The Strategist

Maritime Combat Power in the Indo-Pacific

08 Dec, 2014    ·   4766

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar says that contemporary challenges are marked by a China that has lost the power-bashfulness of the Deng era 

Vijay Shankar
Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral (Retd.)

Instantaneous Intimidation

Both Julian Corbett and Admiral of the Fleet Sergei Goroshkov had an astute perspective of the importance of a theory for the application of Combat Power. Theory, as Julian Corbett put it, “…be regarded not as a substitute for judgment and experience, but as a means to fertlise both”.

India’s armed forces have traditionally evolved to cope with operational scenarios. Whether this orientation was by instinct or a deep-seated misplaced trepidation of the power of the military is really not germane to our study. However, its impact was to stunt the development of Combat Power to the operational canvas. So it is that the inspiration of the instantaneous intimidation was and continues to be the pretender that fills strategic space.

Strategic Approach

The strategic approach derives from two characteristics of the international system. First, the endemic instability of protagonists involved in the system; whether it is their politics, national interests, alliances or historical antagonisms. Second is the function of a state as a sovereign entity charged with guardianship of a unique set of values often contrary to the larger system.

It is interesting to examine the Chinese case. Two events of the 1990s shaped their military strategy. The assembly of coalition forces in preparation for the Gulf War of 1991, they believed, constituted first firing and justified strategic pre-emption. Second, the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-1996 was a humiliating experience of Chinese sovereignty being violated when two American carrier groups deployed in the Straits with impunity. These two events caused them to develop the ‘Anti Access and Area Denial’ strategy and structure Combat Power to enable it.

Combat Power

Combat Power in a given operational situation is defined as the ability to achieve a decisive outcome, mindful of the principles of war, through the application of leadership that coalesces the various elements of military capability. It harnesses the total impact of destructive and disruptive forces that can be applied. This fundamental process provides the conceptual framework for execution of operational tasks.

Leyte Gulf: Flawed Application of Combat Power

The Battle of Leyte Gulf (22-26 October 1944) was the largest naval battle that was ever fought. It proved decisive to the war and yet provides a study of the failure to apply full Combat Power.

By October 1944 Japan had long passed Clausewitz’s ‘culminating point of the offensive’; it was strategically distended and materially exhausted. In contrast US Navy air power dominated the skies; its ships controlled the Pacific, severing energy lines and isolating millions of Japanese soldiers in China; its armies were rampaging northward towards the Philippines. Under these circumstances the Japanese Navy decided to launch a last ditch naval offensive.  

The plan hailed back to a pre-First World War concept of operations; it envisaged a complex multi-pronged gun attack on the US Seventh Fleet covering the Leyte landings while a diversionary was to lure the US Third Fleet with its heavy carrier groups away from the Leyte. The Third Fleet took the bait and abandoned its primary task. Just as Japan was on the point of success, a lightly armed defending force attained their limited armament range by radar and dealt a crippling blow on the Japanese attackers.

Japanese losses at Leyte completed the extinction of their maritime combat power, underwrote the fall of the Philippines and opened the home islands to the final phase of the Pacific Campaign. The battle had been won and lost through a combination of poor intelligence, presence of superior technology and blunders of leadership on both sides inhibiting application of full Combat Power.

Strategic Maritime Space

What bearing the current shift in global power, to Asia in general and China and India in particular, will have on the larger security environment in the region must now be recognised. It begins by defining the geography within which the power shift will be most felt and maritime strategy operate. This characterisation factors area of origin of trade, energy lines, sea lines of communication, narrows contained which could be dominated or denied and location of potential allies. The Indian Ocean and the South China Sea (IOSCS) dominated by ten choke points provides the strategic context in general to trade passing through and in particular to maritime forces that would seek to surveil, deny or control. 

Policy, Power and Oceanic Vision 

Declarations such as the ‘Look East Policy’, the ‘India Africa Forum Summit’ or indeed Prime Ministers Modi and Abbot’s more recent Strategic Security Framework (SSF) in the Indo-Pacific provide the necessary stimulus for developing a strategic orientation.  

The expansion of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) are suggestive of the littoral’s aspirations to counter-balance the looming presence of China. Indeed, the India Africa Forum Summit is yet to articulate a security perspective, but clearly this is on the cards. As far as the more recent SSF in the Indo-Pacific is concerned; the players involved and their shared interest would have to be identified, objectives defined and collective control and decision-making would need to be fleshed out and made to harmonise with the American “re-balancing” act in the region. Notwithstanding, contemporary challenges in the IOSCS are dominated by three currents:

• The Challenge of a rising China that seeks to rewrite the rule book.

•  Whether existing dispensations will tolerate distress to the ‘status-quo’.

• The mixed blessings of globalisation that endows disproportionate destructive power to lesser states.                                                                                  

Force Planning and Missions

Force planning must be driven by three considerations: first, understanding of what the articulated national policy is; second, what challenges may arise in the short and long-term to this policy; lastly, an estimate of potential harm that may occur to our interests if Combat Power were not developed to address the first two.

The Mahanian logic of being able to provide “unity of objectives directed upon the sea” must drive major infrastructural centres in the Andaman Sea, support facilities in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam; and to the west in the Indian Ocean littorals of South Africa, Malagasy, Tanzania, Mauritius and Seychelles. Military maritime missions that the Navy may be tasked with in the IOSCS include:

• War fighting which includes Sea Control, Access Denial and littoral warfare.

• Surveillance in all dimensions.

• Strategic deterrence.

• Coercive maritime deployments including marking.

• Co-operative missions.

• Diplomatic missions, policing and benign role.

Forces that would be required at all times to fulfill these missions would comprise of one carrier group for control tasks with an amphibious brigade group attached. Suitable airborne anti-submarine and sea-bed surveillance assets and units for marking high value opposition forces. Nuclear attack submarines for denial operations and the nuclear deterrent would be on patrol at all times.                                


Contemporary challenges are marked by a China that has lost the power-bashfulness of the Deng era and replaced it with a cockiness that aims at revising the status-quo. There is an invitation to a contest that India cannot refuse; to take the next step to establish a strategic security framework with the US, Japan, Australia and the littorals is logical. The security construct will necessarily have to be centred on deployed Combat Power, all of which will serve to ‘contend, control and deny’.