By Colonel Awadhesh Kumar, Special Forces Veteran
A recent article tried to propagate that the Chinese Navy outguns the Indian Navy with four to one superiority. The article emphasized the fact that the mighty People Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) has 283 major surface combatant warships whereas the lowly Indian Navy can muster only 66 major warships. Then through a claimed analytical process which seems to be nothing more than just adding the numbers, it concluded that Chinese Navy was vastly superior. The on-going media blitz and boasting by Chinese tabloid the Global Times, half-baked articles on the subject and the actual visible growth in Chinese Naval activity in the Indian Ocean Region have also helped people in coming to this highly erroneous conclusion.
The article mentions that China’s widening naval capabilities compared to India can be seen in the context of the PLA-N’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean region. Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean has touched a new high in recent months. More than a dozen PLA-N warships, submarines and intelligence-gathering vessels have been seen in the Indian Ocean in the last few months.
As per JANES Fighting Ships and other sources, PLAN boasts possessing 492 Ships and 232 Auxiliaries of all types. Out of these presently only following major Ships and Submarines can be considered fit for active combat duties in the open high seas:
25 x Destroyers
37 x Frigates ( 27 x 4050 Tons and 10 x 2400 Tons)
43 x Corvettes
11 x Major Mine warfare Ships
14 x Replenishment Ships
06 x Nuclear powered Attack Submarines(SSN)
04 x Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN)
43 x Conventional Submarines( 12 Kilos, 13Song and 18 Yuan class)
04 x LPD(25000T)
25 x LST ( 4800T)
04 x LST ( 4100T)
Thus PLA-N has 25 Destroyers, where as India has just 12. These Destroyers are the frontline warships of both the Navies that possess long range surveillance systems, target acquisition system, weapon systems, long range with endurance and capability to carry out land attack, missile defence, and surface and anti-submarine warfare. Just a wee bit less in capabilities are the Frigates of any Navy and The PLA-N has 37 frigates compared to India’s 14. Then comes the Corvettes meant mainly for defensive operations as they cannot operate very far from own shores. In this category India has around 25 ships compared to 43 modern ones of the Chinese.
Compared to China, in other departments, the Indian Naval strength is presently as under :
04 x Mine warfare ships ( on verge of retirement)
04 x Replenishment Ships
01 x Nuclear powered Attack Submarine
01 x Nuclear Powered Ballistic Missile Submarine
14 x Conventional Submarines( including KALVARI)
01 x LPD
05 x LST( 5000 T or more)
However before even thinking of venturing into the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the vast reaches of the Indian Ocean, the Chinese Navy has to first ensure the Naval Defences of a vast Coastline of 14500 kms from Bohai Gulf in the North to the Gulf of Tonkin in the South. The coast line covers the East of China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea and South of China Sea. The Chinese also have an EEZ of 2oo Kms from its Coastline. Apart from the coastline are the much disputed Sprately Islands, Parcel Pratas, Macclesfield Bank and the Scarborough Shoals all comprising around 250 small islands, atolls, shoals, reefs and sand bars….nearly all heavily disputed and contested. China claims the entire South of China Sea as its own lake. The oil and gas now found in these areas have further added fuel to the fire. Thus apart from the Ships of the powerful 7th Fleet of the USA and the might of the Japanese Navy, China also has to contend the Navies of all those countries with claims on the 250 islands.
These countries are Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea and Indonesia as major contenders and Malaysia,Cambodia, Singapore and Brunei as minor contenders. The total sea area from Taiwan Strait to Malacca is around 3500000 sq kms.
Next comes the choke point of Malacca Strait which is itself around 900km in length through which passes more than one lac ships per year carrying nearly 40% of the world trade and 25% of oil trade. Nearly 90% of the imported oil of both China and Japan from the Gulf pass through this strait whose narrowest point is just 2.5 km wide somewhere near Singapore. Thereafter the distance from Singapore to Madagascar is nearly 7758 km and from Gulf of Aden to Singapore it is again 7099 km. Also the distance from Singapore to Gwadar Port in Pakistan is nearly 6316 km. The entire Chinese to and fro trade with Asia, Africa and Europe passes through the Malaccan choke point and again the next choke point at Hormuz and the through the lengthy shipping lanes within the Indian ocean astride the Indian Peninsula which is like an unsinkable aircraft carrier.
So one can easily see that after securing its shorelines, the 3500000 SQ Km of disputed sea space around the “CHINESE LAKE”, the Chinese Navy will hardly be able to spare a maximum of not more than 20 % of its blue water capable ships for combat in the Indian ocean and for protection of Malacca strait. This means just 5 x Destroyers, 7 x Frigates and 9 x corvettes. Out of these most of the corvettes and minimum of two destroyers and two Frigates will have to be left within the Malacca strait. So what will be challenging the Indian Navy …..Just 3 x Destroyers and 5 x Frigates that too without air cover. On the other hand except for a few missile Corvettes to deal with the Pak Navy, the entire Indian Navy will be there to not only take on the Chinese flotilla but to interdict its entire merchant shipping operating within the Indian Ocean. The Indian Navy will be operating not only with the air cover provided by its own aircraft carrier but that by the IAF also.
In comparison to China, India has a coast line of only 5425 km on the main land and 2090 km on the islands. It also has a 200km EEZ comprising approx 2305100 SQ Km. However nearly the entire area of interest can be dominated by the IAF by Surveillance and very soon by strike too. Also except Pakistan, India has no maritime dispute with any of its neighbours. All maritime boundary issues have been resolved mutually. So Indian Navy can totally concentrate on any outside adversary because just a few Corvettes together with our Coast Guard will be able to tackle the Pakistan Navy.
China now possesses the Liaoning, a Soviet-era warship it purchased from Ukraine and commissioned in 2012 following refit. After four years of testing, the Liaoning conducted its first ever live-fire drills on December 16, 2016. It also conducted similar drills in the disputed South of China Sea on January 3, 2017. Here it is reiterated that the Liaoning just cannot venture into the Indian Ocean, it is just incapable of doing so. At best it can operate, if at all, along the Chinese coastline only. So till China commissions its second aircraft carrier and fully integrates it by say 2024, India will continue with superiority in this department. Further by 2024, India will already be operating two carriers with a third one with nuclear propulsion around the corner.
Ultimately, Beijing is likely to build at least a half-a dozen aircraft carriers and therefore leaving no choice for India but to go in for one aircraft carrier for each of the Naval Commands, one for Andaman command, one for the Mauritian outpost and one for the Cam Ranh Bay outpost, bringing the total to six .
The Indian Navy has already finalised the specifications for the construction of INS VISHAL an indigenous carrier. It will be nuclear-powered, weigh 65,000-tonne and carry much larger number of aircrafts than VIKRANT and VIKRAMADITYA. So later on even with six Carriers, PLAN will not be able to operate more than two carriers in the Indian Ocean. Against these Carriers we should be able to field at least three carriers and then we will have our airbases on mainland and Andaman to go after the Chinese Fleet with BRAHMOS and other missiles.
Yes, two departments where Chinese seem to enjoy an edge over the Indian Navy are the Replenishment & Logistic Ships and Submarines. Against 4 x LPD of PLAN we just have one JALASHWA. However decks have already been cleared for 4 x LPDs. MoD now must ensure that orders are at once placed on both Reliance Defence and L&T for two LPDs each simultaneously. This will give 4 x LPD to IN in a much shorter time frame. Any way in near future we do not plan to go deeply into South of China Sea and therefore LPDs can take their time to materialize. We need to augment our Amphibious lift capability but there is no hurry as we do not plan to go into South of China Sea in Force, not at least in the foreseeable future.
Though the construction of Mine warfare vessels already cleared, need to be done on war footing at Goa Shipyard.
However Submarine warfare is much more important and has the capability to tilt the balance heavily in favour of the Chinese. Out of the six Nuclear powered SSNs PLAN can send up to three into the Indian Ocean along with 10 to 12 or even more Conventional Submarines. Out of these the KILOS are especially lethal. To counter these IN has just 1 x Nuclear Powered SSN and 14 conventional ones.
Hence the Indian action plan should be to place an immediate order for 12 more P8I LRMR aircrafts to augment the existing squadron of 12. Also we need to add two squadrons at the minimum of MRMR aircrafts. Side by side, Mazagaon be asked to construct three more Scorpions and Reliance Defence another three, to give us a total of 12 Scorpions in the next five years. Similarly Mazagaon needs to establish the second submarine line and construct six Lada class subs with another six to be supplied by the Russians directly or through MAKE IN INDIA. GoI has already given the go ahead for 6 x Nuclear powered SSNs but it is likely to take some time. Therefore to supplement INS CHAKRA there is need to take three more SSNs on lease from Russia or do we TEST the Americans by asking them for two and get one from Russia.
Indian Navy’s force structure must give it the capability to dominate any other naval power within the Indian Ocean Region including any external Naval Power which tries to operate in the IOR or is in transit. When Cholas ruled the waves then total peace prevailed throughout the IOR including South of China Sea.
India’s areas of maritime interest is the complete Indian Ocean, comprising the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, Andaman Sea, South-West Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea and chokepoints such as the Strait of Hormuz and Strait of Malacca.
The PLA-N growing area of operations in this region places it in direct competition to India’s defined interests. However, it’s important to note that the PLA-N just cannot protect and secure the South of China Sea and East of China Sea, which it claims as its territories and is embattled in a bitter dispute with neighbouring countries including the US and at the same time confront India in the IOR.
In case things ever flare up in the Himalayas or Chinese try anything funny in J& K in collusion with the Pakis then the best way to teach them a lesson would be to take the battle into the IOR. The CHICKEN NECK of China …….their trade shipping lanes from Gulf/Africa to Malacca can be easily turned into a delicious Chinese Chow Mein of the Indian Variety.