The Indian Navy is discretely building up its submarine capabilities. The most visible aspect of India’s programs are new nuclear-powered submarines that are being built, but beneath the surface there are other strategic steps to help ensure its Navy’s dominance of the Indian Ocean. The Navy is also reinforcing its presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, close to the strategically vital Strait of Malacca.
This is against a backdrop of heightened tensions with China. These look as if they could turn explosive at any moment despite efforts to deescalate. Most recently a border clash in the Galwan Valley left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead. The Indian Navy may be playing an active part in that crisis, far away from the sea, but its focus remains the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca.
This is critical because China’s naval power is growing, and with it the ability to project power into the Indian Ocean. Analysts see a massive increase in the Chinese Navy, known as the PLAN, over the coming years. Writing in the Sunday Guardian, Captain James E. Fanell recently predicted that the PLAN will have 110 submarines by 2030. But the Strait of Malacca will remain a bottleneck between China’s home waters and the Indian Ocean.
China’s next generation Type-095 submarines, which are approaching first launch, will get stealthier and more advanced. But more importantly, they are expected to be much larger, which translates into longer-range missions.
China’s current Type-093 Shang Class is nuclear powered, so it already has virtually unlimited range, but they are smaller on the inside than many other nuclear subs. This limits its crew and its endurance since human factors become a major constraint on nuclear submarine range.
If the Chinese Navy plans to venture into the Indian Ocean, then the larger Type-095 will be a major boost to their capabilities. China already has a naval base in Djibouti that gives it a permanent presence in the region. And there is work going on at Gwadar port in Pakistan that is rumored to include another overseas base for the Chinese Navy.
Closer to home, India’s traditional foe, the Pakistani Navy, is also modernizing and expanding its submarine fleet. This includes new patrol submarines from China, and also updating its special forces ‘X-Craft’ midget submarines.
With these emerging threats in the Indian Ocean, India’s established submarine bases needed updating. The ones on the east coast, in the Bay of Bengal, give natural protection from the the Pakistani Navy, which is on India’s western flank. INS Varsha, a new submarine base, is being built there to house India’s nuclear submarine deterrent. This is termed strategic depth. But the east coast bases are still some way away from the Strait of Malacca, which could be critical in a future conflict.
With Indian submarines now sometimes operating from Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are Indian territory much further east, they will be better placed to respond to a crisis there. Indian diesel-electric submarines are well suited to operating in the relatively shallow waters there. They could act as a buffer and forward eyes for India’s nuclear submarines patrolling the deep waters.
Source: Forbes, June 20, 2020