India's Navy is considering adding to its fleet of P-8I maritime patrol aircraft, as the country shifts its military posture toward its southern approaches out of concern about Chinese naval activity.
India's Naval Chief Adm. Sunil Lanba told India Strategic magazine that aerial-surveillance capability was an important part of navy operations, and the country's Defense Ministry has said the P-8I is able to provide "a punitive response and maintaining a watch over India's immediate and extended areas of interest."
New Dehli made its first purchase of the aircraft in 2009, not long after the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, during which attackers arrived by boat. India bought eight P-8I aircraft at the time, deploying them in 2013. It followed that with a purchase of four more in 2016, buying them at the 2009 price.
Boeing P-8I of the Indian Navy (Image from Indian Navy)
"A number of measures have been taken since '26/11' to strengthen maritime, coastal, and offshore security by the concerned agencies in the country," Lanba said, including expanding maritime security forces' capabilities, enhancing surveillance in maritime zones, and streamlining intelligence-sharing.
While Lanba did not say how many long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft, like the P-8I, the Indian navy would ultimately require, his predecessors have said as many as 30.
The P-8I, which is India's variant of Boeing's P-8 Poseidon aircraft, has some of the most sophisticated anti-submarine-warfare technology available, including Raytheon and Telefonics systems that provide 360-degree radar coverage. The plane also has a magnetic anomaly detector, which searches for shifts in the earth's magnetic field created by a submarine's hull.
The aircraft can carry Harpoon anti-ship missiles, depth charges, Mk-54 torpedoes, and rockets. The Indian variant also has specific communications software and Identify Friend or Foe abilities, allowing it to interoperate with Indian naval and air force systems. They can also data-link with Indian submarines to share information about target vessels.
'Our Navy is fully capable and ever ready'
Anti-submarine warfare has become a focal point for the Indian military, and the U.S. and India have held talks about related technology and tactics. Both countries have become increasingly wary of Chinese naval activity, particularly Chinese submarines, in recent years.
P-8A Poseidon aircraft No. 760 takes off from a Boeing facility in Seattle, Wash., for delivery to fleet operators in Jacksonville, Fla., marking the 20th overall production P-8A aircraft for the U.S. Navy. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Boeing Defense)
India has been tracking Chinese submarines entering the Indian Ocean since 2013, and a 2015 U.S. Defense Department report confirmed that Chinese attack and missile submarines were operating there.
In mid-2016, Indian naval officials said they were sighting Chinese subs four times every three months on average.
"As a professional military force, we constantly evaluate the maritime security environment in our areas of interest. We lay a lot of stress on Maritime Domain Awareness," Landa told India Strategic when asked about hostile submarines operating in the Indian Ocean.
"Accordingly, we are fully seized of the presence and likely intentions of all extra-regional forces operating in the Indian Ocean," Landa said. "Our Navy is fully capable and ever ready to meet any challenges that may arise in the maritime domain."
'A tectonic shift'
Some sightings of Chinese subs have taken place around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which sit near the Malacca Strait, through which more than 80% of Chinese fuel supplies pass.
New Delhi started deploying P-8I aircraft and spy drones to the islands in early 2016, with plans to develop enough infrastructure and maintenance capabilities there to support a division-level force of about 15,000 troops, a fighter squadron, and some major warships. Other reports suggest India is considering installing an "undersea wall" of sensors in the eastern Indian Ocean.
Growing activity in the Indian Ocean, as well as the ocean's centrality to global trade and India's own security, have led New Delhi to shift its focus to the country's 4,700-mile southern coastline, where security and energy infrastructure are concentrated.
"This is a tectonic shift in India's security calculus, that it has to protect its southern flank," Brahma Chellaney, a strategic-studies professor at the Center for Policy Research, told The New York Times in July 2017, around the time of the Malabar 2017 naval exercises between the U.S., India, and Japan.
India has done naval patrols and anti-submarine warfare exercises with partners in the region — in November, India, the U.S., Japan, and Australia announced the creation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, defense partnership. New Delhi has also looked to expand its military, spending tens of billions of dollars on foreign fighter jets, armored vehicles, and naval vessels.
Subs have become of particular interest for India in light of growing Chinese naval activity in the region, according to India Strategic.
The Kalvari, the first of six diesel-electric attack submarines designed by a French firm and built in India, was commissioned in December. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the Kalvari a marquee example of the "Make in India" initiative, which aims to develop India's domestic arms industry through collaboration with foreign firms.
P-8I crew at their workstations during the Search and Rescue sortie in South Indian Ocean on 23 Mar 2014. (Image from Wikipedia)
India has already contacted foreign shipbuilders about building six more nonnuclear subs.
The navy, citing concerns about China, has called for a third nuclear-powered carrier that incorporates U.S. technology and is pushing ahead with plans to acquire such a carrier at an expected cost of nearly $25 billion.
The plan includes a component of 57 fighter aircraft, for which U.S. F-18s and French Dassault Rafales are being considered. Aircraft acquisitions may push the price higher.
The expense of acquiring such a ship has given India's Defense Ministry pause, however, though others have argued that aircraft carriers are the best way to counter threats around the region.
"As India does not have a policy of overseas basing, a carrier force remains the only suitable alternative for a regional power like India to conduct out-of-area contingencies," retired Indian Vice Adm. Shekhar Sinha wrote in December 2016.
The Indian navy has one operational carrier, INS Vikramaditya, which is a Russian Kiev-class carrier-cruiser overhauled by Moscow for the Indian navy between 2004 and 2013. The Vikramaditya operates Russian-made aircraft, including MiG 29K fighters, which India has asked Russia to "ruggedize" for carrier operations. The INS Vikrant, which is India's first domestically built carrier, is under construction.
In what appears to a sign of the Indian navy's move toward the U.S. and away from Russia, American naval officials from a joint working group were invited aboard the Vikramaditya in late October to assess ways to transition Indian carriers to U.S. naval operational concepts, according to India's Business Standard.