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What's behind the Indian Ocean's naval arms race?

The Indian Ocean is seeing a significant, high-tech naval buildup. In the past five years, India, Pakistan, Iran, South Africa, Indonesia and Australia have all enhanced their naval capabilities, despite the minimum risk of imminent conflict. At the same time, these powers are diplomatically supporting multilateral institutions such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium.

     It is fair to say that a stable balance of naval power exists in the Indian Ocean, despite the efforts of countries outside the region to acquire increased naval access, including the construction of dual-use facilities for civilian and naval operations. Examples include U.S. and U.K. naval bases in Bahrain, a French base in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and Chinese naval outposts at Gwadar, Pakistan, and Hambantota, Sri Lanka.

     Joint naval operations against piracy and terrorism have been an important feature of the presence of outside powers in the Indian Ocean. Regional powers have also participated in multilateral training exercises, such as the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise, a U.S.-led effort to improve naval security in the international waters of the Middle East.

Moving factors   

There are several reasons for the growth in regional naval power.

     First, geographical factors are forcing Indian Ocean countries to invest in naval capability to protect their sovereignty and safeguard national interests.

     Second, states need to exercise jurisdiction and control over maritime areas defined under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, such as continental shelves, exclusive economic zones, and contiguous and territorial waters. This factor has particularly influenced countries with large exclusive economic zones and/or boundary disputes.  

     The third reason is to undertake maritime policing operations against threats and challenges posed by violent nonstate actors, such as pirates, and the fourth is to work with and protect against the naval forces of the U.S., U.K., France and China that are deployed in the Indian Ocean.

     The fifth reason is a steadily growing awareness that naval forces are important instruments for political advantage and diplomacy, not just tools for security.

     Finally, some key countries in the region are seeking to develop offensive capabilities to guarantee that a favorable balance of power is maintained.

     There is a wide disparity in the naval "order of battle" among Indian Ocean countries. Smaller nations, such as Sri Lanka and Kenya, have chosen to limit naval acquisitions to coastal security. Bigger players have broader capacities and strategies. India seeks power projection capabilities with the use of aircraft carriers, submarines and expeditionary vessels, and conducts complex operations across the sea-shore-air continuum.

Six key players   

At least six navies in the neighborhood merit attention. With over 150 ships, and nearly 50 warships and submarines under construction, India's navy is the largest in the Indian Ocean and a formidable force. India's Maritime Military Strategy sees the Indian Ocean region as the country's primary area of interest and operations, and the navy envisions long-range sustained operations supported by aircraft carriers and submarines.

     Pakistan's navy packs a strong punch and is a good example of a "lean and mean" force. Over the years, the country's naval planners have leveraged sea-denial capabilities built around submarines, along with anti-ship missiles and land attack cruise missiles, to limit India's naval power projection into Pakistan's littoral waters.

     The Iranian navy is the most powerful in the Gulf region and enjoys enormous numerical and firepower superiority over its neighbors. Iran regularly showcases new types of ships, submarines, and unmanned aerial vehicles and missiles that unambiguously exhibit its ability to deter potential enemies and project power in the region. Iran's naval order of battle supports its strategy of littoral warfare, particularly against the smaller Gulf navies, and asymmetric strategy against the more powerful forces of the U.S. and its allies that are deployed in the region.

     Among the East African Indian Ocean countries, the South African navy is better equipped than its regional counterparts. Although it has identified itself as the "Guardian of the Cape Sea Route," its focus has been on low-end maritime threats and challenges, as well as disaster response at sea.

     Australia's interests span the Pacific and the Indian oceans. It is a strong regional power and is building capability to project naval power in both bodies of water. Its naval inventory features submarines, surface combatants and expeditionary vessels. The Australian government plans to spend more than $65 billion on new vessels over the next 20 years.  

     In Jakarta, the government led by President Joko Widodo has highlighted the need for Indonesia to build a modern navy to protect national interests. The Indonesian navy is transforming itself into one with "green-water" coastal capabilities and is undertaking a variety of missions, including protection of commercial sea lanes and choke points.


The security dynamic in the Indian Ocean also has a nuclear dimension. India and Pakistan are nuclear powers and have developed naval capabilities to serve as the "third leg" of the nuclear triad, along with land and air.

     India's naval strategy envisages that conventional deterrence will prevail in normal circumstances. But should this fail, it can turn to nuclear deterrence. The navy operates one nuclear-propelled submarine, INS Chakra, and another,  the domestically built nuclear sub, the INS Arihant, will be ready in 2016. India plans to build two more nuclear submarines fitted with ballistic missiles and intends to fit short-range ballistic missiles on warships.

     Pakistan, meanwhile, has chosen to develop nuclear-tipped cruise missiles that can be launched by conventional submarines and warships. By placing a part of its nuclear arsenal on or under the sea, Pakistan hopes to obtain a notional conventional parity against the larger Indian navy.

     As a result, the emerging security scenario in the Indian Ocean presents complex challenges in both conventional and nuclear terms. While regional cooperation has prevailed, naval rivalry is intense, particularly in South Asia, where India and Pakistan are jostling for advantage. Both countries have given a high priority to nuclear weapons at sea to overcome a sense of insecurity. This has led to the permanent nuclearization of the Indian Ocean on top of the nuclear naval forces of the U.S., France, U.K. and China.

     This naval buildup, while somewhat offensive in nature, has not yet appeared to increase the odds of conflict. But even if the chances of war appear to be quite low, the competition between regional and outside powers presents major challenges that could change the Indian Ocean's security dynamic. The remedy lies in developing an inclusive functional mechanism for maritime cooperation, emphasizing safety and security as common goals under the aegis of multilateral institutions, such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium.

Vijay Sakhuja is director of the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. A former naval officer, he is the author of "Asian Maritime Power in the 21st Century" and co-author of "Climate Change and the Bay of Bengal."

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