Indian Navy Stands at a Crossroads

By Admiral J. G. Nadkarni, Indian Navy (Retired)

Now that same service seems uncertain of its future. To understand the present predicament of the Indian Navy, one has to go back to when independent India's navy was born.

Indian Navy 1947-1965

During their 200-year rule of India, the British developed a strong native army, with more than 2 million men at the time of the Second World War. The Indian Army fought gallantly in theaters stretching from Italy to Burma during that war. The maritime defense of India, on the other hand, was underwritten by the Royal Navy. Shrewdly realizing the importance of sea power, the British never allowed the Royal Indian Navy to develop more than a small coastal force.

At the time of independence, therefore, the Indian Navy consisted of four wartime sloops and a handful of minesweepers. The naval budget was a mere 3% of the total defense budget. Fortunately, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, quickly grasped the importance of a strong maritime force and set about building one. During the next 15 years the fleet and the naval budget expanded steadily, initially with hand-me-downs from the Royal Navy and subsequently with new frigates built in British yards. In 1961, the Navy acquired the Vikrant , a Majestic-class aircraft carrier, from Britain. The naval budget also climbed steadily, reaching 12% of the defense budget by 1961.

In 1962 the Indian government decided to revive the country's long shipbuilding tradition and acquired two ship repair yards—Mazagon Dock at Bombay and Garden Reach Workshop at Calcutta—and converted them into defense shipyards to construct ships for the Navy. Mazagon began construction of Leander -class frigates in 1966; and the Garden Reach Workshop built smaller vessels.

The Russian Connection

Even after independence, the Indian Navy continued to be tied to the Royal Navy. Most senior officers were trained in the United Kingdom and continued to look westward for assistance and guidance. Lacking senior officers above the rank of captain, the Indian Navy had as its commanders-in-chief and fleet commanders officers on loan from the Royal Navy. Not surprisingly most fleet additions continued to come from Britain.

In the 60s and the 70s, however, the United States and the United Kingdom committed a series of political blunders that helped establish the Indian Navy's Russian connection. India had continued to follow a nonaligned policy during the Cold War and had refused to join any military alliances. Pakistan, India's arch-adversary, on the other hand, had become a member of CENTO and SEATO. As a result, Pakistan had received a submarine on loan from the United States. When the Indian Navy decided to set up a submarine arm of its own, its requests for hardware were rebuffed by both Britain and the United States.

Having received little encouragement from the West, the Indian government turned to an alternative source. The rift between the Soviet Union and China was complete, and the former, whose advisers had been expelled from China, was looking for an ally to counterbalance China. India was a ready candidate. The purposes of both countries were served and the political and military connection that was to continue for the next 30 years was established.

Brought up on Western equipment, India's armed forces at first were somewhat reluctant to rely on Soviet equipment, which they considered inferior. That changed in 1971. When war clouds loomed over the subcontinent, as a result of Pakistani repression in then East Pakistan, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made a trip to Western countries to seek their support. She received only tea and sympathy in the West, which was reluctant to alienate Pakistan, a firm U.S. military ally for many years. Once again India had to turn to the Soviet Union, which provided ready support and military equipment—for a price. India had to sign a 20-year "Peace and Friendship" treaty with the Soviet Union.

Over the next 20 years India's armed forces received ships, aircraft, guns, and weapons in such quantities that by 1990 more than 70% of their equipment was of Soviet origin. The Indian Navy received eight Foxtrot-class submarines, ten Petya-class patrol craft, eight Osa-class missile boats, both inshore and oceangoing minesweepers, landing craft, a submarine depot ship, and other minor vessels. It also received five 11-38 maritime reconnaissance aircraft.

The Osas, which arrived just in time for the war of 1971, enabled the Indian Navy to enter the missile age and score a resounding victory over the Pakistani Navy. The action also ended whatever apprehensions naval officers had about Soviet equipment. Assistance widened. The Indian Navy received help in setting up a modern dockyard and a number of Soviet specialists to advise on the maintenance of the newly acquired ships, missiles, and equipment.

In subsequent years the Indian Navy received five modified Kashin-class destroyers, eight Kilo-class submarines, advanced missile boats and missile vessels, and minesweepers. It also took delivery of eight huge Tu-142 maritime patrol aircraft, along with a number of Kamov helicopters for shipborne antisubmarine warfare.

Contrary to popular myth, the Indian Navy did not make any concessions to the Soviet Navy as a result of their connection. No exercises were ever conducted with the Soviet Navy nor were any base facilities offered in India for the Soviet fleet. Although a huge naval dockyard sprung up at the Navy's east coast base at Vishakhapatnam, no Soviet ship was ever refitted there.

On the other hand, all of this hardware was purchased at rock-bottom political prices with liberal credit terms. It allowed the Indian Navy to more than double its strength by the mid-1980s and emerge as the most powerful navy in the north Indian Ocean.

The purchase of Soviet equipment also meant that a large number of Indian officers were trained by the Soviets to man the ships and operate the equipment. The training extended from a few months to many years and included learning Russian. The crude Soviet efforts to indoctrinate trainees were rebuffed, but even so, a large pro-Soviet lobby emerged within the Navy that has had a profound effect on naval strategy and hardware.

The culmination of the relationship resulted in India receiving a nuclear submarine for three years for training purposes. By the 1980s India easily topped the list of countries importing arms from abroad. Foreign debt had doubled to more than $ 70 billion, not a little of it the result of arms purchases. The Indian government owed the Soviet Union more than Rs 15,000 crore ($5 billion).

Self-reliance and Indigenous Construction

In addition to the acquisition of hardware from abroad, the Indian Navy had continued its march toward self-reliance. Mazagon continued to build the Leander -class hull, although it was modified considerably in later ships. The Indian Navy also had set up a design organization at New Delhi with a nucleus of U.K.-trained officers. From modest beginnings with small patrol craft designs and modifications to bought-out designs, the organization went on to design the Godavari -class frigate, three of which were built in Bombay and which has received worldwide praise. These were followed by three improved versions, the Brahmaputra class, now being built by Garden Reach. The Naval Design Organization (NDO) also designed the Delhi -class destroyer, the first of which was commissioned in November 1997. The NDO now fully is capable of designing large warships and even submarines. Although the government and the Indian Navy have remained silent on the matter, it appears certain that the Navy is designing a nuclear-powered submarine.

In all their design and construction activities, the NDO and the shipyards have received considerable assistance from Soviet designers and equipment manufacturers. India has virtually no defense infrastructure on which it can rely. It produces some of the propulsion machinery and electronic equipment at home, but for most of the other equipment—including weapons and missiles—it must rely on foreign suppliers. As a result, Indian-designed ships tend to be a mishmash of both Western and Eastern equipment. The G o davaris, for example, have Soviet missiles, guns, and antisubmarine weapons and Western sonars, communications, and control systems, as well as some indigenously manufactured equipment.

End of the Dream?

An inkling of the present problems faced by the Indian Navy began in the early 1980s. With the arrival of Gorbachev and perestroika the cozy relationship with the Soviet Union began to wilt. The Soviets no longer were willing to offer ships at concessional prices or easy credit. They began to demand cash for the purchase of spare parts—and that either in dollars or in barter deals involving engineering goods.

In 1991 the Soviet Union disintegrated, bringing to a close a mutually profitable relationship. By now the Indian armed forces were heavily dependent on the Soviet Union for spare parts support. In the period of confusion that followed the breakup not only were spare parts difficult to obtain but the Indian government also found that it had to get its supplies from many separate countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Not surprisingly, maintenance of Soviet equipment and ships, difficult at the best of times, suffered. There also was a period of uncertainty regarding the fulfillment of contracts that Indian shipyards had entered into for the supply of weapons for ships under construction. Both the Delhi and the Brahmaputra classes slipped back a number of years while these uncertainties were resolved.

To compound the problems, the new Indian government, voted into power in 1991, began a program of economic liberalization that continues to this day. Priority was given to investment in infrastructure, power, and industry—and it came out of other areas, principally defense. The Indian defense budget stagnated for more than six years and actually has seen a negative growth.

With little money available for capital expenditure, the Navy has not ordered a single major ship for nearly ten years. In fact, the Delhi was the first major warship to join the Indian Fleet since 1988. This has built up a backlog of more than 30 ships for new construction. And not only has easy supply from the Soviet Union stopped, but indigenous construction is beginning to cost enormously. The first of the Leanders , completed in 1972, cost Rs 18 crore ($15 million in those days). Even as late as 1981, the Godavari cost a mere Rs 80 crore. The Delhi , on the other hand, reportedly cost nearly Rs 700 crore, and the next two of the class are believed to be at Rs 1,000 crore a piece. This is nearly one-third of the annual naval budget, and at these prices it is doubtful that the Indian Navy will ever be able to come up to the numbers it had in the 1980s.

In retrospect, the decision to build the three 6,400-ton Delhi -class ships appears to have been a blunder. The Navy could have continued the Godavari class at half the cost per ship, without an appreciable reduction in capability. It has now come up with a new design for a 3,000-ton "standard" frigate called the Type 17. The Navy expects to build it in numbers to replace the Leanders .

In the meantime, the list of ships, aircraft, and equipment requiring replacement is growing. The last of ten Petyas, acquired in 1967-73, will be decommissioned soon, and the first Leander , completed in 1972, has been scrapped. The carrier Vikrant no longer is operational, and the Viraat is nearly 40 years old. The Russians had offered the ten-year-old Admiral Gorshkov , reportedly for $3 billion, but the Navy considered the price exorbitant. In addition, the carrier had suffered major fire damage, and her deep draft prohibits her from entering many Indian ports. There is some talk of building a carrier at home, but this is unlikely to be commissioned until about 2010, leaving the Navy carrier-less for a period.

Even the Soviet ships that began to arrive in 1980 are coming to the end of their operational lives and are unlikely to be replaced one-for-one. The Russian connection, however, continues. In November 1997, the Indian government signed a whopping $1 billion contract with Russia for the purchase of two Kilo-class submarines and two Type 1135 Krivak III-class frigates.

The Indian Navy's share of the defense budget has stagnated at about 11-12%. With the huge Indian Army gobbling up more than 60% of the total budget, it is unlikely that the Navy will get much more for its hardware in the future.

Today the Navy finds itself on the horns of a dilemma. It requires both new ships and modern technology. The price of purchase from the West is too high for the cash-strapped service even to contemplate. The days of getting it cheaply from the East are over. India's own research and development organization is too far behind the world to provide up-to-date systems.

The Navy in the 21st Century

Even with all its problems, the Indian Navy will continue to be the most powerful navy in the northern Indian Ocean. It still has a sizable surface and submarine force. Despite the loss of one carrier, its naval aviation arm remains strong, with Sea Eagle-armed Harriers, ASW Sea King helicopters, and maritime reconnaissance aircraft to keep adjacent seas under surveillance. It is one of the few navies with an amphibious element and has demonstrated its ability to land and sustain battalion-size forces on distant shores. With its replenishment forces the Navy can sustain operations away from its bases for prolonged periods. In fact, it is the region's only blue-water navy.

On the other hand, the Indian Navy must come to terms with reality and follow a pragmatic line of action in the future. The favorable circumstances that helped naval expansion during the Cold War are unlikely to repeat themselves, and the high cost of domestic construction will limit the number of ships that can be built at home. Whatever government comes to power, India will continue on the path of market liberalization. The money needed to overhaul the Indian economy and infrastructure will come at the expense of defense and other non-priority items. Under the circumstances, the Navy has little option but to take stock of the situation, review its role, and follow a moderate course of action by which it will be able to fulfill its core missions, with few resources left over for anything else. It can continue to dominate the Indian Ocean, but it cannot be a navy for all purposes and for all seasons.

Admiral Nadkarni , who retired from the Indian Navy in 1990, after 41 years of service, is editor of Maritime International . While on active duty, he served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chief of the Naval Staff, commander-in-chief of the Eastern Naval Command, and commander of the Indian Navy’s Western Fleet.



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