How to deal with Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean has become a practical question for India.  In December 2013, China let it be known that one of its nuclear attack submarines would sail through the Indian Ocean over the following two months.  It was the first time that China confirmed such a transit.  At the time, many thought it would be a relatively rare occurrence.  But over the last couple of months, two more submarines appear to have made similar transits, after they were spotted making five-day long port calls in Sri Lanka.

On September 19, a Chinese Song-class diesel-electric attack submarine and its attendant Type 925 submarine support ship, the Changxing Dao, docked at the Colombo International Container Terminals for refueling and crew refreshment before the submarine set sail for the international anti-piracy effort in the Gulf of Aden.  Six weeks later, on October 31, there was another port call by a Chinese submarine and theChangxing Dao at the same facility.  Whether that port call was made by the same Song-class submarine which visited earlier or by a Han-class nuclear attack submarine, as some reports have indicated, remains unclear due to a lack of photos associated with its visit to Colombo.

Indian Ocean - China and India

Either way, the two port calls suggested that China might send more submarines (and with greater frequency) into the Indian Ocean in the future.  Naturally, that has heightened Indian concerns about Chinese power in the region.  But even more troubling to India was Sri Lanka’s readiness to welcome those submarines, in spite of Indian reservations.  After the first port call, New Delhi expressed to Colombo its concerns about such submarines visiting Sri Lankan ports.  Colombo dismissed India’s qualms, contending that Chinese submarines were no different than the other 230 foreign warships that visited Sri Lanka this year.  Many Indian observers saw the rebuff as a sign that Sri Lanka had decided to cozy up to China.  A few even argued that Sri Lanka had violated the 1987 peace accord between it and India in which Colombo agreed that its ports would “not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests.”

As to why the port calls occurred at all, some speculated that they were a response to India’s growing military relationship with Vietnam, a country locked in a dispute with China over the sovereignty of the South China Sea.  India has already become Vietnam’s principal military training partner, providing spare parts for Vietnam’s warships and training Vietnamese sailors in submarine operations.  In fact, India and Vietnam signed an agreement to engage in even closer military cooperation just days before the first port call.

The port calls also lent credence to long-held Indian suspicions of a Chinese scheme to encircle India through the development of military and economic ties with countries across the Indian Ocean.  Indian commentators have often pointed to the proliferation of Chinese infrastructure projects in the region as the manifestation of those ties, and collectively referred to the projects as China’s “string of pearls.”  Notably, the Colombo International Container Terminals facility (where the Chinese submarines docked) was one of those projects.  This year, China put its own name on its infrastructure-building efforts in the region: the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” initiative.  Two weeks ago Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that China would set up a $40 billion fund to support that initiative as well as contribute billions more to a new Asian infrastructure investment bank.  Both are designed to foster new building projects across South and Southeast Asia.  Both are also likely to further stoke India’s sense of unease over Chinese intentions.

No doubt Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean would complicate India’s naval situation in the Indian Ocean.  To reduce the danger from Chinese diesel-electric attack submarines, the Indian navy could step up its monitoring of Chinese submarine support ships and the region’s ports, which those submarines need to periodically refuel.  But Chinese nuclear attack submarines would pose a bigger challenge, as they do not need to refuel.  If supplied with timely intelligence, such submarines could put at risk Indian shipping throughout the region.

Already, the Indian navy has begun to prepare for that possibility.  But its planning has labored under a series of naval accidents in recent years, the deadliest of which occurred in August 2013 when an explosion aboard one of its Kilo-class submarines, the Sindhurakshak, killed 18 sailors.  At the same time, the navy continues to experience delays in its procurement of new warships and refit of its existing ones.  Between 2005 and 2010, 113 out of its 152 refit projects were late.  Many of them were combat platforms used for anti-submarine warfare (ASW).  But equally important are those platforms designed to search for and detect an adversary’s submarines.

While India’s land-based ASW helicopters and short-range maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), like its 14 Do 228 aircraft, are valuable to protect its key ports, the Indian navy must use long-range aviation assets to patrol the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean.  Historically, that mission has fallen to the navy’s handful of Soviet-vintage prop-driven aircraft.  Its four Tu-142M MPAs based at Rajali naval air station are responsible for the waters off India’s east coast; and its five Il-38 MPAs based at Hansa naval air station for the waters off its west coast.  But both sets of aircraft are showing their age.  Even setting aside the quality of their ASW sensors and the quantity of sonobuoys and weapons they can carry, the aircraft themselves are relatively slow compared to modern MPAs.  That is an important factor, given the long distances they need to cover in the Indian Ocean.

Hence, it was significant that the Indian navy began to upgrade its long-range MPA fleet in late 2008.  At that time, Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sureesh Mehta explained the need for better “maritime domain awareness and network-centric operations along with a reliable stand-off deterrent” to deal with China’s naval rise.  That approach was reflected in India’s purchase of twelve P-8I MPAs from the United States.  Based on the Boeing 737 jet airliner, the P-8I provides the Indian navy with not only a more capable suite of ASW sensors and weapons, but also greater speed.  The aircraft has a cruising speed over 100 miles per hour faster than India’s current MPA fleet, allowing it to better prosecute any submarines that it detects at longer ranges.[1]

Long-range detection and prosecution are important if the Indian navy is to conduct ASW on an oceanic scale.  Fortunately for India, geography helps to some extent.  The eastern approaches into the Indian Ocean are funneled through narrow straits created by the Indonesian archipelago.  The most significant of these are the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok Straits.  They offer Chinese submarines the most direct routes from their bases in southern China, particularly a major new one at Yalong Bay, into the Indian Ocean.  Naturally, the Indian navy would want to monitor those straits for the passage of Chinese submarines.

However, the Indian navy must watch its western flank too.  There, Pakistan—China’s “all-weather friend”—has drawn ever closer to Beijing in the wake of America’s scaled back engagement from Afghanistan.  Recently, Pakistani military spokesman Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa went so far as to say that “Pakistan sees China’s enemies as their own.”  Though his comment was directed at China’s Xinjiang militants, it also raised eyebrows in India, which has had a long history of conflict with Pakistan.  Hence, the Indian navy must also have ASW resources ready to counter the possibility that Chinese submarines may use a Pakistani port as a base of operations or that Pakistan’s five French-built Agosta-class diesel-electric attack submarines may even sortie in support of China.

Considering these strategic parameters, we can gauge the number of long-range ASW aviation assets that India would need to conduct oceanic ASW in the Indian Ocean.  We can assess that the Indian navy would have to establish at least two ASW barrier patrols along the eastern and western peripheries of the region (as well as keep a sufficient reserve for escort duty).  Given an operational readiness rate of 75 percent, we can then estimate that India would require a force of 40 to 48 long-range MPAs, likely divided into five or six squadrons of eight aircraft.[2]

The Indian navy could assign three of these MPA squadrons to its Eastern Naval Command, which would likely operate them from not only Rajali, but also Utkrosh naval air station in the Andaman Islands.  From these bases, it could use one squadron to establish an ASW barrier patrol at the western exit of the Malacca Strait and a second squadron to do the same further south, closer to the exits of the Sunda and Lombok Straits.  Finally, it could use a third squadron to support its surface fleet operations.  On the other side of the Indian subcontinent, the navy could assign the other two or three MPA squadrons to its Western and Southern Naval Commands to monitor the western approaches to India’s coast as well as the waters around Sri Lanka for submarine activity.

No one said that oceanic ASW was going to be easy or inexpensive.  But Asia’s changing strategic environment has begun to force India to reassess the kinds of resources that it will need to maintain its naval position in the Indian Ocean.  Given the pace of China’s military modernization, India would do well to mobilize those resources faster.

[1] Gulshan Luthra, “Indian Navy to induct 24 Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft,” India Strategic, Dec. 2011; Rahul Bedi, “Indian naval head warns of Chinese military challenge,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Aug. 12, 2009; Freedom to Use the Seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy (New Delhi: Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence (Navy), May 2007), p. v.

[2] With a 75 percent readiness rate, each squadron would have six of its eight aircraft operational.  To maintain an effective ASW barrier patrol, two MPAs would constantly need to be on station.  Another two aircraft would be flying to or from the patrol area, and the last pair would be on the ground, preparing for their next patrol.