The commissioning in Mumbai of INS Kolkata, a formidable destroyer, has turned out to be much more than an expression of the navy’s heft to safeguard the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean. The message delivered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the commissioning had some subtle but significant doctrinal content. Mr. Modi made it clear in his address that the acquisition of more teeth by the navy was inextricably connected with India’s growth story. This focus became transparent when he stressed the importance of securing the sea lanes and the role that ships such as INS Kolkata would play to “inspire confidence to those involved in maritime trade.”
The navy is well aware of the multiple roles it is expected to perform, which are defining the development of the force. These include safeguarding the country’s energy security, as the bulk of India’s oil supplies, procured from the Persian Gulf, transits through the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, which has witnessed a surge in incidents of piracy in recent years. The 2004 tsunami had earlier demonstrated that the navy needs to be well-equipped to provide disaster relief not only to Indian nationals but also to people in distress in other Indian Ocean littoral states. The growing instability in West Asia is a source of major anxiety as the navy, along with the Indian Air Force and the civil aviation arms, will be put to severe tests in case a mass evacuation of Indian nationals residing in the Persian Gulf states becomes necessary. The navy is also gearing up for a role to protect offshore oil installations far away from the Indian shores, tap seabed resources, and expand a rule-based footprint that extends till resource-rich Antarctica. The commissioning of INS Kolkata has shown that the navy’s warship inductions are moving to plan, as two follow-on destroyers of this class — INS Kochi and INS Chennai — are now in the pipeline. The commissioning also highlights India’s steady gains in integrating home-grown technology in the construction and design of naval vessels. The Brahmos cruise missile — a successful product of Indo-Russian collaboration — demonstrates the acquisition of credible land attack capability. The presence of multi-function phased-array radar that can track and engage several targets simultaneously, as well as indigenously developed torpedoes, showcases impressive domestic gains in the integration of cutting-edge military technology. Yet, if the navy has to become a force multiplier to energise India’s economic growth, more attention would be required to shore up its ailing submarine fleet, coupled with a renewed focus on the development of a state-of-the-art aircraft carrier arm.