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Relevance of Integrated Sea Power in India’s Maritime Domain; By Cmde Venugopal Menon (Retd.)

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

Image Courtesy: E International Relations

Article 63/2021

The influence of Sea power is a naval warfare document published in 1890 By Adm Alfred Thayer Mahan. It details the role of sea power during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and discusses the various factors needed to support and achieve sea power, with emphasis on having the largest and most powerful fleet. Scholars considered it the single most influential book on naval strategy. The policies were quickly adopted by most major navies ultimately leading to the arms race in world war I & II. It is also cited as one of the contributing factors of the United States becoming a great maritime power. 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. Sardar Panicker highlighted the one-sided view of Indian history to overlook the sea and concentrate on the land borders which is prevailing even today.

Adm Mahan examined the factors which led to the supremacy of the sea, especially how Great Britain was able to rise to its near dominance. He identified such features as geography, overseas interests, seafaring population, and Governments to expand the definition of sea power as comprising of a strong navy and commercial fleet.  He laid emphasis on trade and how to secure shipping routes, ports, and logistics hubs with naval protection. American expansionism was influenced through his book to secure resources, airstrips, and naval highways for ships across the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Adm Mahan s concept of sea power got expanded further in the works of Norman Friedman and he defined sea power as a product of international trade & commerce, overseas bases, and merchant / naval shipping. At a micro-level from the Naval angle, it could be expanded further to include technical characteristics of the fleet, tonnages, weapon ranges, and combat efficiency/training of the crew.

Advancement of Naval fighting systems

The victory of the Royal Navy in the battle of Taranto was a pivotal point as this was the first true demonstration of naval air power. The importance of naval air power was further reinforced during the pacific campaign in World war 2.  Airpower remained key to Navies throughout the 20th century moving to jets launched from larger carriers and escorted by Cruisers armed with guided missiles. Unmanned aerial vehicles came into the foray in the last decade and have assumed significance ever since.  Roughly parallel to the development of naval aviation was the development of submarines. At first, the conventional boats were capable of only short dives but they eventually developed the capability to spend a longer period of time underwater powered by Air Independent Propulsion and later to nuclear boats. The cold war saw the development of ballistic missile submarines loaded with dozens of SLBM s.  Two major Naval battles have taken place since World war 2 viz 1971 Indo Pak war and 1982 Falklands war. The latter highlighted the vulnerability of modern ships to sea-skimming missiles and significant lessons about ship design, damage control, ship construction, and importance of extended operational logistics chain were learnt. Both wars highlighted the vulnerability of surface ships to attack by submarines.

Modern Times

In the present time larger naval wars are seldom seen since nations with substantial navies rarely fight each other. The main function of the modern navy is to exploit its control of the seaways to project power ashore. However, things are changing in the maritime domain with China flexing its muscles and displaying their hegemonic intent in South & East China sea. Further their Belt and Road Initiative has spread its web in Asia, Europe, Africa covering 138 countries and international organizations which may empower China to shape the rules and norms that govern the economic affairs of the region. The Chinese maritime expansion has resulted in the importance of oceans and seas for staging big power competition to retain supremacy.

Changing Nature of Sea power

The nature of modern day sea power is rapidly evolving in consonance with the existing balance of power undergoing a paradigm shift. The catalysts being the rapidly changing geopolitical canvas and technological developments. Both these aspects have been adequately covered by many experts and hence I would like to examine the issue solely from a maritime perspective. The importance of sea power has assumed huge dimensions in today s world as the strategic interests of countries have moved away from near shores to far off regions. Further, protection of trade & commerce including energy security has assumed center stage. This has resulted in the traditional definition of sea power expanding to cover many other facets which support sea power either directly or indirectly. The supporting factors which conjoin the sea power in a way elevate the traditional term to a new level which can be categorized as Integrated Sea power of the modern times.

United States had realized this vital aspect after WW2 and had focused on sea power in line with their overseas interests which could be considered as the only example of an integrated Sea power of modern times. China has taken a leaf out of the US example and has made a start in that direction. There are many facets that directly or indirectly contribute to a nation graduating to integrated sea power.

Overseas Bases

Overseas bases are the first mechanism of a mass network that works to maintain the control exercised by big powers. The establishment of military bases abroad enables a country to project power, intervene militarily or to conduct expeditionary warfare and thereby influence course of events abroad. The size and infrastructure of the base would govern the functions of the base viz staging operations, logistics, communications & intelligence support. However, the establishment of military bases abroad clashes with the principle of sovereignty of the state in which the base is established. Since this is against the principles of international law, US/ NATO coined the concepts of Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The VFA s and SOFA s are multilateral or bilateral agreements that generally establish the framework under which the military forces of a state can operate in a foreign country.  It is important to note that VFAs and SOFA s are not security agreements and do not address the rules of war.

US, France, and the UK are the major powers having credible overseas bases. In addition to the military dimension, the footprint also opens the gateway to natural resources and also become a significant market for the big power s exports. A naval base overseas is fundamental to control sea lines of communication, intelligence gathering and surveillance. It may be noted that having the capacity to keep these lines open is as important as ensuring the possibility of isolating critical waterways in turbulent situations.  The use of overseas bases creates a massive network that is responsible to project power beyond boundaries, increasing the capacity of response and control extra-regional security problems.

India s Strategic location in the Indian Ocean

The geostrategic location of India makes it an important player in the region for taking the initiative 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. In this paper , I intend to examine India s current status as a sea power , deficiencies , responsibilities and areas that require focus to progress into an integrated sea power.

India s Role as a Net Security Provider

The term net security provider signifies the role 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. Current resources of the Navy is stretched to the limit in meeting the core commitments.  Some of the important issues are discussed in the succeeding paragraphs.

Mismatch in Government Policy

More often than not, there is considerable variance between our foreign policy objectives and projectable maritime power. India s foreign policy promotes the look east policy but the navy is constrained by its resources to implement the Government s policy. In effect the budgetary allocations are inadequate to plan for the required force levels to comply with the country s strategic objectives.

Deficiency in Conventional Force Levels 

Indian Navy has a fairly robust ship building 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.

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 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 air power 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, second SSBN undergoing trials, two SSNs 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.  Sealift can be divided into strategic (transportation of vehicles and equipment to a staging area equipped with port facilities) and tactical (when personnel are also carried with vehicles and equipment. These civilian manned ships are chartered during times of military necessity to supplement the Navy s sea lift capability. Currently, we are critically short of suitable Indian flagged commercial vessels and Naval assets to undertake the sea lift role. Since we do not have a Marine arm, our amphibious brigades would be also tasked with the expeditionary role and hence the platforms would play the dual role of sea lift and expeditionary tasks. This capability is vital in the context of the role of a net security provider.

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 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

As stated earlier in the paper, an 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 (there are reports in the media on plans to develop Agalega island into a Naval base for joint use) and Seychelles. The need for development of these posts into full fledged military bases would largely depend upon the Government s strategic objectives. This vital aspect need to be considered in the long run as any military base would be of deterrent value to counter the presence of PLA Navy in the Indian ocean. The base would also extend the reach and provide logistics support to our Maritime Reconnaissance aircrafts and Naval ships deployed in the region.  In the interim, the facilities available in overseas bases of US & France in 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, back waters, 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 remains 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 of our own AIS (Automatic Identification System) for easy fitment on small boats.

  3. A unique identification system for fishing boats and 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 on to the coast due to economic reasons. The fault lies in short-sighted policies of the Government which are aimed at short-term revenue generation and not long-term nation building efforts. Due to archaic policies which are not user friendly, Indian shipping companies prefer to operate their ships under foreign flag which needs to be addressed urgently. This post-pandemic period is an opportune moment for 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. Consequently, the expansion of manufacturing hubs linked with global supply chains would also increase demand for the shipping industry.

Ports & Infrastructure

India has 12 major ports, (6 on the east coast and 6 on the west coast) and 200 minor ports. Ports in India handle almost 95 % of trade volumes. However 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 (Main line Operators) prefer to operate in ports with the deep draft, longer quays, high mechanization and good port infra structure. Hence bulk of our cargo is transshipped from Jebel Ali / Colombo to Indian ports by feeder lines.  Government needs to focus and invest to address these issues urgently or else Indian ports may get left behind in attracting trade inspite 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. The container transshipment hub being developed by Adani at Vizhinjam port is nearing its final stages. It is important that Ministry of Shipping task a team to do a detailed study and recommend the business model for operation of the port with the aim of competing with Colombo port. The aim should be to attract main lines to make direct calls to Vizhinjam instead of discharging at Colombo or else Vizhinjam would turn out to be another white elephant.

Credible fishing fleet

Fisheries play a pivotal role in the economic development of all maritime nations. The sector contributes as 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 coast line. Technological lag and financial constraints had been the major bottlenecks in the delayed take-off of 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 has assumed significance post-Mumbai attacks to name a few.

Proposed Way Ahead

  1. As a precursor, the Cabinet Committee on Security needs to expeditiously work on the formulation of a credible integrated maritime strategy after determining our area of interest in the Indian Ocean region. It is advisable to designate a core committee of professionals from the Ministry of Defense (Navy), veterans of standing and think tanks to work out the military component of the draft maritime strategy.

  2. Concurrently the ministry of Shipping and fishing be tasked to formulate the commercial element that supports the maritime strategy.

  3. Once the broad parameters are deliberated and finalized at the CCS, other ministries like Finance and Human Resources could be conjoined to finalize a white paper for approval of the Parliament.

  4. Integrated sea power contributes to a nation s economy and overall standing globally. Hence it is critical for all stakeholders to be fully engaged from its evolution to execution.

  5. Once the overall objectives are finalized, the execution plan has to be formalized, priorities drawn, scheduled, budget spread over a period in order to complete the process in a time bound manner notwithstanding the changes of tenure based guard at New Delhi.

  6. In the absence of a well conceived long term plan , we will continue to be tied down by our short term and reactive policies to counter threats in the maritime domain.

  7. Most importantly, a political will is most essential to bring about a paradigm shift in our maritime strategy. Once implemented, successive governments need to give unstinted support to its successful completion notwithstanding political ideology.


In conclusion, I would reiterate that a country s sea power is not limited to the striking capability of the Naval wing of its defense forces connoting acquisition and effective deployment of assets. At the highest level, the Integration of roles between the three services is imperative for the successful implementation of a nation s overall defense strategy.  Maritime strategy is a component of the defense strategy and it too cannot be viewed in isolation from the other sea faring enterprises such as ports and infrastructure, merchant marine ensuring unhindered passage of trade, exploitation of fisheries and mineral wealth, Coastal security and overseas bases. All these facets add on to a country staying power and sphere of influence in the maritime domain. Hence integrated sea power has two dimensions viz intra defense; and integration with nondefense sea related policies and activities of a country. Most importantly all allied factors that encompass an integrated sea power are significant contributors to a nation s economic growth as well. Hence any investment towards becoming an integrated sea power serves a dual purpose of maritime security and contributes towards a nation s economy.  It is pertinent to state that all stakeholders have to jointly work out a long term vision and a strategy to achieve this aim. India can no longer afford to ignore the maritime domain in the current geopolitical scenario anymore. Any power vacuum in the Indian ocean would be capitalized and exploited by big powers and we cannot afford to remain a silent spectator. Investment in the maritime domain is inescapable for India so as to graduate on to becoming a responsible and credible integrated sea power in the region.

(Commodore 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 in this article are personal.) 

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