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US-India Anti-Submarine Warfare collaboration to counter growing Chinese nuclear submarine presence in Indian Ocean

India and the United States are in talks to help each other track submarines in the Indian Ocean, military officials say, a move that could further tighten defense ties between New Delhi and Washington as China steps up its undersea activities, as reported by Reuters.  New Delhi earlier had agreed to open up its military bases to the United States in exchange for access to weapons technology to help it narrow the gap with China. US is world leader in anti-submarine warfare technology and has long experience in tracking ultra-quiet Russian submarines.

Indian naval officials say Chinese submarines have been sighted on an average four times every three months. Some are seen near India’s Andamans and Nicobar Islands that lie near the Malacca Straits, the entry to the South China Sea through which more than 80 percent of China’s fuel supplies pass.  The Indian Navy has tracked at least six Chinese submarines in the IOR, with an operational turn-around stop mainly at Karachi, over the last four years, as was earlier reported by TOI. To operate in the Indian Ocean, Chinese submarines need to sail through either the Malacca, Lombok or Sunda Straits where the shallow depth of the waters international regulations mean that they have to remain surfaced or visible.

A Chinese nuclear attack submarine docked in the harbour in Karachi in May last year, proving that Beijing might be scrutinizing Indian warships’ movements far more closely than earlier. Indian naval experts, have speculated that the submarine shown could be Chinese Type 093 ‘Shang’ class, far quieter and tougher to detect and equipped with newer weapons and advanced technology including its nuclear reactor. The presence of Chinese nuclear attack submarines in the Indian Ocean reinforces Beijing’s aggression in competing with India for dominance in a region strategically vital to India’s security.

Earlier, an Indian Defense Ministry report had warned of the “grave threat” posed by the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean. It suggested that China is widening its orbit of patrols beyond Chinese waters to jockey for control of highly sensitive sea lanes. China is also building $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) announced last year that will give Beijing access to the Indian Ocean through Gwadar besides running through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

China has defended the presence of its submarines in the Indian Ocean as “legitimate” and in accordance with “international practices”, “Talking about the submarines, the Chinese submarines cross some of sea areas and those crossings are legitimate and legal and follow the international practices,” said China’s defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun  during  media interaction.

The navies of US and India  are also carrying out Malabar exercise since 1992 in the Indian Ocean. Since Japan joined in 2007, it has alternated between the West Pacific and the Indian Ocean. After meeting Navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba and other top officials here on Friday , the commander of the US Seventh Fleet Vice Admiral Joseph P Aucoin said, “We want to make the 21st Malabar exercise+ , which will be held in the IOR next year, bigger and more complex.

Noting that the Indian Navy now also operates the P-8I Poseidon long-range maritime patrol aircraft, a variant of the US Navy’s P-8As, Vice Admiral Aucoin said the two sides “can hunt submarines together” as part of the several missions undertaken during the Malabar exercise.”Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is one area I think would be very beneficial. So, I am looking forward to it in the Malabar,” he said.

India is extensively using its P-8I aircraft, which are packed with radars and armed with deadly Harpoon Block-II missiles, MK-54 lightweight torpedoes, rockets and depth charges, to keep tabs on Chinese submarines in the IOR. Indian Navy officers have told NDTV that the induction of the US-built P8-I anti-submarine warfare jets have been a game-changer for the force and a key asset in tracking Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean. A replacement for India’s ageing Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-142, the P8-I comes equipped with state-of-the-art sensors meant to detect the sound radiated by submarines underwater. Once a submarine is detected, the P8-I can either engage the submarine with weapons or use its datalink to pass on the exact location to other naval assets including friendly warships and submarines operating in the area.

Upgraded Indian Attack Submarines to Receive US Anti-Ship Missiles

The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded U.S. defense company Boeing an $81 million contract modification to supply the Indian Navy (IN) with 22 submarine-launched Harpoon over-the-horizon anti-ship missiles under the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. The Boeing will supply 12 UGM-84L Harpoon Block II missiles and 10 UTM-84L Harpoon training missiles, all encapsulated in a container to enable submerged launch through a torpedo tube.

The arms package is estimated to have a total worth of around $200 million. The deal is expected to be completed in June 2018. India first purchased 24 AGM-84L Block II Harpoons in 2010 for the Indian Air Force. It bought an additional 21 Harpoons in 2012 at a cost of $200 million. India’s burgeoning fleet of Poseidon 8I Neptune advanced maritime patrol/anti-submarine warfare aircraft are armed with Harpoon missiles.

The contract modification is part of a midlife upgrade of two Shishumar-class (Type 209/1500) diesel-electric attack submarines (SSK) in service with the Indian Navy. The upgrade is supposed to extend the submarines’ operational life by ten years.

Evolving Indian Ocean geopolitics

The presence of Chinese nuclear attack submarines in the Indian Ocean reinforces Beijing’s aggression in competing with India for dominance in a region strategically vital to India’s security. Unlike conventional submarines, nuclear-powered submarines have an unlimited range of operations since their nuclear reactors rarely require to be refuelled. This means the submarines, which are armed with torpedoes and cruise missiles, can be deployed underwater for extended durations where they are difficult to track

Over the last decade, Pakistan has strengthened its naval links with China, its biggest international partner. In August last year, Pakistan State Radio announced a deal to acquire 8 Chinese Yuan-class conventional diesel-electric powered submarines. The first four submarines are expected to be delivered by the end of 2023 while the others will be assembled in Karachi by 2028. Perhaps most significantly, China has access to Pakistan’s strategic Gwadar port, central to the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that is under development, in addition to its own recently constructed naval base in Djibouti situation in the Horn of Africa.

India and US have signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement during Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s visit to Washington that allows the two countries to use each other’s military facilities for refuelling, food, and medical services, among other benefits.The agreement multiplies the Indian navy’s potential reach by allowing access to U.S. bases in Djibouti and Diego Garcia.

India and the United States, which already conduct joint naval exercises, shall focus be on anti-submarine warfare in the next set of joint exercises to take place in the northern Philippine Sea, as told by Indian naval source. Japan, will also be a participant in the exercises. “These types of basic engagements will be the building blocks for an enduring Navy-to-Navy relationship that we hope will grow over time into a shared ASW capability,” one US official familiar with India-US military cooperation said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The US, of course, would like to include other countries like Australia in the Malabar wargames on a regular basis to build interoperability in the Asia-Pacific region. But China views any such “naval grouping” as a move to contain it, and had lodged a strong protest against the Malabar exercise in the Bay of Bengal in 2007 when it had been expanded to include Japan, Australia and Singapore.

Two linked factors are driving the co-operation and enhanced surveillance in Indian Ocean, say regional military attaches and security experts. “The prospect of active patrols by nuclear-armed Chinese submarines has sparked intense surveillance activity around the China’s southern submarine base on Hainan Island, and nearby waters.” India, meanwhile, is preparing to launch its first locally-built submarine armed with nuclear tipped missiles.

David Brewster, an expert on the strategic rivalry in Indian Ocean at the Australian National University, said anti-submarine warfare collaboration may eventually include Australia, another US ally which just ordered 12 new submarines.

“As Australia’s strategic environment becomes more complex it is important to further develop our international partnerships including with our allies the United States and New Zealand, and with Japan, Indonesia, India, Singapore, the Republic of Korea, China and other key partners,” said Australian Government’s Defense White Paper.

In recent years, China has helped to build a network of ports or facilities in South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Myanmar and secured docking rights in Seychelles. China is also developing key ports in Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa.

However, many security experts see no reason for alarm. They point out that ports cannot be quickly converted into naval facilities.  “Because the fact is in war time no port in the Indian Ocean is going to be available to the Chinese navy,” noted strategic affairs analyst Bharat Karnad at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “No port. Because none of these countries can afford to alienate India.


China and India at Sea: A Contest of Status and Legitimacy in the Indian Ocean by Australia India Institute

“China and India are emerging as major maritime powers of the Indo—Pacific as part of long term shifts in the regional balance of power. As their wealth, interests and power expand, China and India will increasingly come into contact with one another in the shared maritime security space of the Indo— Pacific,” according to report, China and India at Sea, launched by the Australia India Institute (AII) in 2014.

The institute has released its initial findings report, “A Contest of Status and Legitimacy in the Indian Ocean,” that details the assessments of senior strategic analysts in Canberra, Washington DC and Tokyo on:

  • China’s growing strategic presence in the Indian Ocean
  • India’s strategic aspirations and views about the legitimacy of China’s regional role
  • China’s perspectives on India’s status and role in the Indian Ocean

This report provides key insights into the future of our region” said Project Director and Distinguished Fellow of AII, Dr David Brewster.

“How India and China get along in that new context – cooperation, coexistence, competition or confrontation – will be one of the key strategic challenges of the 21st century. Along with US—China and China—Japan relations, the relationship between India and China will set the tone for peace or conflict in the decades ahead.”

“The United States, in particular, is a key factor for both countries, meaning that the India—China relationship to a large extent plays out under the shadow of US power. The United States will likely have a major role in either dampening or exacerbating Sino—Indian competition in the Indian Ocean.”

“The imperative to protect people and investments in littoral states is likely to become an increasing important driver in China’s strategic thinking about the IndianOcean.”

“Beijing is now increasingly using its anti—piracy deployment as justification for expanding its naval presence in the Indian Ocean and making it more permanent. This has included deployments of conventional and nuclear attack (SSN) submarines to the northern Indian Ocean as well as expanding the PLAN’s access to infrastructure in the region, possibly including developing port facilities for use by the PLAN in Djibouti.”

“Despite its military expansion program, China has only a limited number of blue water naval combatants and few long range air strike capabilities. Further, China’s ability to project power into the Indian Ocean remains highly constrained by the long distance from Chinese ports and air bases, the lack of logistical support, and the need for Chinese naval vessels to deploy to the Indian Ocean through chokepoints.”

Many western analysts are now debating whether China is pursuing a ‘places not bases’ strategy in the Indian Ocean under which the PLAN would have access to only limited facilities for specific purposes or contingencies.

Many analysts, particularly Indian analysts, also express grave concerns about Beijing’s active security and defence diplomacy in the Indian Ocean, particularly among India’s neighbours such as Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives, which have all developed cordial security relationships with China.

These security links are increasingly spilling over into the maritime dimension. China is most active in Pakistan, including its growing role at Gwadar port; the sale of frigates and shore—based anti—ship missiles and the recent sale of 8 Yuan class submarines — some of which may eventually be fitted with nuclear—tipped missiles to form the maritime leg of a Pakistani nuclear triad.

“Delhi considers itself the leading Indian Ocean state and a natural leader of the region. It takes a somewhat proprietary attitude towards the Indian Ocean, perceiving the presence of extra—regional naval powers, particularly China, as essentially illegitimate. It also perceives itself as the regional security manager in and around South Asia and increasingly also for other portions of the Indian Ocean.”

“In contrast, Beijing refuses to recognize India’s claims towards great power status or its perceived prerogatives in South Asia or elsewhere in the Indian Ocean region. In short, there is a very real contest of status and legitimacy between India and China in the Indian Ocean.”

“From India’s perspective, India’s growing naval relationships in the Indian Ocean not only with the United States, but also with Japan and Australia, is essentially driven by a desire to balance China or otherwise delay the growth of its naval presence in the Indian Ocean.”
Beijing currently implicitly accepts the predominant role of the United States in the Indian Ocean, perhaps reflecting a judgement that Washington will not interfere with China’s SLOCs, or perhaps the reality that China could not hope to challenge US naval predominance.

But Beijing takes quite a different view of India’s strategic aspirations in the Indian Ocean and is much more likely to challenge or ignore India’s assumed prerogatives or its claims that it should be recognized as a leading provider of maritime security. As a result, many Chinese analysts have argued that in coming years a ‘Great Game’ will be played out between China and India in the Indian Ocean.

According Senior Colonel Zhou Bo of the Chinese Academy of Military Science in the official China Daily English language newspaper, ‘India alone cannot assure the security of the Indian Ocean, even if it regards the Indian Ocean as its backyard and wishes no one to compete with it there

China’s apparent lack of sensitivity towards India in its dealings with Pakistan and India’s smaller neighbours is a major adverse factor in the Sino—Indian relationship and a key driver of a negative dynamic in the maritime dimension.

Some Chinese analysts have begun to concede that a lack of ‘transparency’ over China’s activities in the Indian Ocean region could be causing unnecessary damage to the relationship and to China’s interests in the region.

In a recent article in the official Global Times English language newspaper, analyst Long Xingchun argues that implementation of the Maritime Silk Route initiative suffers from a similar lack of transparency: ‘India is a major power and deserves more attention.

“However transparency alone would be unlikely to address fundamental differences in perceptions over India’s strategic prerogatives in the region and the legitimacy of China’s presence. This would require a much deeper engagement and efforts to build mutual understanding of their competing perspectives.”


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