Who wins? Prevails? Dominates? Commands? Or, controls the sea? The submarine or the aircraft carrier? The question is as critical and debatable as the answer itself; which is likely to be charged (“for and against”) with emotion, logic, counter-logic, encounter-logic and ultimately shouting and counter-shouting with no winner or loser.

That’s the likely end of the scenario building ashore. What actually may or may not happen afloat, however, is the billion-dollar puzzle, as citing instances from chapters of world naval warfare can be both conclusive as well as inconclusive. Suffice it to state that both the sub and the aircraft carrier are necessary and complementary to each other.

Yet, that is easier said than done for the majority of the world’s navies. By its very nature, the navy has a long gestation period of construction; is capital intensive, labour intensive, technology-driven, requiring highly-skilled managers to run the naval machine. It is also high in terms of training cost and higher still on maintenance, expansion and operations.

What then should be the sea route ahead for India at this point in time? One needs to glance through the world naval scenario in general and the Indian Ocean littoral in particular; to strategise the future sea-state of the ships of the state. Thus, on date, there are 164 naval states in the world with only one (the USA) with global reach, consisting of six naval commands of the Pacific, Central, Africa, Europe, South America and North America.

Of the rest, however, only a dozen-odd nations (Russia, India, China, UK, France, Italy, Australia, Brazil, Japan, Indonesia, Spain and South Korea) could be considered to be of some substance, with China’s quest for place in the sea, being three-in one ~ promising, menacing and problematic. In fact with China’s public official announcement on November 26 to the effect that the PLA-Navy is going for its third aircraft carrier, India does feel an indirect compulsion to take note, and re-calibrate, her naval policy and priorities soon.

The reason is that China is moving fast. Beijing appears to be in hurry to make up for the lost time and conspicuous lack of a naval tradition, unlike Japan, its neighbour. Nevertheless, the lost time is being recovered as can be seen by the rate of fighting ship production, which on an average is taking 30 months, compared to India’s 50 to 60 months.

However, there is little doubt that between a submarine and an aircraft carrier, the former is comparatively economical and safer to operate, is difficult to be detected (by the opponent), and does not require an accompanying flotilla of surface vessels. Further, one sub-surface boat can counter potential hostility in the sea before initiating offensive operations. The visibility of the shape and size of a high-sea aircraft carrier, on the other hand, does look impressive and menacing, but only when the carrier moves as “carrier battle group”. And not alone. No carrier dare operate solo, unlike the submarine, for a prolonged blue water mission.

Thus, purportedly invincible though it may claim, the reality of a lurking submarine 450 metres under the sea will always be a challenge to all types of surface vessels, however lethal their claims are, than the other way round. At the height of the Cold War, when the number of US aircraft carriers stood at 14, it was the 100 plus Soviet nuclear-powered submarines, armed with ballistic missiles of range exceeding 5000 kilometres which constituted the gravest threat to the US fleet across the world.

Nearer home, the Pakistani sub-force is an important and credible deterrent to the formidable Indian Navy’s surface as well as sub-surface capability. The submarine is the best possible economic-cum-tactical option of the weak. With a relatively smaller shoreline of 567 nautical miles, compared to India’s 4104 nautical miles, Pakistan has shored up its underwater and surface capability with a three-pronged strategy.

First, to resort to “fleet-in-being”, implying ultra-defensive tactics to stop and interdict the superior opponent of an Indian offensive, say within three hundred nautical miles of the ports and bases. Second, try and launch a “limited offensive” to carry fire to the home port of the Indian flotilla through “harbour penetration” midgets (mini-subs) with the help and assistance of the state-sponsored, trained and guided nonstate actor (consisting of all types of lashkars, fidayeens, ghazis), which constitute a type of “landsea suicide bombers”.

Taking cue from Sunday, December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbour’s “kamikaze” pilots of the Japanese air force, self-destroying, as well as destroying the enemy, diving their aircraft through the funnel of the combat ships, waiting in the bay for orders to mobilise. And third, PLA navy assistance across the Indian Ocean routes.

The triangle has already been put in place. If one sees the map of the sea, and ports in/of Indian Ocean littorals, Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Djibouti (Horn of Africa, at the mouth of the southern tip of the Red Sea) and Gwadar (Makran coast of Pakistan, at the mouth of Persian Gulf) form a visible geometry. This geometry makes the geography and geopolitics of naval operations come alive, posing a grave threat to the security and safety of South Asia.

Let us face it. If not today, then tomorrow, the Chinese PLA Navy will use all three ports and will go under water from there because all three ports now belong to China and with the third aircraft carrier in the pipeline, Beijing is bound to go high profile in the Indian Ocean, posing a direct challenge to the Indian Navy. All this has happened because Chinese money has bought them, as the accumulated debt burden of Chinese money failed original rulers of the ports.

In this unfolding scenario, what could, or should, be Indian response? As India traditionally has never been known to be either proactive or aggressive, being benign, reactive and on crisis-management mode, the best possible course is to strengthen the nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine squadrons.

India undoubtedly has made progress, but both the speed of construction and number of boats must be enhanced and deployed for “peaceful patrol”, if need be, to areas which may not be of comfort to adversaries. This is called “forward deployment,” as has been done by the West over the past two hundred years.

India need not follow the West in order to deploy ships in the South Atlantic or mid-Pacific Ocean because that is just not required. It is not concordant with New Delhi’s economics, polity and geostrategy. Nevertheless, the late 19th-century Western adage ~ “Our ships are our natural bulwarks” ~ will have to be followed by Indians of the 21st century. Otherwise, the vast waterbodies around this country will turn into a lake at the hands of unwanted and undesirable pirates and practitioners of gunboat diplomacy. That certainly cannot be accepted by the 1.25 billion heads of India today.

The writer, an alumnus of National Defence College, is the author of the recently published book, China in India.