Thursday June 13, 2024

Contemporary warfare: A view from the sea

By Muhammad Azam Khan
July 04, 2016

The concept of warfare has been undergoing a perpetual transformation since the end of cold war. Connectivity in a borderless world brimming with transnational challenges has precipitated changes occurring at a breathtaking pace. In twenty first century, maritime domain has emerged as the principal arena of contest and cooperation between states. In strategic defence documents of principal powers, Indian and Pacific oceans now appear as single inseparable entity. The term “Indo-Pacific” or “Indo-Asia-Pacific” is at the heart of discourse in documents of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, India and others.

“Indo-Asia-Pacific” figures prominently in March 2015 US Cooperative Sea Power Strategy. It draws from Obama’s 2012 Asia pivot or “rebalancing” that calls for re-orientating 60 per cent of US naval and marine forces from Atlantic to Pacific by 2020. “Re-balancing” also assigns India as Washington’s strategic partner and a “regional anchor and provider of security” for broader Indian Ocean. Call it coincidence, China’s Military strategy paper; an unofficial document was also published in March 2015. Conducted by a Beijing-based think tank, the study reflects China’s contemporary thinking. “The seas and oceans bear on the enduring peace, lasting stability and sustainable development of China. The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests”, asserts the document.

Over one trillion dollar worth of trade transits through the maritime highways of the Indian Ocean each year. More than 5 trillion dollars of commerce travels through Pacific annually. Asian, Pacific and Far Eastern economies are dependent on fossil resources imported through the western half of the Indian Ocean. An unraveling Middle East, Iran’s integration in the international world order, Saudi-Iran friction, war in Yemen, China’s toehold in Gwadar and close encounters between US and PLA Navy in South China Sea besides institution of Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) and Trans Pacific-trade Partnership (TPP) are only to name a few recent significant events transpiring in the region.

Two nuclear neighbours with never ending rivalry sit on the shores of the western Indian Ocean. The US now provides India with unprecedented nuclear, defence and economic opportunities. The two are partners in the regional maritime security as well. The US and Indian navies regularly conduct large scale naval manoeuvres with carriers, nuclear submarines and frontline warships from both sides participating to hone joint operational skills. Through induction of nuclear submarines, India has nuclearised the Indian Ocean as well.

In their contemporary redefined role, all modern navies, including Indian navy are now structured to play crucial role in support of land battles. From “at” sea it is now more “from” the sea. The era of “blue water engagements” or full-scale wars has largely receded as much on land as at sea. Reason is simple-globalisation and connectivity makes it hard if not impossible for international community to easily digest any conflict which may hinder movement of commerce at sea. With over 95 percent of intercontinental trade in goods traveling through sea and connecting roughly 4,000 major ports across the globe, it makes sense. However future remains unpredictable.

Through forward presence, navies act as defender of global interconnected supply chain system- a role which land and air power cannot sufficiently address. In broader context, given their inherent characteristics like versatility, sustainability and flexibility, a navy acts as instrument of diplomacy, deterrence, and sentinel of a nation’s maritime interests all at the same time. Navies can also be available in hostile waters at short notice and quickly withdraw without leaving a political footprint. This is what distinguishes a navy from land and air forces both of which cannot make such contributions short of physical war.

What will be the shape and size of Pakistan Navy (PN) by 2020 vis-à-vis maritime landscape in Indo-Asia-Pacific, CPEC and Indian navy? Addressing the issue will require a separate study. But suffice it to say that PN’s trifling 11-12 percent apportionment from the defence budget will certainly require a wholesale review. The current inventory of PN surface ships includes four Chinese F-22 P frigates, a collection of four outmoded former Royal Navy Type 21 destroyers and one 30 year old US frigate that was stripped of its weaponry before being sold to PN. By 2020 the Navy will be left with only 4/5 frigates. These platforms are deemed grossly insufficient given that Pakistan and China’s sea trade volume is projected to rise phenomenally and PN will be required to ensure presence far and wide for protection of trade and as deterrent value. Additionally, PN over and above the port security of Gwadar will also be involved in protection of coastal infrastructure allied to CPEC.

Though a contract of Chinese submarines was recently signed, two critical issues must be kept in perspective. The impact that CPEC and fully functional Gwadar port may have on future operational needs of PN and second, Indian navy’s phenomenal expansion and collaboration with the US Navy. The Indian Navy is eyeing at a 200 ship navy with three carrier task force built around nuclear submarines and guided missile destroyers/frigates within the next decade or so. Over 130 major warships are currently held by Indian Navy while two nuclear submarines are already operationally integrated.

India recently test fired 3,500 Km Arihant based submarine launched ballistic missile, K-4. Once armed, the fleet of Indian nuclear submarines will soon be able to cover entire Pakistan with their ballistic missiles fired from either the eastern or western quadrant of the Indian Ocean. Pakistan’s Shaheen III with a range of roughly 2,700 Km cannot reach India’s south. The Indian multi-layered ballistic missile defence shield further compounds the strategic differential. The successful test firing of an indigenously developed supersonic interceptor missile by India on May 15 this year is instructive. The interceptor, a 7.5-metre long single stage solid rocket propelled guided missile equipped with a navigation system, a hi-tech computer and an electro-mechanical activator, engaged a target which was a naval version of Prithvi missile launched from a ship anchored in Bay of Bengal, taking up the trajectory of the “hostile ballistic missile”. The supersonic missile destroyed the “hostile missile” in mid-air.

The strategic balance of power in South Asia is eroding rapidly. And it is naïve at best, if not unwise, to believe that Indian naval built up is China specific as certain quarters in defence establishment think. For Pakistan, the answer to the increasing deterrence gap rests in a submerged platform at sea duly armed with ballistic or a cruise missile that could reach India’s key industrial centres or strike in the enemy’s south. And, to say that Indian Navy will remain largely “idle” in Pakistan specific “cold start” is also unsound in judgment. If past is any guide, during the Kargil war not only the entire Western fleet of the Indian Navy was mobilised, elements from Eastern fleet were quickly asked to join and bolster the armada. The entire force was later positioned roughly 150-200 miles south of Makran coast in threatening posture. Urgent drills were also conducted to land Sea Harriers on merchantmen.

Anxious as they are at China anchoring in the Indian Ocean at Gwadar, both the US and India are rushing to expand their strategic maritime security alliance. During his recent visit to India, the US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter signed what has come to be known as Lemoa, “Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement”, one of the three foundation agreements the US proposes to conclude with India. The other two are the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (Cismo) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (Beca) for geo-spatial intelligence. The United States has been pressing India to sign Lemoa for a decade. Under Lemoa, the two sides can access supplies, spare parts and services from each other’s land facilities, air bases, and ports, which can then be reimbursed.

The two leading American think tanks, Brookings Institution and Carnegie Endowment for International peace now function in India through their respective chapters set up since 2013. Both render recommendations to Indian policy makers. According to scholars, “it is reasonable to surmise that the policy advice proffered by these two organisations will, at a minimum, be in tune with the US interests and geopolitics”. In other words, through influence the two will provide a rock-solid platform for the US to advance its agenda in Indo-Asia-Pacific.

CPEC promises great hope for Pakistan and China. But CPEC is linked to connectivity with regions via maritime highways of the Indian Ocean. CPEC will also stimulate a greater and robust presence of PLA Navy in the region. Consequently, PLA Navy will become a “two ocean” Navy, something that is now the principal anxiety in New Delhi and Washington. Under CPEC, security of Gwadar port is already with Pakistan Navy. PN and PLA Navy could forge strategic collaboration in R&D, bilateral exercises, production of warships beyond F-22P, coastal defence as well as sea bed exploration in EEZ. These should be underpinned by projects in socio-economic sphere along the Makran coast.

The expansion in coastal infrastructure and indispensable need to protect sea commerce will proportionally increase future maritime operational needs of Pakistan Navy. This will necessitate a commensurate increase in size and shape of the service. The developing geo-political and economic environment in the region calls for a comprehensive review of likely future wars in the Indian Ocean and impact on Pakistan. 

The writer is a freelance columnist and regular contributor for national dailies as well as international magazines/journals.