Trump visit: US can help India shore up its naval power

Just before the American  president  sets  course for India, a senior US official noted  that  the US wants an India that is strong with a capable military that supports peace, stability, and a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region, writes Cmde C Uday Bhaskar (retd) for South Asia Monitor 

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US President Donald Trump is making his first visit to India on Monday  (February 24)   arriving  at  Ahmedabad, where he expects there would be "10 million people" to welcome him for a mega civic event dubbed ‘Namaste Trump'. The Trump team will then proceed to   Delhi on Tuesday (February 25) for the formal bilateral summit dialogue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The  Trump visit follows in the wake  of his predecessors in the White House,  going back to Bill Clinton, George Bush and most recently Barack Obama – who made two visits, including one as chief guest for the Republic Day parade.  A US presidential visit to India  has a certain politico-diplomatic symbolism and strategic significance and the officials on both sides burn the proverbial midnight candle to have some major takeaways that are formalized during the visit.

The truly big-ticket item in the till recently troubled bilateral relationship was the 2008 civilian nuclear agreement and this was steered by the political perspicacity and quiet resolve of the Bush-Manomohan Singh combine with little or no flamboyance.

The Trump visit is very different and the public diplomacy element is very visible. On the more substantive side, the boxes have been ticked and it is expected there will be no major trade deal or breakthrough in the impasse over tariffs and India’s unhappiness at  being brought into the grouping of developed nations.

Its is in the security and strategic domain that the bilateral remains robust and the emphasis on the maritime dimension is evident. It may be recalled that the 2005 rapprochement in the bilateral was driven by strategic considerations within the US security establishment over the rise of China and enabling India was seen as the more viable option.

This orientation continues in the bilateral and just before the American  president  sets  course for India, a senior US official noted  that  the US wants an India that is strong with a capable military that supports peace, stability, and a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. He added: "Indeed, India is a pillar of our Indo-Pacific strategy.”

To that extent one of the arms sales that will  be announced will be a nearly USD 3 billion worth helicopter deal – 24 anti-submarine choppers for the Indian Navy (IN)  and six attack helicopters for the Indian Army. The induction of the  Seahawk helicopters will be a shot in the arm for the navy  where there has been an acute shortage of such platforms, thereby affecting the operational profile of the navy.

This draws attention to a structural element  of India’s ability to be a truly credible "pillar" in the Indo-Pacific and the constraints on the tangibles that Delhi brings to the table. Given its maritime connotation, military credibility in the Indo-Pacific expanse would be derived from inherent naval and space-based surveillance capability and some recent developments merit notice.

In December Indian Nav chief Admiral Karambir  Singh made some  thought-provoking observations in relation to budget allocation and the need to re-evaluate platform numbers as envisioned in the navy's Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP) for 2012-27. The plan to field  200 warships, he noted, would have to be trimmed given that the  navy’s share of the  defence budget has steadily  shrunk from 18 percent in 2012 to approximately 13 percent in the FY 2019-20.

In a pithy response to media queries about  whether 175  warships could "realistically"  be expected to be in  service by 2027, Admiral Singh  termed the figure “optimistic.” Clearly the current budgetary allocation of under 14  percent is grossly inadequate to sustain the growth in platforms that the Indian Navy is seeking.  

Apropos the Trump visit,  two China-related strands provide the larger context to locate the predicament of the navy. China is the primary referent for the US-India partnership in the emerging strategic environment of the Indo-Pacific and Admiral  Singh made a nuanced but import-laden statement in his December media engagement. Specific to the relative growth profiles of the Chinese and Indian navies, he  opined :  “They are doing what they have to do and moving at the pace they are capable of. We will move at the pace that we are capable of.”

The first strand  referred to pertains to the Chinese footprint in the IOR (Indian Ocean Region)  and the growth profile of the PLAN (Peoples Liberation Army Navy ) over the last decade. These include the historic anti-piracy operations of the PLAN in December 2008  when PLAN ships entered the Indian Ocean for the first time in the modern period to the  creation of the first overseas Chinese military base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, and supplying two submarines to Bangladesh.

The active Chinese naval presence in the IOR  and the political-economic-military engagement with the IOR littoral states is steadily increasing. This is further embedded in the more ambitious BRI (Belt Road Initiative) that has the personal imprimatur of  Chinese President Xi Jinping.  Thus, the  Indian Navy  will have to arrive at the most optimum modus to ensure that this visible and steadily increasing PLAN presence in the IOR does not adversely impact core national interests. Reports  about a Chinese research vessel possibly gathering oceanographic data in the waters off  the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and having to be encouraged to leave by the IN are illustrative of such exigencies that could arise in the years ahead.

Specific to the "pace" at which China is seeking to enhance its naval capability, a recent US estimate avers that, as of 2018,  the principal combatants of the PLAN exceeded 400 – being 330 plus surface ships and 66 submarines. The corresponding US Navy figure was 283 – comprising 211 surface ships and 72 submarines.  This estimate adds that at the current Chinese shipbuilding rate, the PLAN will in all likelihood by 2030 field 550 major platforms – 450 plus ships and 99 submarines. This study also avers that the USN may at best reach a figure of 355 ships and submarines in the same time-frame – but the matter is still a work in progress.

The second strand that merits attention is the larger objective of the transformation that the PLA is currently pursuing. The Chinese White Paper on defence (issued mid 2019)  stated  that “the PLA is striving to transform from a quantity-and-scale model to that of quality and efficiency, as well as from being personnel-intensive to one that is S&T-intensive.”

China has acquired a "pace" that could well be described as blistering  and resolute even as Beijing pits itself against the USA. India needs to define what is the most optimum and sustainable  "pace" it needs to acquire to  be able to maintain credible presence in the IOR in the first instance, and the manner in which the US can enable this pursuit.

The Trump visit could provide the trigger-pulse for an  ontological review of fiscal allocation and India’s composite military capability that will be the "pillar" which has been envisioned.

(The writer is Director, SPS)