects, the PLA is in no position to overwhelm India’s defensive formations arrayed in depth, even less maintain an attacking force in the field in the face of sustained Indian aerial strike power. It has only 11 Ilyushin-76s for heavy airlift, relies on the antiquated Yak-7 variant of An-32 — the staple of the Indian transport capability as well and, unlike the Mi-26 in Indian employ, has no heavy lift helicopters for tactical support.

The problem is fundamentally of a strategic nature. With China clearly utilising its repeated provocations to benchmark escalatory steps — from push to shove to widespread hostilities to limited war to however improbable, general war, the question is what is the most appropriate Indian strategy if the violence is ratcheted all the way up? The Indian government seems persuaded by the “theatre-switching” maritime strategy of a naval riposte to Chinese aggression in the mountains. According to the estimable Rear Admiral (Retd) K Raja Menon (“A mountain strike corps is not the only option”, The Hindu, July 28, 2013), the ` 60,000 crore sanctioned for an offensive army mountain corps is a waste of money, which ought to have been spent on beefing up the navy’s Sea Lines of Communications “interdiction capability” instead in order to obtain “a stranglehold on the Chinese routes through the Indian Ocean”. Threaten a cutoff of energy and natural resources from the Gulf and Africa, put its exports-driven economy and prosperity at risk and, voila! goes this argument, Beijing will pull its punches landward.

Convinced about the efficacy of “maritime strategy for continental wars” — a subject he has fleshed out in a book — Menon builds his larger case on Britain’s historical experience of utilising the Royal Navy to contain European continental powers. Except, as empirical evidence shows, a maritime strategy can overcome only island nations (such as Japan in World War II) but by itself can at most seriously discomfit, not stifle, major land powers enjoying interior lines of communications. Even Britain had to rely ultimately on Marlborough, master of the forced march and tactical maneuvering, to settle the early 18th Century Wars of the Spanish Succession in the decisive land battles at Blenheim, Ramillies and Malpalaquet, against the condominium of France and Spain, both boasting formidable navies which, along with the Royal Navy, did little during this period than indulge in “cruising wars”.

An exclusively naval response by India to a conflict in the Himalayas initiated by China is problematic for a host of practical reasons. In a “limited war” launched by PLA, sinking a few Chinese warships found east of the Malacca Strait, or sinking or capturing Chinese merchantmen on the high seas is surely not enough recompense for loss of valuable territory in Arunachal Pradesh and elsewhere along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and from which the Chinese forces are unlikely to withdraw as they did in 1962. So, the status quo ante will not be restored on land as it will be on the seas. There’s, moreover, the little matter of India’s ability to impose a “total exclusion zone” on the entire Indian Ocean to prosecute an unbridled guerre de course (war on commerce). Alas, a navy of 50-odd capital ships by 2030 will be inadequate for this mammoth task. Then there are the lesser issues of identifying Chinese carriers and targeting them and other ships, possibly under friendly flags plying the China trade. If the latter are to escape the torpedo and only quarantined, eventually to be released, it’ll mean even less cost to Beijing.

Secondly, while a few Indian ships could almost instantly get underway, an all-out effort will require four-to-six days of hectic preparation as stores and assets are marshalled, battle groups constituted and, based on intelligence, an interdiction grid established, during which time the PLA could rack up singular, irreversible, successes in the mountains. Indeed, the Chinese could well achieve their limited war aims before many Chinese naval ships and merchant marine can be found and sunk, and the Chinese economy impacted. The time factor could be further distended if, as is likely, the conflict begins with the usual border incident or two before the PLA chooses to escalate. At what point in this escalation sequence will the Indian government, notoriously timid in using armed force, decide the country is in a war situation necessitating implementation of the maritime strategy? Thirdly, unlike India, China has built up strategic reserves of oil and minerals; these will last longer than the limited war will endure and before India’s maritime counter can have effect.

Any military campaign against China will perforce be land-based with a maritime strategy as subsidiary. India, therefore, has a desperate need for capability to mount offensives on the Tibetan plateau provided by specially-equipped mountain corps. At a minimum, India requires three such corps, not just one. However, Menon’s suggestion that the rugged American A-10 Warthog fixed-wing aircraft, rather than armed helicopters, be considered for close air support is more interesting.

Published in the ‘New Indian Express’ Aug 9, 2013 at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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13 Responses to Failure-bound maritime strategy

  1. RK Anuj says:

    Thank heavens for little mercies. So you finally begin to acknowledge that the Indian forces do in fact take measures to counter the Chinese moves quite aggressively. Also, ever so grudgingly….unlike our debates till last month….about the infrastructure development, howsoever slow, and the IAFs ability to build up the forces in response to Chinese aggressive moves, using the AN- 32s and other lift- aircrafts, facts that you were inclined to dismiss rather sarcastically till only a month back on this very blog. Tell me, haven’t you and some of the others of the ilk in the CPR, who are voracious strategic writers in Indian and foreign media, contributed to the …. negative impression of a lax and unready army……gaining traction. Haven’t you all been responsible for creating a cynical environment in the gullible public mind?

    But some habits die hard. Strategy cannot be uni- dimensional, as you seem to suggest. One- track vision is your problem. You swing from the whole hog of a ridiculous nuc- missile proliferation in south east Asia, to putting all the eggs in building the mountain capability. Dear Sir, alas strategy is never so well defined in singular paradigms. hence the GOI efforts to boost the mountain capability, build up maritime prowess, develop a

    • Don’t simplify my strategic writings and suggestions contained therein to single-track prescriptions. If India had no paucity of resources, a full-court press’d be on order. It is, as I have always maintained, a matter of inter se prioritization, where we have gone, and are going, horribly wrong. Our main military expenditures are monopolized by shortrange tactical-theatre level concerns, not with strategic core interests. Thus, our military’s Pak-fixation has to be jettisoned. It’ll free up funds for an all-up, more comprehensive buildup of capability against China. With the latter in mind, transferring N-missiles to Vietnam and other SE Asian states to contain China and as payback, remains an essential component. Don’t confuse something for something else together — which you, as a supporter of the govt line, tend to do.

    • RK Anuj says:

      …..the pitfalls of technology……regret the break, read on.

      ……develop alliances in China’s underbelly but all the while maintaining diplomatic and trade relations to bide time till the nation is economically, militarily and psychologically prepared to face the challenge. That is cool and calm rationalism unlike the fiery rhetoric of our media perpetuated by arm chair strategists who feed the ignorant idiots.

      Don’t you fear the mountains. You may have missed, but its not just the mountain corps recently announced but much more force enhancement over the past decade that your blinkered vision refuses to acknowledge. The GOI may not be given in to making emotional outbursts that may please a certain gallery, but the adversaries who matter are well aware of the efforts that have gone on quietly over the past decade.

      But my thanks once again for at least acknowledging some bare essentials!!

      • RK Anuj says:

        Well Sir, your biggest problem is your singular fixation with Pakistan. The fact is that we share an unfortunately long border, partially disputed with historic acrimony of a bloody separation that cannot be wished away. So, no matter how dismissive you may be of Pak, it is an evil that cannot be wished away. I wonder how you rate the Indian missile advancements with short range, tactical theatre level concerns, defies all logic. But yes, as you correctly mention, in the event of their being a limitation of resources, prioritisation is essential and the measures I have listed above do not appear to be Pak centric to me. Or to any unbiased, not motivated anti- GOI strategist!

  2. Do not want to belabour the point I have made umpteen times but when between 21-23 percent of the annual defence budget is funneled into upkeeping our mech and armoured forces distributed in the strike and pivot corps, my conclusion is surely not wrong.

    And further to your first response, having a capability and using the same are very different things. My point has always been that the Govt has not used the military capabilities the country has in its employ. Over time, such lack of use injects laxity into the military’s command ranks who get used to the minimal amount, and that’s been the thrust of my criticisms.

    • RK Anuj says:

      Firstly, your figures for the expense on maintaining the armoured formations is an obvious exaggeration, even if a layman were to consider the defence budget’s distribution on maintaining the army, the air and naval fleets. Secondly, and more importantly, the fact that India maintains the vast force on our rather long, troubled borders with an intransigent adversary is the very reason that you and I can afford to be so dismissive about Pakistan in the backdrop of the 70 year acrimony that I have averred to in the previous post.

      You have yourself spoken about the ” Micro wars as murderous business on the LOC” in your previous blog and about the Indian Army’s strong responses on the LAC in the present one. Are those actions not enough demonstrations of the military abilities to the adversaries? Anything more on the military front would mean an escalation to a level that I am sure you are not advocating. Or am I mistaken and it’s a war that you want? What is your exact intention behind a display of the military capabilities? The GOI need not go trumpetting about activities that go on routinely.

      • I had a hard time working out the figs for the classified study as Adviser, Defence Expenditure, I was tasked to do by the late KC Pant, Chmn,10th Finance Commission. The proportions/budgetary subventions (inclusive of payroll costs) on different mission/roles were done for the first time, and these have changed since 1995 but not all that much. The figs I produced have never been refuted. So, you should be careful about challenging them w/o any substantive basis — which, I’m sure, you don’t have.

        It is quite astonishing how you twist things to project Pak fixation on me! No Anuj@ it is not our armour-heavy formations that have kept Pak quiet. In fact, I doubt whether Pak was/is/ever can be as strong as you make it out to be — that’s your bogeyman, live with it, can’t help you there — but try and escape the thrall of using it as very thin reed to rest your case on, and for an argument sustaining the extant force structure (propped up by weak-willed govts and and a bureaucratically powerful armoured combat arm within the army). Even with this level of expenditure the state of armour/mech… well, I’ll say no more on that subject. Pak’s so-called strike forces are, if anything, in far worse state and, even if they had been fully lubricated with all the equipment money can buy but, would still pose no great threat to India. And that’s a fact. Of course, like in the Panchtantra tale, thanks to people like you with, perhaps, vested interests in the status quo and there’s a whole big policy establishment milking this thesis, India can still act the elephant frightened witless by a mouse. Where’s hope then?

  3. RK Anuj says:

    @Bharat Karnad LOL……….I knew you will come up with this, having heard a mention from you some where previously. Exactly the reason I say that you have a Pak- fixation and having done some good work in the past, are today stuck in a time warp.

    Firstly, in the period of the late 80s and early 90s, during and after the times of Gen Sunderji, the armoured and mechanised forces underwent a period of rapid expansion and modernisation. Secondly, you seem to confuse, or rather deliberately obfuscate in this forum, all strike formations with the armoured arm, which is a gross inaccuracy as they comprise nearly 2/3 of an infantry complement. Hence, your results produced in 1995, may have reflected a certain bias, which was partially true of that era. The fallacy of your so- called “bureaucratically powerful armoured combat arm within the army” will be laughed at today by even a clerk in the MoD. Nearly twenty years after ’95, its a different world out there and you haven’t still woken upto it.

    All Indo- Pak wars on the western borders have ended in stalements, with minor gains on either side and hence Pak has tried fancy tricks in the west in 47, 65 and 71. Does not really speak of such a weak military that you so cavalierly dismiss!! The bane of Pakistan has been the rather large defence expenditure that has adversely impacted its economy. At the cost of a collapsing economy and impoverished population they have maintained a larger than affordable army, which till a certain time was a rather equal challenge to the Indian Forces. It is precisely the kind of force enhancements and modernisation of the 80s and 90s…….and the fact that the Pak economy has been unable to sustain the giant it created, which now depends on foreign doles just for sustenance, leading to its inevitable weakening……..that has today enabled you to be so dismissive of it. And rightly so. But many went before you, who realised the need to create these asymmetries so that India could look beyond the pin- prick on the west, which is never going to disappear no matter how hard you try after an ostrich like fashion, and focus its energies to the north.

    So you can harp endlessly about my Pak- fixation, the truth is that it is you, who while trying to create an impression of a Pak- Fixated Establishment, refuse to look at history and contemporary times more realistically and miss the fact that stares you in the face. If it gratifies your spleen, you may gloat about the Panchtantra tales, but I earnestly recommend that you do not live in them.

  4. You seem to LOL a lot; suggests well…You really have no sense do you of the mission-costing aspects? It is a fairly regular thing done by most advanced national budgeting systems that long ago switched to them — and it is a change recommended in that report to FC accepted in toto by the 10th FC and GOI. Among the many recommendations, for instance, that are being realized belatedly was increasing navy’s budget to 20% of defence allocations which, figure is being reached some 12 yrs-odd yrs later. And pls do not talk to me of the revisions in the Sundarji plan — I’m quite aware of the force structure modifications (mainly in terms of the unaffordability of the Sundarji quantums of fast-attack hepter support, mobile arty, etc.), but the sanctioned strength of strike corps establishment, deployment pattern, etc — all emphasize the western front, or perhaps you believe the plans involve switching this bulk force to the mountains?! Indeed, the changes in armour/mech opl western front plans actually resemble something suggested in my tome. So may be, whatever you do in govt, well whatever….don’t LOL all that much or too often, because the LL may be on you. But can you laugh at yourself? Any way, end of this correspondence from my side. Keep LOLing.

    • RK Anuj says:

      Pardon me, I couldn’t help myself, your writings in the past few months since I started following, have transformed from the interesting to the hilarious to the downright ludicrous. So you do acknowledge that the expenditure in the 80s/90s was due to the then prevalent strategic bias which has changed now, by your own admission, your recommendation of a 20% outlay for the Navy being belatedly realised 12 years after ’95, that’s to say under the current establishment. What are we carping about, this being my point from the very start that the establishment in the past decade has taken quite a few strides in shifting the strategic bias away from the Pak- centricity engrained till the early 90s? You may not wish to admit, but your own arguments in this string suggest the same.

      I can indulge, if you please, on issues of mission- costing and how they affect budgeting, or about reorienting forces based on contemporary strategic thinking, but I am surely not here to display my knowledge as is your wont, or the lack of it, but to analyse issues as they exist and should progress ahead, jargon being a poor substitute for wisdom, in that pursuit.

      I do appreciate your doggedness in branding me a GOI type, in your belief that labelling me somehow furthers your arguments. Wish it were that simple, you see, sophistry has its limits. The LL may well be on me, but that’s not today, your disinclination to respond being motivated by the fact that you have tied yourself in knots with your own intellectual skulduggery!

  5. Arvind Rathnasengha says:

    I recommend:
    – Posts by readers be restricted to 100 words
    – Exchange with author be limited to two each
    Otherwise this will degenerate into vituperation, and you will drive away your readership.

    • Agree fully. You may have seen the difference in more recent blog where the more vituperative responders have either voluntarily withdrawn. In any case, meaningless tirades are not acceptable and will not be approved on this site.

  6. Garg says:

    India cannot deny China sea-lanes in Indian ocean. Not possible. India is also a continental power like China. India has no great record of maritime warfare.

    India needs to modernize Army – specially artillery, IFVs, helicopters and UAVs so that Army can fight effectively in the mountains. The roads and fire bases need to be built.

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