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Admiral Mahan’s Concept of Sea Power: An Indian Context ; By Cmde V Venugopal Menon (Retd.)

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

Image Courtesy: The Diplomatist

Article 72/2021

The following are the excerpts from the talk delivered by Commodore V Venugopal Menon (Retd.) on Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan’s Concepts of Sea Power: An Indian Context to the students of Rashtriya Raksha University, Gujarat.


As per Adm Mahan s concepts, the principal conditions affecting the sea power of nations are Geographical Position, Physical Conformation, Extent of Territory, Character of the Population & Character of the Government. Geographical position and physical conformity are tangible factors and to India s advantage, however, the character of population and Government are both intangible and subject to variance. Having covered all these aspects in detail in my earlier paper, I would focus more on the material issues which need to be addressed by India on its path towards emergence as a credible sea power and challenges as a responsible maritime nation in the region both from the Naval and non-Naval context at the backdrop of Mahanian concepts.

Strategic location in the Indian Ocean

The geostrategic location of India makes it an important player in the region to be the first responder to crisis situations due to its transitional position in the middle of the ocean trade routes interconnecting the Atlantic and Pacific and having the Naval power to provide safety and security to trade in the region. The response to the tsunami in the Indian ocean underscored our status as a sea power and projected our capabilities. This incident was indeed a strategic awakening for India to renew the focus on the maritime domain in our area of interest. For the purpose of this talk, I have limited our area of interest pragmatically to the ocean space extending from the Strait of Hormuz to the Malacca straits.

India s Role as a Net Security Provider

The term net security provider signifies the role of a nation to provide maritime security in a region by addressing common security concerns which include dealing with transnational piracy or responding to natural disasters. Specifically, it encompasses four different activities viz capacity building, military diplomacy, military assistance, and direct deployment of military forces to aid or stabilize a situation.

Challenges for Indian Navy as a Net Security Provider  

There are many challenges that the Indian Navy face in its role as the Net Security provider viz Ability to conduct Maritime Multipurpose Operation (MMO), protecting India s coastline and safeguarding the sea lines of communications in adjoining waterways. The current resources of the Indian Navy are stretched to the limit in meeting the core commitments.

Deficiency in Conventional Force Levels 

India has a fairly robust shipbuilding plan which is generally on track and our Shipyards are doing a commendable job in delivering the ships albeit delays due to many factors. However, there is a critical deficiency in conventional submarines, Mine Counter Measure Vessels (MCMV) Landing Platform Dock ships (LPD), and shipborne multi-mission Helicopters. The Navy’s future force level plans are addressing these deficiencies hopefully.

Third Aircraft Carrier  

In order to counter growing Chinese influence and to fulfill the role of Net Security Provider in the Indian Ocean region, it is vital that the Navy invest in the third aircraft carrier to ensure that two carriers are always operational at any time for projection of power and extending maritime reach in our area of interest. It is pertinent to mention that an aircraft carrier has the flexibility to be assigned with multifarious tactical/strategic missions at sea at extended ranges for which shore-based airpower which has its limitations is not a substitute.

Nuclear Assets

India s nuclear submarine program has been a hot topic for all kinds of speculations in strategic forums. The Government has a long-term highly classified plan and I hope that there are no impediments or delays in its execution. The current force level is limited to one SSBN, the second SSBN is undergoing trials, two SSNs are planned to be leased from Russia during the next five years. I will not speculate on the future inductions of nuclear submarines as the subject is sensitive in nature.

Sealift / Expeditionary Capability

Sealift is a term used in military logistics and refers to the use of cargo ships for the deployment of military assets such as weaponry, vehicles, military personnel, and supplies. In the maritime security context, it complements the Naval Landing ships, Landing Platform Dock (LPD), Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD), etc. These civilian manned ships are chartered during times of military necessity to supplement the Navy s sealift capability. Currently, we are critically short of both Indian flagged commercial vessels and Naval assets to undertake the sealift role.

Focus on Indigenization

Only a builders Navy can strive to be a credible sea power. We cannot afford to rely endlessly on the import of military hardware and technology from foreign countries. Although the Indian Navy has made significant strides towards indigenization, there is a definite need to accelerate the process. It has to be a joint effort by the Government, Navy, DRDO, Public sector defense undertakings, and Private sector players. The Navy should play the lead role in this initiative and coordinate the activities of all stakeholders towards achieving the goals. It is also important that stakeholders are made accountable for the completion of a project successfully and in a time-bound manner.

India s Overseas Bases in Area of Interest – Indian Ocean

The overseas military base is geographically located outside of the country whose armed forces are the principal occupants. Contrary to what is projected in the media, we do not have a single full-fledged military base in the Indian Ocean. We do have observation/communications stations in Madagascar, Mauritius, and Seychelles. The need for the development of these posts into full-fledged military bases would largely depend upon the Government s strategic objectives. This vital aspect needs to be considered in the long run as any military base would be of deterrent value to counter the presence of the PLA Navy in the Indian ocean. The base would also extend the reach and provide logistics support to our Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft and Naval ships deployed in the region.  In the interim, the facilities available in overseas bases of the US & France in the Indian ocean could be utilized as per clauses stipulated in logistics agreements.

Coastal Security

India has a vast coastline characterized by a diverse range of topography such as creeks, small bays, backwaters, rivulets, lagoons, estuaries, sand bars, rocky outcrops, beaches, and small islands. The water bodies and river channels run deep inside the coasts making the shoreline highly indented. Due to their remoteness, these coastal approaches to the mainland remain unguarded thereby providing ideal spots for clandestine landings of arms, explosives, and contraband as well as infiltration by terrorists. Boats can easily land and disappear in stealth as proven during the Mumbai attacks. There are around 1376 landing points along the coast. It is important to note that there are a number of scientific research centers, nuclear power stations, defense installations, energy infrastructure, shipyards located in coastal regions, and offshore installations located off the coast which are vital for India s energy security.  Although a multi-layered arrangement of sea patrols and surveillance have been put in place viz first layer by marine police, intermediate layer by the Coastguard and beyond that by the Indian Navy, there are critical deficiencies/ shortfalls which need to be addressed.

  1. Completion of setting up of coastal radar stations

  2. Development and installation of our own AIS (Automatic Identification System) for easy fitment on small boats.

  3. A unique identification system for fishing boats and biometrics for crew

  4. Strict implementation of ISPS code (International Ship & Port Facility Security Code) in all major & minor ports

  5. Enhancement of port and container terminal security.

  6. Creation of data bank of all vessels plying in Indian waters.

  7. Integration between coastal surveillance stations Marine Police, Coast Guard, and the Navy.

  8. Equipping Marine Police with high-speed boats for quick response

  9. Urgent need to address the force level shortages of Indian Coastguard which continue to operate with aged platforms.

Commercial Element

As per the Ministry of Shipping report 2020, India has a merchant fleet of 1405 ships with a Gross Tonnage of 12784421 T and an average age of 19.9 years. The Indian shipping industry continues to be affected by chronic problems related to an aging fleet, inability to participate in critical sectors and large ticket contracts of LNG trade and carriage resulting in foreign shipping companies bagging lucrative contracts. Indian flag vessels are unable to induce more cargo from rail and road onto the coast due to economic reasons. Due to archaic policies which are not user-friendly, Indian shipping companies prefer to operate their ships under a foreign flag that needs to be addressed urgently. This post-pandemic period is an opportune moment for the Indian shipping sector to revitalize/ attend to critical challenges as many companies are moving away from China to other countries triggering a new wave of industrialization.

Ports & Infrastructure

India has 13 major ports, (12 Government-owned and 1 private- Mundra and 205 minor & intermediate ports. Ports in India handle almost 95 % of trade volumes. However, the infrastructure and efficiency of Indian ports are poor and unable to compete with major ports in the region viz Jebel Ali, Colombo, and Singapore. Shipping lines (Mainline Operators) prefer to operate in ports with deep draft, longer quays, high mechanization, and good port infrastructure. Hence the bulk of our cargo is transshipped from Jebel Ali / Colombo to Indian ports by feeder lines.  The government needs to focus and invest to address these issues urgently or else Indian ports may get left behind in attracting trade in spite of the advantageous geographic location in the Indian ocean. The same applies to operation and maintenance services at the ports viz pilotage, dredging, and other marine services.

Credible fishing fleet

Fisheries play a pivotal role in the economic development of all maritime nations. The sector contributes as a foreign exchange earner, ensures nutritional security, and generates employment opportunities. With absolute rights on the EEZ as per UNCLOS, India has also acquired the responsibility to conserve, develop and optimally exploit the marine resources upto 200 nm off our coastline. Technological lag and financial constraints had been the major bottlenecks in the delayed take-off of the deep-sea fishing industry in India. The coastal fishery sector is also facing challenges like sustainability, resources conservation, and management. The Government needs to address certain key issues to ensure optimum utilization of marine resources viz Suitable deep sea fishing policy, marketing system, Data compilation of deep-sea resources, encourage Capital investment, availability of skilled manpower, address technology gap, attend to Security challenges by installing vessel monitoring systems which have assumed significance post-Mumbai attacks.


To conclude, we need to note that Admiral Mahan s  basic concepts of the sea power of the 18th century still hold good in modern times and a nation striving to be a sea power needs to focus on all aspects that contribute to the overall strategic aim. Admiral Mahan s views were echoed by Sardar KM Panicker in his book titled India and the Indian ocean & an essay titled Influence of sea power in Indian history in which he highlighted the one-sided view of Indian history to overlook the sea and concentrate on the land borders which is prevailing even today.


“It is the oceanic space that dominates the strategy of Indian defense. But the oceanic space around India is now a gigantic vacuum. Big nations are planning to fill it in their own way”.

// Unquote – Sardar KM Panicker

(Commodore V Venugopal Menon is a distinguished member of C3S and has served in the Indian Navy for 29 years in operational roles, including commands at sea, and training and staff assignments at Naval HQ. In addition to the staff and war courses in the Indian Navy, he underwent the executive course at the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies. The views expressed are personal.)

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