India’s Approach to the Indian Ocean Region: From Sea Control to Sea Denial

India’s Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat announced last month that India will prioritize submarines over its third aircraft carrier. The importance of this announcement was lost amid the clutter surrounding U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to India.

“When we know that there would be two aircraft carriers there, and if the submarine force is dwindling, then our priority should be for submarines,” said General Rawat. It is a notable statement coming from the CDS himself, possibly hinting at the much-needed change of approach from sea control to sea denial towards the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

The Indian Navy believes in a strategy of sea-control, meaning “the ability to use the sea in reasonable safety.” The Indian naval doctrine defines sea control as a capability to use a defined sea area, for a defined period, for a defined purpose, and simultaneously deny the sea to the enemy.

The document itself says that any control per force would be limited to space and time, and doesn’t guarantee protection from an enemy attack. Sea control is exercised using a combination of capital-intensive ships, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and amphibious capabilities. It is an expensive affair and requires sustained modernization.

In contrast, a sea denial strategy means denying the adversary use of a sea area for a certain duration. It is a part of sea control and could be used offensively to lower adversary’s war-waging capabilities by limiting its freedom to navigate. Submarines combined with surface ships, helicopters and surface-to-surface missiles are optimal tools for exercising sea denial.

China’s Rise

China’s 2015 defense white paper called for a change of approach from near seas defense to far seas protection. China is dependent on the Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOC) for its energy imports and trade flow which passes through the IOR.

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