In a first, India and France are reported to have conducted “Joint patrols” from the Reunion Island located in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The Indian Navy (IN) conducted this patrol with the French personnel onboard a P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft in the Southern Indian Ocean in March 2020. This action underlines the maritime, military, and political aspects of India’s approach to the strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific. Joint Patrols signal India’s intent to more boldly leverage the maritime military cooperation element in its relationship with key partners to drive strategic outcomes and is indicative of an Indo-Pacific strategy that is not solely dependent on the instrument of Quad.
A Natural Progression
India, under the “Neighborhood First” policy, conducts joint Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) surveillance with Maldives, Seychelles, and Mauritius and Coordinated Patrols (CORPAT) with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia. The seamless maritime environment also demands such interoperability for enhancing Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). In 2016, a previous offer from the United States (US) to conduct joint patrols was rejected by India, and in 2018, then IN Chief Adm Sunil Lanba stated that while India was looking at cooperative frameworks in the region to deal with common threats, CORPATS and joint patrols would be limited to maritime neighbors. France, however, being a resident maritime power courtesy its overseas territories in the Indo-Pacific, and its strategic convergence with India was a natural choice. The relationship with France has, in fact, augmented both in scope and depth over the years. The ties have gradually been built over mutually beneficial cooperation in the areas of space, nuclear energy tech, climate change, and defense. Both Indian Air Force (IAF) and IN are in the process of inducting major platforms like 36 Rafale fighter jets and six Scorpene conventional submarines, respectively forming the high-end fighter platforms for these services. Interestingly in the 1950s, Paris and New Delhi had disputes over French colonial possessions in the Indian subcontinent region. Nevertheless, the relationship tided over these issues due to unprecedented French cooperation with India in atomic energy and over its “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974. The congruence of political views on a range of issues from the Security Council, Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), and terrorism implies that India’s first joint patrol alongside the French is a natural progression for the relationship.
Undersea Domain Awareness
The value of undersea domain awareness in addressing deterrence requirements in the maritime environment is a consistent theme in India’s engagements. The use of P-8I should, therefore, be noted for its ability to conduct anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations. The P-8I can carry 129 sonobuoys, it has a range of 1200+ nautical miles with an endurance of 4 hours on the station, and its identification friend or foe (IFF) can generate a common maritime picture with friendly navies. Earlier in March 2019, India and France held annual bilateral naval exercise Varuna-18 with a focus on anti-submarine warfare operations and fleet air defense while the earlier iterations focused more on countering maritime terrorism. This is clearly an expansion of threat perception driven by extra-regional actors, like the Chinese Navy, with undersea warfare capability. In 2013 when a Chinese nuclear submarine was spotted for the first time in the IOR, India had similarly engaged with the US in an anti-submarine exercise. Until October 2018, eight such Chinese deployments have been observed. Moreover, recently, China deployed almost a dozen “Sea Wing” underwater drones in the IOR, which made “more than 3400 observations” along with the hydrographic survey and oceanic research ships. Though this survey was undertaken with commercial intent, they are also critical for sustained submarine and anti-submarine operations. Weary of the growing Chinese undersea warfare capability, India has inked a deal with the US for the supply of 24 Sikorsky MH-60R multirole helicopters that can execute anti-submarine operations. Such patrols are, therefore, military necessity and not merely an action limited to political symbolism.
India’s Approach to Indo-Pacific
India’s naval modernization programs have suffered setbacks on account of bureaucratic delays and finance-related issues. The Navy’s share in the overall budget declined from 18% in 2012 to 13% in 2019-20, while its capex share had declined from 30% in 2010-11 to 25% in 2019-20. Similarly, delay in ramping up numbers in the indigenous conventional submarine program creates a capacity/capability gap for the IN. Such initiatives offer a way to augment capacity until domestic capabilities can actualize. However, it is still an open-ended question if joint patrols will become a norm for India and what they signal about India’s approach to security challenges. The cautious stance is evinced by the quoted statement of the unnamed Indian source, that says, “the patrols will be periodical. There is no set pattern”. The French interests are more pronounced in the western IOR than in the eastern IOR region, whereas Indian interests extend across the IOR region. Joint patrols may, therefore, not be seen in the eastern IOR as French territories provide access only to choke points in the western IOR, namely for the Mozambique Channel, Bab-el-Mandeb, and the Strait of Hormuz. Second, given India’s strategy of “evasive balancing,” it is further likely that these patrols will be performed only in the IOR and not the Pacific branch. However, better undersea domain awareness will require more of such bilateral arrangements with the US, UK, Australia, Japan, and smaller partners like Indonesia to cover maximum area and minimize blind spots. The expansion in joint patrols, however slow, maybe a steady process as India’s trade and connectivity linkages with East Asia grow over time and the consequent need for further external balancing.
In the final analysis, this indicates that while the Quad has been limited to its political dimension, underneath its lose definition, a mishmash of bilateral and trilateral mechanisms that India has institutionalized with middle powers provide a cautious military dimension to these relationships that skeptics often allege is absent in the Quad. They, in fact, exude a crucial element of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy, that while India is committed to the instrument of Quad, it is not solely dependent on it. Quad is but one of many instruments for India to realize its security objectives in the Indo-Pacific.
*** The author is a Consultant at Armed Conflict Location Event Database (ACLED) Project and a Non-Resident Fellow at East West Institute, New York, USA. The views expressed in the article are personal ***