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Can the Indian Navy Achieve True Interoperability?


In late February 2024, the Indian Navy hosted MILAN 2024, with over 50 countries participating. This mega event witnessed large force maneuvers, advanced air defense operations, and anti-submarine warfare drills. 

MILAN 2024 came close on the heels of the Indian Navy deploying its largest fleet ever in leading anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and the Western Arabian Sea. India is taking assertive actions in the region as the Indian Navy plays a robust role in countering attacks on shipping by Houthi rebels in West Asia. In one incident, the Indian Navy responded to the hijacking of a Sri Lankan fishing vessel in collaboration with the Seychelles Defense Forces and the Sri Lankan Navy. 

Taken together, these separate examples paint a clear picture: Not only has the Indian Navy reinforced its position as a preferred security partner of regional navies in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the “first responder” during a crisis, but it has also emerged as a strong player within the realm of naval diplomacy. 

Interestingly, these engagements on the part of the Indian Navy are directly associated with the notion of “mission-based deployments” – a concept that has seen Indian naval ships being stationed at places where “action is taking place,” be it the Strait of Hormuz, the Red Sea, or the Malacca Straits, as opposed to staying in ports. This concept has enabled the Indian Navy to  achieve its goal of “greater presence and visibility in the IOR,” including by engaging with other regional navies beyond India’s immediate neighborhood for sustained presence in the IOR. Mission-based deployments have also enhanced regional interoperability as the Indian Navy has worked with other navies to improve maritime security. 

In fact, the remarkable success of the Indian Navy’s mission-based deployments has led to greater trust building between Indian and other regional navies – enabling the creation of a cooperative environment where “interoperability” is not solely a part of the diplomatic lexicon but acquires an actionable form. However, while India has definitely moved ahead on this front, genuine interoperability can only occur when India reduces its dependence on Russian weapon systems and comes up with its own definitional understanding of interoperability. 

Mission-Based Deployments and Interoperability

Interoperability is defined by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as the ability of different (military) formations to “communicate, train, and operate together effectively.” Moreover, it is also defined “as the ability to operate in synergy in the execution of assigned tasks.”

As “maritime aware” India envisages a “free, open and resilient Indo-Pacific,” it is already conducting 17 multilateral and 20 bilateral exercises to enhance interoperability. India is also giving a direct push to interoperability through its overseas mission-based deployments. These deployments are ensuring the operational readiness of Indian naval assets, with “Indian ships and submarines [spending] 9,400 ship days, close to 1,150 submarine days and almost 15,000 hours of flying in the past year,” according to one report.  These deployments are playing a key role in both wartime and peacetime operations.

The greatest push toward naval interoperability has been visible during the ongoing Red Sea crisis, where Indian naval assets have engaged in “classic police work” in fighting piracy and the Houthi rebels simultaneously. The Indian Navy has dutifully pitched in and conducted anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, demonstrating the navy’s heft at a time when other regional navies are busy countering the Houthis. 

Moreover, despite not directly joining the U.S.-led “Operation Prosperity Guardian” to fight the Houthis, the Indian Navy has demonstrated excellent situational awareness and fought drone attacks on commercial shipping vessels in the Red Sea. This was made possible through the efficient use of the Information Fusion Center in the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), a regional maritime agency hosted by the Indian Navy in New Delhi. The IFC-IOR played a key role in passing information to the Indian Navy and Coast Guard during the rescue of injured crew members from MV Ruen, which had been hijacked in the mid-Arabian Sea, “despite the scene of the incident having limited warship presence nearby.” Through such initiatives, India has demonstrated that interoperability functions at multiple levels – not just in the actual theater but also behind the scenes. 

Similarly, as part of its deployment, INS Sumedha, an Indian naval ship under the aegis of the Eastern Naval Command (ENC) of the Indian Navy, has expanded interoperability between the the Indian and Mozambique Navy through professional interactions, cross deck visits, joint Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) patrols, and port calls. 

At the same time, these deployments have ensured that India has emerged as a major player within the realms of maritime domain awareness (MDA) and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), as India has engaged in disaster risk reduction and crisis management. 

The Way Forward 

While existing mission-based deployments have given interoperability a definite push, India still continues to be ambivalent on the nature of the maritime relationship it desires with foreign navies and the level of interoperability it desires. This gives rise to an enduring “Goldilocks dilemma” for India as it attempts to safeguard its interests while avoiding entrapment. 

This is seen in India’s engagement in the Red Sea, for instance – despite its robust presence, India continues to be wary of joining Operation Prosperity Guardian despite being a member of the Combined Maritime Force. Similarly, India is hesitant about receiving direct and visible support about assessments, intelligence, and joint training on anti-submarine warfare (ASW). 

While the prevalent political dispensation is giving a push to these deployments, it is possible that future governments may not give importance to such deployments. Moreover, India will have to build its bandwidth to sustain such deployments for long durations in actual war-like situations. While the Indian Navy has excelled in reinforcing its position as the preferred security partner in the Indian Ocean Region, it will have to engage in long-term deployments with real-time operations to ensure an enduring and robust Indian presence at sea. Moreover, Indian engagements at sea may put India on an escalation ladder that may eventually lead to full-scale conflict within the medium to long term. 

As India pushes for operational interoperability and integration in the future, it will have to align its platforms with those of its partners. This will entail reducing dependence on Russian weapon systems and platforms despite considerable Indian dependence on them. As the Ukraine war endures and rhetoric against Indian neutrality grows, India will have to finalize alternate sources of defense procurement with greater swiftness. While the French and Germans may be able to provide submarines, and the United States may enable a natural improvement in India’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities through the availability of MQ-9B drones, among other weapon systems, India will have to extricate itself from Russian systems for actual interoperability to take place – not just with the United States but also other Western navies.

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