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Post Must Read--India Contests for Sea Lane Control, Builds Toward Nuclear Triad


India is working on a defense protocol with Russia, its traditional weapons supplier, and eyeing arms deals with the United States. The items on New Delhi's shopping list show that India is focusing on its naval capabilities and is serious about becoming a nuclear power. Ultimately, it will be China -- not Pakistan -- that must confront new naval challenges from India.


India is capitalizing on growing U.S. interest in South Asia's security environment to push for rapid expansion of its military capabilities. Reports from India suggest New Delhi is on the verge of signing major defense contracts with its traditional supplier, Russia, as well as with the United States.

However, India's acquisitions are not directed primarily at rival Pakistan, but rather at gaining control of sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and through the seas and straits of Southeast Asia. India's military buildup will threaten China, its main competitor for power in this region, especially as the purchases lay the groundwork for a strategic nuclear triad.

As always, New Delhi is looking first to Moscow to meet its armaments needs. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov arrived in New Delhi on Feb. 3 for talks with Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes. India and Russia are expected to sign a defense protocol next week that will pave the way for a series of new weapons purchases and leases.

These deals reportedly include the long-sought lease of two Viktor III class submarines. The nuclear-powered Viktor III is capable of extended patrols, and it can be armed with SS-N-15 anti-submarine missiles and SS-N-21 intermediate-range cruise missiles, both capable of mounting 200 kT nuclear warheads. The leases would supposedly start in 2004 and last for five years while India continued to develop its own indigenous nuclear submarine program. Additionally, India would lease two Russian Tu-22 Backfire bombers. These nuclear-capable intermediate-range bombers are also used for maritime reconnaissance. India reportedly may also finalize the deal for the purchase of the Russian Kiev class aircraft carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov.

Russia will not be the only source of weapons this time. During Fernandes' visit to the United States in January, U.S. defense officials said Washington wanted to accelerate military ties with India. The officials reportedly assured Fernandes that Washington would not interfere with the sale of Phalcon airborne warning and control radar systems from Israel to India and discussed restarting the stalled Light Combat Aircraft project. In addition, they agreed to enhance military cooperation and to resume joint military exercises.

Reports from India suggest the United States is prepared to go much further and is ready to supply India with P-3 Orion multi-role maritime aircraft, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and Sea Hawk helicopters. In all, the White House has supposedly approved the sale of 21 military systems to India, ranging from targeting radars to aircraft engines to submarine rescue facilities.

Though none of these sales have been finalized, India's shopping list makes three things clear. First, India is focused on its maritime capabilities. Second, by extension, its strategic planning is not concentrated on the Pakistani threat. And third, India is serious about becoming a nuclear power.

New Delhi has concentrated on its naval capabilities in this particular arms procurement blitz. Maritime reconnaissance aircraft and bombers, submarines, naval helicopters and airborne warning and control systems add up to an integrated package for sea-lane control. Moreover, it is obvious that Pakistan by itself is not the target of this buildup. India already outmatches Pakistan at sea and is more than capable of blockading the Pakistani coast.

Instead, India's current purchases are designed to secure control over the Indian Ocean basin and enhance the challenge to China's navy to the east. Beijing and New Delhi are actively contesting control over the sea routes through Southeast Asia. India has been expanding diplomatic and economic contacts through the region in what it calls its "Look East" policy. It is also working with Japan in both the economic and defense spheres, and Southeast Asia is the strategic arena between them.

The Indian navy has recently launched forays into the South China Sea, accelerating its challenge to China. Acquisition of nuclear-powered vessels will step up this challenge, allowing the Indian navy to loiter in China's back yard.

India's naval expansion will obviously strain relations with China, which is seeking to integrate its own economy with Southeast Asia and recently worked out some free-trade agreements in the region. China is also making substantial investments in ground transportation links to help build a Southeast Asian rail network that links into southern China. India sees this as a strategic challenge with economic and military implications.

But India's military acquisitions, combined with its continued work on land-based ballistic missiles, emphasize New Delhi's commitment to developing a strategic nuclear triad capable of deterring any challenge in South Asia and securing India's position as regional hegemon. This is a major goal of Indian defense planners. As recently as January, the commander of the Indian navy, Madhvendra Singh, said, "Any country that espouses a no-first-use policy must have… a triad of nuclear weapons, one of them at sea. The most powerful leg of the triad is the naval one."

A comprehensive nuclear strategy is ideally based on a triad of weapons systems: land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles and nuclear-capable bombers. India has moved aggressively to develop missile-based nuclear systems. With the acquisition of nuclear-capable bombers and submarines, India is taking the first steps to completing the triad.

In the short run, India's acquisitions will certainly influence Pakistani military calculations. But in the longer term, it is China that will be forced to confront this naval challenge. And ultimately, India's Hindu nationalistic government wants to become a world power totally independent of any other power. China's moves to counter India could raise tensions across the region as well as with the United States.
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