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Indian Navy in 2023: Challenge of Grey Zone Operations

Updated: Dec 4, 2022


On the Navy Day on December 04th, the Indian Navy will hold an ‘Operational Demonstration’ at Visakhapatnam which will be witnessed by the President of India and the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Smt. Droupadi Murmu as the Guest of Honour. Admiral R Hari Kumar, Chief of the Naval Staff will be at the helm.


Varied maritime capabilities particularly those that have been indigenously developed are expected to be displayed at the Navy Day. Indeed, the Indian Navy has made commendable progress in indigenization of platforms and is expected to increase the level in float and sense component.


In 2022 the Navy commissioned INS Vikrant which is expected to be flight ready in 2023. Several battle ships, submarines and coastal craft have been commissioned which will considerably enhance the number of combat ships of the Indian Navy.


Read Current Capability of INS Vikrant


The Navy may have burnt the ghost of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) induction of ships at a rapid pace with the fillip given in this sphere in the last few years, yet the process is continuous and if the ambition is for a 200 ship Navy there is a long way ahead.


Challenges in 2023


In 2023 however the challenge may be in the form of operations in the maritime grey zone where the large flotilla may only act as a deterrent as adversarial navies will increase their activity in the Indian Ocean Region using the allowances of the UNCLOS to advantage.


Read more on maritime grey zone operations


An increase in presence of the PLAN in the Indian Ocean region in 2022 was evident in the form of survey ships as the Yuan Wang 5 and 6 which forayed in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone and at the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota respectively as well as the Chinese civilian fishing fleet.


The creeping approach by the PLAN is well known and could see ventures going beyond the non combat ships in 2023.


Maritime Domain Awareness


To track extensive traffic in the Indian Ocean Region, the Indian Navy’s maritime domain awareness (MDA) architecture is well developed.


The Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) IFC-IOR, hosted by the Indian Navy, was established at Gurugram on 22 Dec 18 to further Maritime Safety and Security in the Indian Ocean Region and has since matured. The Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) is another layer integrated that can track the vast traffic in the Indian Ocean Region.


In tandem with the large number of aerial surveillance assets such as the P 81, recently inducted Predator drones and Navy’s own Dornier aircraft, coastal surveillance radars will also play an important role.


The grid that was set up in the wake of the 26/11 Mumbai seaborne terror attack, is expected to be effective in the current scenario with information sharing with partner navies a mutual exchange will enhance visibility. This provides the Indian Navy an opportunity for hostile interception in the High Seas or EEZ where there is a high degree of certainty only given the constraints of UNCLOS.


A Times of India Report indicates strengthening of the grid through approval of National Maritime Domain Awareness (NMDA) project at the cost of Rs 250 Crore which has received approval of the Cabinet Committee on Security recently.


The NMDA will add to the existing surveillance grid and provide the Navy a deep look and insights into movement in the Indian Ocean Region even though details of the project are not fully available.



Challenge of Hostile Interception


Hostile interception is easier said than operationally feasible. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as generally extending 200 nautical miles from shore, within which the coastal state has the right to explore and exploit, and the responsibility to conserve and manage, both living and non-living resources.


As per Article73 of the UNCLOS on Enforcement of laws and regulations of the coastal State,


“The coastal State may, in the exercise of its sovereign rights to explore, exploit, conserve and manage the living resources in the exclusive economic zone, take such measures, including boarding, inspection, arrest and judicial proceedings, as may be necessary to ensure compliance with the laws and regulations adopted by it in conformity with this Convention. Arrested vessels and their crews shall be promptly released upon the posting of reasonable bond or other security. Coastal State penalties for violations of fisheries laws and regulations in the exclusive economic zone may not include imprisonment, in the absence of agreements to the contrary by the States concerned, or any other form of corporal punishment. In cases of arrest or detention of foreign vessels the coastal State shall promptly notify the flag State, through appropriate channels, of the action taken and of any penalties subsequently imposed”.


While this provision can be used for hostile interception, there is likely to be a major confrontation management of the political, diplomatic and legal manifestations have to be accepted. This grey zone is expected to be exploited by adversarial navies to effect.


Capability Building


Capability building gaps of the Indian Navy are well known these include mainly in the field of submarines, mine clearance vessels and amphibious ships.


The Navy’s projections of 24 submarines is unlikely to be fulfilled in the coming decade or so, despite induction of the Scorpene Class and the nuclear powered Arihant class. A dated submarine fleet will hobble the Navy particularly as operational serviceability of Russian origin platforms, weapons and equipment may also be a concern given sanctions on Russian defence industry and extensive deployments and expenditure in the Ukraine War though the maritime sphere has been relatively dormant.


Read India’s Submarine Capability Review


INS Vikrant is expected to be combat capable with activation of a few Mig 29 K which will ensure that India will have at least one aircraft carrier on float and under operational conditions one for each seaboard, the Western and the Eastern.


An important facet is that of human resources capabilities with shortfall in maritime skilled manpower and the uncertainty of contribution of Agniveer scheme where 75 percent of the inductees will be leaving after four years, a model may have to be evolved in the coming year.


Preservation of Assets


The Indian Navy has adopted Mission Based Deployment (MDP) profile at seven points in the Indian Ocean covering choke points in the Indian Ocean since 2018. This round the clock deployment is expected to have a heavy toll on naval platforms.


In addition, the Indian Navy is the principal tool of the Government of India for “gunboat diplomacy,” to include a series of multilateral and bilateral exercises, coordinated patrols on the maritime boundary with neighbouring countries, ship and port visits and so on. The Navy has been an effective instrument for provision of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response in the neighbourhood as the First Responder.


The heavy toll on the naval assets may impact operational readiness which needs to be examined.


War Ready


Finally, even though this is not a, “era of wars,” as Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in the context of the war in Ukraine, yet in a binary context the onus will be on the adversary to choose the option, thus readiness for war cannot be compromised.

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