How is India matching China’s anti-access area denial capabilities?

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India has concerns at China’s increasing foothold in its sphere of influence with political, economic and civil and military technology power and prowess. India’s most accessable sphere of influence is its immediate neighbors where India has security stakes. Besides China’s penetrations into India’s immediate neighborhoods, India is also worried at China’s gradual all-pervading presence in the Indian Ocean where China was not in sight even in the 1980s.

China and India fought on the land a brief but full scale war in 1962.The Line of Control (LoC) and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have had always a disputed status flaring up with brawls at the border. Similar situation also prevails along the disputed McMahon line separating India’s Arunachal Pradesh and China’s Tibet autonomous region. The clash at Galwan River valley on June 15, 2020 was the deadliest since the end of the 1962 war. In the context of prevailing contentious conditions, Indian strategists persistently call for balanced military preparedness at sea, in the air and on the land to ward off “belligerent China and Pakistan specific threats”.

Until the 1990s, India had the lone troubled land frontier with China. By the turn of the 20th Century the Indian Ocean became India’s new frontier due to China’s increased naval manoeuvers. India-Pakistan borders have been confrontational since 1947. They fought three declared wars in 1948, 1965 and 1971 and one undeclared Kargil War in 1999. The war of 1971 witnessed a couple of naval engagements not seen in previous wars.  The most significant operations were the sinking of INS Kukri and PNS Gazi, naval blockade of Pakistan and India taking the war close to Pakistan’s shore and attacked Karachi harbour on 5 December 1971.

Over the decades the advances in civilian and military technology around the world has transformed the concept, character and conduct of wars. In the maritime domain surface, sub-surface and air space are one integrated battle space. In the competition for the dominance of the battle space and defending the center of gravity, the kinetic values resulting from the dynamism of ‘Anti-access (A2)’ and ‘Area Denial (AD)’ capabilities are key indicators.

On the oceanic front China has exceeded India in terms of A2/AD capabilities. China has the largest navy in the world per number of ships and second by tonnage - only behind the US Navy. China’s naval aviation has been on the double march since 2000. It now possesses second largest carrier fleet with two operational carriers and one waiting to join the fleet. First carrier Liaoning was commissioned in 2012; Shandong, the second carrier in 2019 and the third flat deck 80,000 ton Fujian (Type 003) having electromagnetic catapult and arresting devices is going through trials to join the fleet in late 2025 or early 2026. The fourth, Type 004, possibly with nuclear propulsion is reportedly under construction. China planned to have six aircraft carriers by 2030/2035. H I Sutton, an online based open source intelligence site reported on 15 May 2024 about the world’s first ever dedicated drone carrier being built by China.

India starting carrier operation in 1961 now lags behind the dragon. India has two operational carriers. INS Vikramaditya is a Soviet era Kiev-class carrier. Construction of domestically built INS Vikrant was approved in 1999. Order was placed with Cochin Shipyard in 2004. Its keel was laid in 2009, launched in 2013 and commissioned in 2022. Indian Navy wishes to have its fleet operating around three carrier task groups. There were talks to build domestically the 65,000 ton third carrier INS Vishal by 2030. There was debate whether to opt for aircraft carrier or nuclear submarine.

China has the lead in carrier and submarine arms including surface ships. India has difficult choices to match as the fire spitting dragon is increasingly lurking in the waters around it

India’s Defence Minister in the context of China racing with aircraft carrier fleet has cleared the dilemma in a statement on 16 May 2024. India will build the third carrier similar to INS Vikrant, will not stop there but build five or six more. By the time the third carrier construction gets started and joins the fleet, Vikramaditya could be at the end of its effective combat life. Therefore, it looks quite tricky to solve the equation of three aircraft carrier any time soon.

Chinese carrier technology is leapfrogging while India suffers inertia syndrome. Ambition for eight or nine aircraft carrier seems to be more of political rhetoric for now. “Given the cost and the time taken to design, build, outfit and operationalise a carrier, it is also unlikely that the Indian Navy will operate a fleet of eight or nine carriers at the same time. Some of these future ships, if built, will likely replace the navy's existing carrier fleet (Business Standard online 16 May 2024).”

India also encounters difficulties with submarine fleet expansion. After the Kargil War, India’s cabinet committee on security approved the building of 24 submarines by 2030 and its implementation began after eight years. In 2007, the Indian government cleared the procurement of six submarines known as Project 75. The ‘submarine building programme’ stalled again.

After 14 years of delay since P75, the defence acquisition council on 4 June, 2021 approved Project 75I, the purchase of six conventional submarines. The suffix ‘I’ denotes ‘Make in India’, meaning all six boats will be built under the strategic partnership model, which refers to the participation of Indian shipyards along with their foreign original equipment manufacturer. Having aircraft carrier on the priority list, submarine program may eventually slow down. India also needs to reinvigorate its fleet of surface ships programmes to reinforce A2/AD endeavors.

Indian Navy’s developmental growth is constrained by both money and technology. Principally for these two reasons Indian warship building programmes often miss the deadlines and face with cost overrun spiraling the delay. Economic growth and collaborative advancement of civil and military technology were key drivers to People Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) modernisation and growth. Economy and technology are critical pillars of building A2/AD capabilities.

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The fundamental difference between the two big contestants is that China made a strong and stable economy together with robust technology base before racing with military programmes let alone naval plans. On the other hand, India wanted to advance both economy and naval programme simultaneously. India acquired naval aviation fifty years before China. India first focused on aircraft carrier, China concentrated on submarine. Now, China has the lead in carrier and submarine arms including surface ships. India has difficult choices to match as the fire spitting dragon is increasingly lurking in the waters around it.

* Mohammad Abdur Razzak is a retired Commodore of Bangladesh Navy and a security analyst. He can be reached at [email protected]