Michael Cole wrote in The Diplomat recently about Chinese Navy’s attack submarines operating in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), and the possibility of it posing a serious threat to Indian interests. The IOR stretches from the Horn of Africa to the Malacca Straits and southwards to the West coast of Australia. His article was based on a report titled “Indian Navy: Perceived Threats to Subsurface Deterrent Capability and Preparedness” prepared by the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) of India’s Ministry of Defence (MOD). The report warned that the “implicit focus” of the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) appeared to be undermining Indian navy’s ability to control the highly sensitive sea lines of communication (SLOCs) in the region.
Citing subsurface contact data shared by US forces, the document stated that at least 22 contacts were recorded with vessels suspected to be Chinese attack submarines patrolling well outside Chinese territorial waters. The document cites one contact with a suspected Chinese submarine took place 90 km from Indian soil in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, while six took place northwest of the Straits of Malacca, 13 south of Sri Lanka and two in the Arabian Sea. The submarines were believed to be from the South Sea Fleet based at Sanya on Hainan Island, off China’s southern coast. According to the MOD document these extended patrols may overlap with the Indian Navy’s area of operation.
The number of confirmed contacts mentioned in the report represented a marked increase from four year ago, when U.S. intelligence reportedly revealed that China’s fleet of more than 50 submarines had carried out 12 “extended patrols” outside its territorial waters in 2008, up from six the previous year. Reports then did not indicate where the extended patrols were said to have taken place, though it can be assumed that some occurred near or within the IOR.
The report also stated that the Chinese Navy appeared to be building “expeditionary maritime capabilities” in the form of nuclear powered submarines and area denial weapons such as DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles to counter and threaten India in the IOR.
In May 2012, China had declared that it could deploy Jin Class (Type 094) nuclear submarines at Yulin Naval base at Sanya as part of its long-term strategy in the South China Sea. The SSBNs are likely to be armed with JL-2 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs).
This report must be read in the backdrop of China having set up a network of ports/facilities in Bangladesh (Chittagong), Myanmar (Sittwe and Coco Island), Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Pakistan (Gwadar) and has also secured docking rights in Seychelles, in what is described as the culmination of the ‘String-of-Pearls’ strategy.
The document has warned that the Gwadar port would “facilitate enormous command and control capability for prospective Chinese presence in the IOR”.
While some strategic experts in India think the strategy is overrated and will not dilute India's influence in the region.
"Converting a port or token port facilities into a naval base is a huge leap. I don't think China can do that," said strategic affairs expert Rear Admiral (retd) Raja Menon. "Also, any country that allows China to do that will risk India's enmity."
Similarly, defence analyst Commodore (retd) Uday Bhaskar said, "The suggestion that China is strangulating India with a 'String of Pearls' is an exaggeration."
With due respect to the views of the experts, one cannot ignore the fact that China has in the past few years embarked on an ambitious program to strengthen its navy, and has been conducting long range anti-piracy missions around the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia. Also, China is heavily dependent on oil and energy resources from Africa and the Gulf making the waters of IOR extremely important to China. India's relations with its neighbours is far from satisfactory.
Michael Cole’s article does not make any reference to India’s depleting submarine force levels. While China is scaling up its underwater capabilities, the Indian Navy's submarine force levels will be the lowest in its history by 2015.
The navy will be left with merely six to seven submarines, including India's first and only nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine INS Arihant, as it begins phasing out the Russian Kilo class and German HDW Type 209 submarines next year.
The report warned India had "never before been poised in such a vulnerable situation" and the undersea force levels were "at a highly precarious state".
The navy currently operates 14 submarines, including a nuclear-powered attack submarine leased from Russia. However, the "viable strength" of its submarine arm is much less, factoring in the operational availability of the boats.
In contrast, China operates close to 45 submarines, including two ballistic missile submarines. "China may plan to construct 15 additional Yuan-class attack submarines, based on German diesel engine purchases," the report said. It said the Yuan-class boats could be equipped with air-independent propulsion systems to recharge their batteries without having to surface for more than three weeks, a capability currently unavailable with the Indian Navy.
The size of India's submarine fleet will roughly be the same as that of the Pakistani Navy in two years. "As this critical (undersea) capability is eroded, there is an inverse increase in both capability and strength of the Chinese and Pakistani navies," the report stated.
The report of the Integrated Defence Staff highlighting the threats posed by PLAN has come a bit too late. The reason is that the Chinese Navy has been undergoing a gradual transformation from being a pre-dominantly brown water navy to a blue water navy owing largely to a change in strategic priorities and to back up its belligerent claim over the South China Sea and prepare for a possible conflict with the US-Japan-South Korea alliance.
Indian Navy has been aware of China’s modernization plans as well as its strategic objectives. For instance, way back in 2008, Indian Navy was aware of the deployment of China’s Jin Class (Type 094) nuclear submarines at Sanya, a base in close proximity of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
A report in The Daily Telegraph in May 2008 said that satellite imagery indicated that a substantial harbour had been built that could house nuclear submarines and a host of aircraft carriers.
One photograph showed China's latest nuclear submarine at the base just a few hundred miles from its neighbours; another shows warships moored at long jetties and a network of tunnels at the Sanya base on the southern tip of Hainan island. One of the issues of concern according to the news report was the immense tunnel entrances — 11 of which had been spotted — estimated to be 60 ft high, carved into the hill-side around the base. These tunnels could lead to caverns capable of concealing up to 20 nuclear submarines from spy satellites. This was seen as a major development to enable China project its sea power into the Pacific Ocean and IOR.
The location of the base off Hainan would also give the submarines access to very deep water — exceeding 15,000 feet — within a few miles, making them even harder to detect. Two 1,000-yard piers and three smaller ones could accommodate two carrier strike groups or amphibious assault ships.
According to the Indian Express report of May 2008, the deployment of the Jin class submarine at Hainan may motivate India to speed up its indigenous nuclear submarine project that had been in the making for the past decade. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) believe that while the deployment of Jin-class submarines may help in sustaining India’s own SSBN program, for China to sail an SSBN into the India Ocean and operate it there in a meaningful way, however, will be very difficult and dangerous in a crisis and hence they are more likely to stay close to Chinese waters.
The moot question now is, why are alarm bells being rung in Delhi and not when in fact China had embarked on naval modernization several years back? Should not have India countered China’s string of pearls policy? These are uncomfortable questions for which answers are not readily available. India, in fact, failed to thwart Chinese encirclement as well as lagged behind in upgrading its naval assets. While India’s indigenous projects may take time to fructify, it must speed up its procurement of the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya (Gorshkov) and other Principal Surface Combatants (PSCs) as well as upgrade its underwater capabilities to counter PLAN in the IOR.