Towards A Trans-Oceanic Navy

An IDC Report 


New Delhi, 15 December 2003

We welcome the recent trend of more and more retired service officers writing about defence and national security issues in the media, giving us an unbiased and informed perspective of happenings army, navy or air force –– as they affect our national security policies. Too often we have had to make do with reading the writings of the so-called security experts from the media world, with little or no understanding of the subject. Therefore it was a pleasant surprise to come across an informed and cogent article on India’s need for a strong “trans-oceanic “ maritime presence in the future. In this context the need to acquire the aircraft carrier Gorshkov is vital for the purpose. The article appeared in the Indian Express of Dec 13 and we reproduce it for the benefit of our readers. The author Vice Admiral Kailash Kohli was formerly Vice Chief of Naval Staff at Naval Headquarters. He also served as Director General Coast Guard and Fleet Commander, Western Fleet.


Naval Gazing Into The Future

By Kailash Kohli

(Courtesy: IE, Saturday 13 Dec 2003)


Why Gorshkov? Is our navy not strong enough to thrash Pakistan’s? Why do we now need to spend $650 million to acquire this Russian aircraft carrier?

The answers lie in the strategic vision enunciated by Prime Minister Vajpayee when be addressed the Combined Commanders Conference in Delhi recently. He defined India’s “sphere of influence” as spanning the Indian Ocean from Bab el Mandeb in the west to the Malacca Straits in the east. Intrinsic to this statement of our strategic interests is the fact that, like India’s foreign policy, the Indian navy’s capability cannot be Pak-centric. At best, the Pakistan navy remains an irritant in our backyard, which needs to be catered for within the overall framework of our maritime pre-occupations.

India’s sphere of influence covers a huge area of the Indian Ocean, within which our strategic maritime interests lie. These include our oil conduits in the shape of oil tankers which feed our refineries with oil from the Gulf, our merchant shipping which carries 90 per cent of our export and import trade, our offshore oil installations in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, and our outlying islands.

If one reads between the lines of the PM’s statement, his vision did not stop at merely safeguarding India’s maritime interests. What he implied was India’s ability to influence matters political and military in the region of the Indian Ocean. India may not wish to cast this influence today, or even tomorrow — the implication is that in time to come should a situation inimical to India’s national interest arise in the area of the Indian Ocean, India must have the wherewithal to project its influence beyond its shores. This implies that India must develop a navy of sufficient strength and reach to be able to project its influence — read power — to the area of concern in the Indian Ocean. Those who would scoff at this statement would do well to remember the Maldives episode.

Much has been written about “brown water navies” and “blue water navies”. Those who have been to sea will vouch for the fact that there are no such colour variations at sea. What is in fact implied is “coastal navies” — Sri Lanka, Malaysia or Pakistan are examples — or “trans-oceanic navies” — the US, Britain and France are examples. Trans-oceanic navies have the capacity to project power beyond their immediate coastal areas and must necessarily have operational air-power at sea. Obviously this air-power must extend into the far reaches of the ocean areas, and not merely in the coastal belt. Air power is required for air defence of the fleet ships, to strike enemy shipping and submarines at sea and, increasingly, to strike land targets from sea. To launch strikes on targets in Iraq, for example, the US navy deployed six aircraft carrier groups in the Gulf and the Mediterranean. Till now the Indian navy in its efforts to grow trans-oceanic has operated its carriers primarily for air defence of the fleet and strikes on enemy targets at sea. It is time to grow beyond this limitation.

An evaluation of the present air power capabilities of the Indian navy, if projected into the next decade, presents a somewhat grim picture. Our first carrier Vikrant was decommissioned a few years ago after rendering glorious service, particularly in the Bangladesh war. The only operational carrier, Viraat has a remaining lifespan of around five years. The air-defence ship on order at Cochin Shipyard will not become operational for another decade. So the Indian navy with all her missile armed ships and submarines will be in danger of sliding back from a trans-oceanic force into an extended coastal force. Would that meet the needs of our maritime defence? No!

This is where Gorshkov comes in. The Indian navy scouted far and wide for a suitable aircraft carrier before settling on it as the best option. With its potent mix of Mig-29K fighter aircraft and Ka series of anti-submarine, airborne early warning and electronic warfare helicopters, it will take our navy into the big league in one gigantic leap.

There are a number of skeptics who say we are buying an old ship and paying an extravagant amount for her refit. Regrettably their objections stem from either misinformation or a lack of knowledge in this area. One can only suggest that they confer greater faith in the naval engineers, architects, electrical and weapons experts and others who have examined virtually every nut and bolt of the Gorshkov before rendering their reports. The expression “refit” is also a misnomer. Apart from the hull, which is in excellent condition, practically every piece of machinery will be new. The engines, all eight boilers along with generators, electrical machinery, cabling, communications equipment, distillation plants will all be brand new and installed under the watchful eyes of Indian overseers. This ship will have a weapons fit to suit our requirements and will be retro-fitted with the latest anti-missile system available in the world.

Gorshkov will represent a quantum jump for our maritime capability, and will not only safeguard our interests through the crucial period when Viraat is put into retirement, but make our navy a force to be reckoned with in the Indian Ocean.

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