August 20, 2011

Indian navy pumps up eastern muscle

By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - The Indian Navy is pumping up the muscle of its eastern command. Force levels along India's eastern seaboard are being built up slowly but steadily.

For decades, the navy's eastern command played second fiddle to the western command, which is headquartered at Mumbai. Long considered the navy's "sword arm" the western command cornered most of the resources and attention of strategic planners.

That appears to be changing now. Strategists are assigning an increasingly larger role for the eastern command in India's naval

strategy and foreign policy.

The enhanced attention being paid to the eastern command is prompted in part by apprehensions over China's looming naval presence in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. But it is part of India's two decades-long effort to focus its diplomatic, economic and military energies eastward as part of its "Look East" policy. Besides, the navy's new eastward orientation is also aimed at enabling India to emerge a significant player in the emerging Asia-Pacific security architecture.

The Indian Navy is the world's fifth largest. It has three commands - the western, southern and eastern commands. The eastern command, which is headquartered at Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, is home to the Indian Navy's submarine arm. A tri-services command was set up in 2001 at Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The eastern naval command has grown remarkably in recent years. In 2005, it had 30 warships under its command. Six years later, that number has grown to 50 - roughly a third of the Indian Navy's entire fleet strength. It is poised to expand further.

India's only aircraft carrier INS (Indian Naval Ship) Viraat is to be assigned to the eastern command after the refurbished Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov (renamed INS Vikramaditya) joins the western fleet. All five Rajput-class guided-missile destroyers (modified versions of Soviet Kashin class destroyers), which were with the western command have joined the eastern fleet.

The Indian Navy's only ship to be acquired from the Americans, the amphibious USS Trenton, now renamed INS Jalashwa, has been put under the eastern command. It will be joined soon by the indigenously manufactured stealth frigates INS Shivalik, INS Satpura and INS Sahyadri as well as the US-manufactured P-8I Poseidon long-range maritime patrol aircraft and the Italy-made new fleet tanker, INS Shakti.

It will be the eastern command that will take charge of India's nuclear submarines. INS Arihant, which is undergoing sea trials was constructed at Visakhapatnam. Two other nuclear submarines are reportedly under development here.

The eastern command has bases at Visakhapatnam and Kolkata. It will soon have a forward base at Tuticorin and an operational turnaround base at Paradeep. In addition to naval air stations at Dega and Rajali, the eastern command has got a new one, INS Parundu at Uchipuli, where UAVs are being deployed.

Reports in the media have hinted at a nuclear submarine naval base somewhere near Visakhapatnam. Codenamed Varsha, the project is under wraps.

The gap between the western and eastern commands appears to be narrowing. In the wake of the eastern command's rising profile and strength, the Indian navy recently upgraded the post of the eastern command's chief of staff to three-star rank, ie the same as that of his counterpart at the western naval command.

India's east coast faces six littorals - Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia - across the Bay of Bengal. Its Andaman and Nicobar Islands are scattered midway between its east coast and the Straits of Malacca.

China, though not a Bay of Bengal or Indian Ocean littoral, has been able to secure for itself a presence in these waters by building strong political, economic and defense relationships with several littoral states, including building commercial/naval port infrastructure there that have dual civilian and military use.

Besides Gwadar in Pakistan, which sits on the Arabian Sea, China is building ports at Hambantota in Sri Lanka and at Chittagong in Bangladesh. In Myanmar it has upgraded several ports including those at Sittwe, Kyaukpyu, Bassein, Mergui and Yangon and is building radar, refit and refuel facilities at its naval bases at Hainggyi, Akyab, Zadetkyi and Mergui.

China's presence in these ports may be presently benign. However, Indian analysts warn that Beijing could seek to use these ports for military or strategic purposes. Given its substantial influence in these countries, its demands could well be conceded, they say.

That would bring the Chinese navy into the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. While analysts believe that China is still several years, if not decades away from having the capability of supporting sustained naval deployment in the Indian Ocean, it is this looming possibility that India is preparing for by beefing up its eastern naval command.

Besides, building force levels of the eastern command to prepare for this contingency, the Indian navy has also been building ties through port calls and joint exercises with other Asia-Pacific navies, many of whom are China-wary.

While joint naval exercises are aimed at developing naval interoperability among the participating fleets, those between India and other China-wary navies carried out in the Bay of Bengal are also aimed at sending out a message to the Chinese navy that its possible future presence in the Indian Ocean will not go unchallenged, analysts have said.

The eastern command's participation in high profile bilateral and multilateral naval exercises has grown over the decades. Several of these have taken place in the Bay of Bengal. The Indian navy has exercised with the navies of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia since the early 1990s.

The Milan naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal include several Asia-Pacific countries. In September 2007, for the first time ever, the Indo-US Malabar exercises, which are usually held in the Arabian Sea, were held in India's eastern seaboard and included Singapore, Japan and Australia too. The Indian navy has forayed into the South China Sea, which China describes as a ‘core national interest' as well as the Pacific Ocean on port visits and for joint exercises.

However, India has denied that its joint exercises are directed at any country. In fact, it has exercised with the Chinese navy too for some years now. Indeed viewing the eastern command's growing importance only in terms of the ‘China threat' is a flawed and limited understanding of India's outlook and ambitions.

The eastern naval command's rising profile has paralleled the evolution of India's "Look East" policy. This has come a long way since its start in the early 1990s. Its geographic scope has expanded beyond Southeast Asia to include East Asia and the Pacific. Simultaneously, its content has grown beyond commerce and trade to include engagement on security and strategic issues too.

In the process, India's trade with Southeast Asia as well as East Asia has grown manifold but also its security-related engagement is increasing not only with countries like Singapore and Vietnam but also with Japan, Korea, Australia, etc. The navy has played an important role in achieving this expansion. If in the 1990s, the navy remained confined largely west of the Malacca Straits, the past decade has seen it make forays into the Pacific too. Increasingly it is engaging in multilateral exercises in waters off Northeast Asia and its vessels have ventured up to Vladivostok.

India has shown increasing capability to impact the Asia-Pacific security architecture. While still not a key player in the region, neither is it marginal. Its enhanced attention to the eastern command is aimed at providing muscle to its effort to become a major player in shaping the emerging Asian order.

But what kind of a player does it want to be? One that allows itself to be a tool in the hands of others to contain China, thereby endorsing the rivalry and balance of power-obsessed present order? Or one that pushes for a co-operative Asian security architecture that puts Asia's concerns ahead of the interests of outsiders?

Much of the global discourse on the evolving Asian security architecture has focussed on maritime rivalry and containment of China. But there is scope for co-operation given shared threats that countries face from pirates and terrorists to sea lanes and choke points. The seas provide a potential area of collaboration among Asia's naval powers. This can be used to begin building a new co-operative Asian order.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore. She can be reached at

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