Indian Ocean - A strategic appraisal: by Flt Lt N.K Pant, Indian Airforce.
Indian Ocean - A strategic appraisal: by Flt Lt N.K Pant.

The strategic importance of Indian Ocean has gone up after the British withdrew from the bases in the region. This is evident from the increased maritime activity by the Americans, Soviet, British and French naval flotillas in this area. It seems the contending fleets will sail more and more to fill up the power vacuum created by British withdrawal.

As a result of the recent ceasefire in Vietnam, the U.S Seventh Fleet with no more commitments in that theatre, may extend its vigilance from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. During the last few years Americans have aquired bases in Baherein and Western Australia. A joint Anglo-American installation is under construction in Diego Garcia island near Mauritius.

Britain still controls the Seychelle islands and has formed the British Indian Ocean Territory by purchasing the islands of Aldabra, Farquhar, Des Roches and the Chagos Archipelago. They also have facilities for refuelling and staging in Maldives islands south west of Ceylon. Thus the British seemed to have changed their strategy by again evincing keen interest in this region which was solely dominated by their naval power till the beginning of the second world war.

Sorrounded by Indian Sub-Continent in the north, East Africa in the west, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia in the east and the frozen continent of Antarctica in the far south, the Indian Ocean covers an area of 2,85,00,000 square miles with an average depth of 12,900 feet. Red Sea approach to the Suez Canal, oil rich Persian Gulf, the Strait of Malacca, and the Cape of Good Hope on the southern most tip of African continent are the strategically located points in the region.

The trade routes passing through this ocean are gaining importance with greater Japanese and Western dependence on Persian Gulf oil and the substantial economic progress in India with upward parallel trends in shipping and overseas trade. Foreign trade is an industry considered of such national importance as to be closely guided along the lines of national policies.

In order to protect her expanding trade interests and rapidly increasing tonnage over the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, India will have to evolve a new national policy, keeping in view the chief threat to shipping which may come from a conventional sea power comprising mainly of submarines, mines and aircraft of a belligerant nation in case of hostilities.

Nations located in the periphery of the Indian Ocean are becoming aware of the potential danger as the fleets of the major powers continue policing the area due to their strategic, economic and trade interests. This is evident from the resolutions moved in the United Nations General Assembly and other international forums for making the Indian Ocean a neutral zone.

On the other hand a new strategic thinking is taking place in countries like Iran and Pakistan putting forward their claims as the dominant powers of the Arabian Sea and suggesting that Indonesia should dominate the Bay of Bengal, being a dominant power in that area. This is an utterly Utopian idea which completely ignores the vital Indian role.

India is the largest country in this part of the globe in terms of its area and population, comparatively far advanced in the economic and industrial fields with sufficient natural resources and a technological capability for tapping them. India's strategic location commands the Indian Ocean especially the region in the north of the equator. Geographical distances are such that with sufficient naval and air cover, India can easily dominate the Red Sea approach to the Suez Canal, oil rich Persian Gulf and the strategic Strait of Malacca.

Other potential regional powers in the region are Indonesia, Australia and South Africa. When fully developed Indonesia may have an important role in the South East Asian affairs. South Africa, if she continues the racial policy, may become a brewing pot for regional conflict which may have a devastating effect on east-west trade since the vital arteries of international shipping pass through the Cape of Good Hope. Another hotbed where trouble may sprout is the Persian Gulf which may become a bone of contention between Iran and the Arabs led by the Iraqies.

Much has been written and discussed in the recent past about the role of India in the region. Latest suggestion came from Admiral Nanda who, during his farewell address to the Navy mentioned the need for an Indian Ocean fleet for filling up the "vacuum" in the region. India's location in the Bay of Bengal is strategically advantageous and does not warrant search for foreign bases. The islands of Andamans and Nicobars are closely situated to Burma, Indonesia and Malaysia. These islands when properly garrisoned with naval bases supported by an effective maritime air cover, will enable us to attain complete naval superiority in this zone.

From these points a constant vigil can be kept on any belligerant activity over an area extending upto the Strait of Malacca, 24 miles wide eastern gateway to the Indian Ocean. Here India should adopt a policy of forward strategy to meet the initial shock of any threat originating from the east. The declaration of sovereignty over the Malaccan Straits by Indonesia and Malaysia if properly implemented will go in India's favour as it may restrict free passage of naval vessels into the Indian Ocean from the far east and will be a contribution towards making the region as a neutral zone.

Now let us divert our atention to the Arabian sea, lying between the Indian Sub-Continent and the Eastern Africa. Bulk of our trade passes through the shipping lanes of this sea. Prospects of rich oil reserves in our western coast enhance the economic and strategic importance of the region. Also located in the area is the Red Sea approach to the Suez Canal and the oil rich Sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf where a feeling of insecurity prevails after the British withdrawal from the area which is bound to increase with the massive armament programme started by Iran.

The strategic points and the shipping lanes of the region can be safeguarded by strengthening our naval bases on the western shores. Submarines assisted by long range aircraft will provide an excellent cover to our trade and shipping. While formulating a naval policy in this theatre, strategic utility of the Laccadive and Minicoy islands should be taken in full consideration. A strong western fleet of friendly and neutral India dominating the region as far as Aden and Mauritius will generate a sense of security among the smaller countries besides acting as a deterrent to Iranian and Pakistani motives.

There is an urgent need of reassessing India's strategic requirements for the sake of national security and in the broader perspective of maintaining peace and stability in the Indian Ocean where a large number of countries are taking exceptional interest by building new bases, arming nations like Iran and South Africa and continuing the naval presence with a view to interfere in the internal matters of countries of the region. An example of this interference was the movement of Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal during the Indo-Pak war of December, 1971.

India will have to assert her position by attaining the status of powerhood within a decade or so. India's area, population, industrial growth, technology and political stability assure her such a position in the coming years. Our need will be met by a strong two fleet navy centered around submarines, missile ships, frigates and other allied craft supported by offshore and island based maritime air cover. Early aquisition of military and naval power is in the utmost interest of national security as the chances of the Indian Ocean being treated as an area of peace and neutrality despite the resolutions of the U.N., are limited.

A recent study by the Economic and Scientific Foundation has forecast a major power role for India in the next 20 to 30 years and has warned that if she fails to achieve this, external pressure will break her up. The study has recommended quadrupling the navy budget and doubling the air force budget and has brought out the fact that if India desires to be respected as an independent decision making centre, she must possess adequate military power.

To achieve these results, strides will have to be made for rapid industrialisation and an integrated all round economic growth which indirectly will boost the military potential of the country. After all a strong military power is always based on a healthy and prosperous economy. Once this goal is achieved, the long existing power vacuum in the Indian Ocean will be automatically filled up and will be instrumental in maintaining peace and stability in the region apart from enhancing the country's international prestige.