The infuriating charm of history, the writer Aldous Huxley once quipped, is that nothing ever changes—and yet somehow everything is completely different. One of the defining geopolitical narratives of this past half-decade has been the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as the maritime epicenter of global activity. Influential thinkers such as Robert D. Kaplan have drawn attention to the growing importance of the Indian Ocean, both as a hub of world trade and as a potential breeding pool for great-power rivalry. In reality, however, the sudden recognition of the Indian Ocean’s centrality is anything but a new phenomenon.
During the second half of the Cold War, a series of crises and tectonic shocks—the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—sent out ripples of unease across the entire Indian Ocean basin. These shocks led to a deluge of articles in various academic and policy journals that invariably called for an end to the U.S. tradition of benign neglect of the region. In 1978, Zbigniew Brzezinski spoke in vivid and foreboding terms of an “arc of crisis,” which stretched “along the shores of the Indian Ocean, with fragile and social and political structures in a region of vital importance to us threatened with fragmentation. The resulting political chaos could well be filled by elements hostile to our values and sympathetic to our adversaries.”The adversaries to which Brzezinski referred, of course, were the Soviets, who were then in the process of expanding their navy’s reach into the balmy waters of the Indian Ocean. Fearful that U.S. submarines could lash out at the Soviet Union’s southern continental landmass through its soft maritime underbelly, Moscow’s naval planners also fretted that NATO forces could interdict Soviet energy shipments meandering their way through the congested channels of the Persian Gulf. The United States no longer faces such a formidable peer competitor in the region. Nevertheless, close to three decades later, many other aspects of Brzezinski’s speech appear astonishingly enduring.
The Indian Ocean remains a tumultuous zone, where a lack of governance along its shores has spawned a series of security chasms offshore. This spillover effect has been most apparent off the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden, where rampant piracy has prompted a continuous rotation of multinational naval taskforces. Meanwhile, an upsurge in Islamic extremism in countries such as Pakistan and Somalia has heightened regional anxiety over maritime terrorism and seaborne infiltration. These concerns have been exacerbated by the chronic deficiencies of many of the smaller, more impoverished nations in areas such as maritime-domain awareness and coastal surveillance. In 2008, a French Ministry of Defense white paper spoke in language strongly reminiscent of the Carter era: an “arc of instability” stretches from “Dakar (in Senegal) all the way to Peshawar (in Pakistan).”
Other changes are transforming the wider maritime environment. The first, more insidious in nature, is the rapid diffusion of what military analysts refer to as “anti-access and area denial” (A2/AD) technologies. The second, more sudden and dramatic, is the gradual displacement of nuclear interactions from land to sea.
The Department of Defense’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review describes A2/AD as seeking “to deny outside countries the ability to project power into a region, thereby allowing aggression or other destabilizing actions to be conducted by the anti-access power.”In reality, A2/AD is little more than a savvy repackaging of a time-old feature of naval warfare: the struggle between offense and defense, or between gunboats and coastal defenses.
At the same time, technological advances in the field of precision-guided weaponry have made the pursuit of naval strategies focused on denial increasingly attractive to states with a limited capacity or appetite for power projection. China, which has invested heavily in a broad array of anti-access systems, is a prime example. Iran and Pakistan, poised on either side of the world’s main trade jugular, the Strait of Hormuz, provide two additional case studies, both of which have yet to receive as much scrutiny.
An exception can be found in a particularly insightful 2011 report published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The study notes that while A2/AD may come to form the universal strategy of the weak, the application of such an approach to naval warfare will vary based on each state’s geographical location, strategic tradition and resources. The authors conclude that, in the case of Iran, this has led to what can best be described as a “hybrid” A2/AD strategy, one that fuses the use of advanced weaponry such as submarines, mines and shore-based missiles with less conventional methods: maritime guerrilla tactics (through the use of swarms of fast-attack craft) and the activation of proxy terrorist networks overseas.
The similarities from one side of the Persian Gulf to another—between Iran’s strategy vis-à-vis the United States and Pakistan’s naval posture towards India—are striking. Indeed, Pakistan’s chronically underfunded navy has also been laboring to offset India’s increasingly overbearing naval advantage by investing in a wide gamut of A2/AD systems: these range from shore-based cruise missiles and small Chinese-made fast-attack craft, to a large number of additional submarines, which have long constituted the backbone of the Pakistani fleet. Pakistan, like its Iranian neighbor, remains stubbornly wedded to the use of unsavory proxies, through which it continues to wage its “wars of a thousand cuts” in places such as Kashmir and Afghanistan.
Both Iran and Pakistan have opted for an asymmetric strategy: they have heavily invested in missile and subsurface warfare, while continuing to surreptitiously support malignant non-state actors. Both states have also threatened to disrupt the seaborne energy supplies of their stronger antagonists in the event of a confrontation, and are, strand by strand, casting a thick A2/AD web over the world’s most congested shipping lanes. The destabilizing effects of such an evolution are compounded by the injection of naval nuclear weapons.
In May of last year, the Pakistani military issued a press release announcing the establishment of a Naval Strategic Forces Command. Pakistani naval planners have been arguing for years for a nuclear triad, partly in response to India’s imminent induction of its first indigenous nuclear submarine, but also as a means of dispersing Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal and diluting India’s conventional naval superiority. When queried, Pakistani commanders mention the precedent set by Israel’s alleged decision to place nuclear-tipped cruise missiles aboard conventional submarines and suggest, somewhat provocatively, that Pakistan should follow suit. Another option, some have argued, would be stationing nuclear weaponry aboard surface ships and maritime-patrol aircraft.
Needless to say, these proposed moves would be highly destabilizing. In the event of an Indo-Pakistani conflict at sea, the Indian Navy would have no way of determining whether an enemy vessel or aircraft is carrying nuclear weapons or not. Meanwhile, Iran has articulated similar ambitions to eventually add a nuclear dimension to its fleet. While some of Tehran’s statements appear characteristically outlandish, it is not impossible that in the next decade or so Iran might decide to place sensitive nuclear material or weaponry aboard conventional ships or submarines. A nuclear-armed Iran could also feel emboldened to engage in proxy warfare or support acts of maritime terrorism.
In the Indian Ocean, the United States and India face a remarkably similar array of challenges. Both need creative ways to effectively neutralize the strategies of prospective antagonists. A2/AD needs to be placed at the very top of the agenda for Indo-U.S. naval cooperation. Not only do both partners face similar threats; they can also provide each other with crucial operational experience. For instance, institutionalized joint Navy and Air Force exercises in-between both countries could assist India in the development of its maritime strike capabilities. The Indian Navy has frequently had to confront challenging operational environments with limited means, and as a result has become adept at rapidly concocting creative solutions to seemingly intractable predicaments. At a time when the projected fleet size for the U.S. Navy has reached a low ebb, India’s experience in juggling limited resources and capabilities could prove instructive. Indian naval officers also have extensive experience in dealing with “swarm attacks” and irregular littoral warfare, most notably during India’s ill-fated intervention in Sri Lanka in the 1980s.
This level of operational experience in the region could be of value to American naval commanders, especially if Tehran opts to employ similar tactics in the claustrophobic confines of the Persian Gulf. Finally, both India and the United States need to conduct antisubmarine warfare (ASW) operations in littoral waters with challenging conditions. This is a field where the U.S. Navy is without peer and could assist its Indian counterpart.
This may not be the first time that the United States has found itself compelled to swivel its attention towards a previously neglected theater of operations. The sheer complexity of the challenges that the U.S. Navy faces within this oceanic crescent, however, is unprecedented. While it is unfortunate that these transformations are occurring at a time of American naval stagnation, India’s rise provides both democracies with a crucial window of opportunity to shape one of the world’s most dynamic maritime arenas. In this field, as in so many others, the perils of inertia far outweigh the potential political discomfitures that come with closer cooperation.
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