In a major build up of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean, 14 PLA Navy ships were spotted by the Indian Navy in the region in August. This increased presence which poses a security threat to India is compounded by PLAN submarines accompanying such ships tasked for anti-piracy duties, which the Indian Navy today stated is a rather ‘odd’ duty for submarines.
The navy on its part has been closely monitoring the PLAN presence through its ‘mission-based’ deployments from the Gulf of Aden to the Strait of Malacca, which comprise critical Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) for China. The navy is also augmenting its operational capabilities with progress being made on the procurement of the second and third aircraft carriers, fighter jets and six nuclear powered attack submarines.
Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba while addressing a press briefing here today explained that the PLAN deployments in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) on an average this year comprise of seven to eight ships. Three of them are part of an anti-piracy group in the Gulf of Aden. Twice a year, a submarine accompanies an escort ship with some research and hydrographic vessels.
“In August, we had a unique situation where we had the handing over and taking over going on between two anti piracy escort groups, so there were six vessels. There was one group going to the Baltics for exercise with three ships. So in August for about two weeks there were 14 ships in the area,” he said.
The navy chief also explained that the PLAN submarine deployments in the IOR began in 2013. They have been undertaking two deployments annually, each consisting of a period of three months. “They alternate between a conventional boat followed by a SSN (nuclear powered attack submarine) and there has been no change in this pattern,” he said.
Lanba also added that if there is a future presence of PLAN ships in Pakistan’s Gwadar port, whose majority stakes have been acquired by Chinese companies, it will pose a security challenge as well.
In view of being the “net security provider for the IOR”, the navy reexamined its deployment philosophy. It now has ships deployed permanently at the Andaman Sea, mouth of Malacca Strait, besides Bay of Bengal and Strait of Lombok. The PLAN submarine deployments are monitored every 24 or 48 hours with maritime patrol aircraft locating the surface support ships. India also has ongoing discussions with several countries to have logistics, including refuelling, agreements similar to ones it has with Singapore and the US (LEMOA), which will enhance its operational reach.
The navy is also further modernising by working towards ensuring that its Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-1) is inducted by end 2020. It has also fixed the form and fit of the IAC-2 as well, which will be 65,000 tonnes. The submarine arm is also being modernised with the first Scorpene class submarine, Kalvari, likely to be commissioned by mid-December. Even the next generation submarine program, Project 75-I, with progress to be made by end 2018. Next year is also likely to witness the navy floating a Request for Proposal for procuring 57 multi-borne carrier fighters. Lanba added that there will be no problems of budget support for this acquisition. He also said that the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft presently cannot be operated from the deck of a carrier.
On the other hand, China has the largest navy in Asia, according to a US Pentagon report. By 2020, its submarine fleet is likely to grow close to 78 in number. Its expanding economic interests are also placing greater demands on the PLAN to operate in distant maritime environments.