This week an indigenously built Indian fighter jet trapped aboard an indigenously built aircraft carrier for the first time. The flattop, INS Vikrant, is the second in the Indian Navy inventory. Vikrant’s entry into service may seem to mark a phase change in Indian maritime strategy. That was the line coming from service chieftains. The chief of naval staff, Admiral R. Hari Kumar, heralded the landing and subsequent takeoff as “a momentous step forward towards the realization of our collective vision of Aatmanirbhar Bharat,” or self-reliance in weapons manufacturing.
That’s a fine thing from New Delhi’s standpoint. Dependence on foreign companies for military hardware could compromise India’s strategic autonomy in wartime. It’s happened before. Memories of the 1965 war with Pakistan linger, for example. The U.S. government imposed an arms embargo on both combatants in hopes of sowing restraint during the fighting. U.S. defense firms withheld sorely needed spare parts and maintenance support under the ban. Indian leaders resented the embargo for constraining Indian forces’ ability to do what they needed to do. To escape future coercion they resolved to diversify their base of arms suppliers and ultimately to approximate self-sufficiency in the armaments sector.
India turned in particular to the Soviet Union. Moscow saw an interest in cultivating military ties with the South Asian giant, and it harbored few scruples about uses to which Soviet-supplied munitions were put. Soviet armaments may have been inferior to those constructed in the West, but New Delhi could count on their being available in times of need.
To this day, in part as a legacy of such painful memories, the Indian military acquires weaponry from a hodgepodge of foreign and domestic vendors. For instance, the Indian Navy operates Russian-built MiG-29K fighter jets and, now, domestically built light combat aircraft from INS Vikrant and its Soviet-built predecessor, Vikramaditya. It is also considering the American F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the French Rafale M to upgrade the flattops’ future air wings. And the navy has flirted with a maritime variant of the Swedish Gripen.
A diverse portfolio of weapons merchants comes at a cost in interoperability terms. It’s hard enough to get equipment from different makers to work together in harmony, even within a single country. Mixing foreign wares only compounds interoperability woes. But it does reduce outsiders’ ability to veto New Delhi’s military options.
Indians regard the tradeoff as worthwhile.
Outright self-sufficiency would be even better, conferring full strategic autonomy in a future scrap with Pakistan, China, or some other prospective foe. In that sense Admiral Kumar is correct: a new day has dawned in Indian maritime strategy now that Vikrant has joined the fleet. The Indian Navy will still need help with select systems for its aircraft carriers, notably electromagnetic catapults and recovery gear when it eventually adopts those. But Indian industry can now produce hulls of its own along with some of the embarked warbirds.
A liberating development all around.
Strategically, though, the new flattop’s debut is far from revolutionary. Having two carriers in the fleet means the Indian Navy can probably have one ready for duty in the Indian Ocean most of the time, taking into account the rhythm of maintenance, training, and at-sea deployments. The next flattop, Vishal, will make a constant high-seas presence a virtual sure thing. The navy long envisioned making Vishal a supercarrier, a vessel displacing far more than Vikrant and Vikramaditya and capable of accommodating a far larger aircraft complement. Vikrant totes around just thirty warplanes of various types, a fraction of the sixty-something found on board a U.S. Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Its complement is also smaller than the thirty-six that fly from the decks of China’s first two carriers.
But Vishal remains on the drawing board and confronts an uncertain future. It may end up being a copy of INS Vikrant—I would venture to guess it will be, since top leaders are openly talking about it—at a time when the People’s Liberation Army Navy is preparing to make the leap to supercarriers with its third flattop.
Think about what scaling back India’s avian ambitions means in strategic terms. The subcontinent is a vast peninsula jutting into the Indian Ocean from its roof, namely the Eurasian supercontinent. That means marine defense is a bicoastal strategic problem for New Delhi. Yet naval aviation can contribute only on one coast at a time until the Indian Navy settles on a carrier design and puts it into serial production. The navy will need four to six hulls to patrol both of the subcontinent’s nautical flanks at the same time. A flotilla that size is not a near-term prospect—meaning that for the foreseeable future the Indian Navy will find it hard to cope should China and Pakistan decide to make mischief in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea concurrently.
All in all, the leisurely pace of Indian carrier-aviation development bespeaks a regional power that remains comfortable with its strategic surroundings. Indians regard their nation as a benign hegemon in the Indian Ocean region, and in fact they sometimes invoke the Monroe Doctrine as a precedent for Indian foreign policy. But the Monroe Doctrine underwent many phases during the century when it constituted the North Star of U.S. foreign policy. So might India’s version.
U.S. diplomatic history, then, offers clues to India’s future. From its inception in 1823 until the 1890s the Monroe Doctrine was a “freerider” policy enforced not by the U.S. Navy but by Great Britain’s Royal Navy. British leaders had reasons of their own to provide maritime security in the Western Hemisphere, namely to fend off hostile European imperial powers. U.S. leaders accepted their silent benefactor’s gift—and declined to invest in the massive standing military the republic would have needed to police the Americas.
When someone else is willing to bankroll your security, why not say okay?
During the 1890s the United States detoured briefly into “strongman” mode, emboldened by the construction of its first serious battle fleet. Precipitating the swerve was a looming border war between Britain and Venezuela over natural resources. The United States wanted to prevent war to forestall a breach of the Monroe Doctrine. In 1895 the U.S. secretary of state informed his British counterpart that Washington regarded itself as “practically sovereign” throughout the hemisphere. That meant it claimed the right and boasted the power to enforce its will in regional disputes. And indeed it did mediate a settlement to the Caribbean border imbroglio.
Proclaiming practical sovereignty over half the globe represented a more bellicose, far brawnier derivative of the Monroe Doctrine.
The strongman phase didn’t last, though. For a decade after the turn of the century, Washington contented itself with asserting an “international police power” designed to head off European imperial encroachment in the all-important Caribbean basin. When a Latin American republic defaulted on its debts to a European bank, common practice was for the European government to send its fleet to seize the customhouse in the defaulting country and divert the tariff revenue to repay the bankers. But, fretted U.S. leaders, that left Europeans in possession of territory they might convert into a naval base in America’s maritime backyard. So Washington demanded the right to mediate such quarrels, assuring Latin American debts were repaid without surrendering turf to Europeans.
This was a “constabulary” variant of the Monroe Doctrine, forceful and self-interested but less abusive than the 1890s version.
So there you have three yardsticks for Indian foreign policy and strategy: the freerider, the strongman, and the constable. It’s pretty plain that India remains content to freeride on outside-supplied maritime security, much as the United States freerode on the Royal Navy for most of the nineteenth century. A two-carrier force like the Indian Navy’s is scarcely a strongman force, or even a musclebound constabulary force. When New Delhi sends aircraft-carrier design and construction into overdrive, that will be a warning sign that a new form of Indian Monroe Doctrine has taken hold among the governing elite. What form depends on how Indian statesmen and military folk gauge trends in the subcontinent’s environs.
You can judge a partner or ally as much by what it does as by what its leadership says. For now, informal arrangements like the Quad or mutual logistical support with the U.S. Navy seem sufficient to ameliorate Indians’ worries about their security environment. Here’s hoping their upbeat take on the threat is correct.
So freeride on. For now.
Author Biography and Experience
Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991.