India’s growing power depends on its reliance on the seas for commerce. The Indian Navy has ambitiously planned to have a 175-ship force by 2035 where most platforms would be indigenized. The Indian Navy also seeks to be capable of operating in both the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions. The Philippines too is stealthily rising as a middle power, yet with so much to prove and improve on its naval preponderance. As India-Philippines defense relations are poised to grow, it is apt to think about the lessons that India’s growing naval power can provide for the Philippine Navy.
Indigenization and Procurement
Despite its large defense budget, India remains dependent on foreign markets for arms import. SIPRI 2023 Report suggest India as the largest arms importer from 2018 to 2022, with Russia, France, and the U.S. as its top suppliers. Currently, the Indian Navy has a mix of foreign and indigenously built platforms.
However, this trend is much smaller compared to 1991, notably with an 11 percent decrease from 2013-2017. New Delhi sought defense indigenization in the 1960s, but this only gained momentum in the 1990s. Some projects have led to co-development and co-production of certain defense items, such as with Russia, Israel, and France because of the incapability to fully indigenize.
Under Narendra Modi’s “Self-Reliant India” campaign, New Delhi wants the Indian Navy to move away from dependence on foreign suppliers and become self-reliant by 2047. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) announced its Atmanirbhar Bharat program in 2020 to realize this. Within its “negative criteria,” the program took forcible measures to cut Indian dependence on foreign manufacturers and indigenized production of big-ticket items like naval utility helicopters, medium anti-ship missiles, and drones, among others. So far, the government has been able to indigenize 2,500 defense items.
The Philippines has long aspired to defense indigenization as well. Manila seeks to revive the Self-Reliant Defense Posture (SRDP) program, which stretched back from Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s presidency. Senator Imee Marcos expressed revitalizing the SRDP to reduce dependence on foreign suppliers and geopolitical entanglements and push for self-sufficiency.
Despite indigenization, the IISS Military Balance 2023 noted India’s slow pace of modernization. It is concerning given the widening gap between the Indian Navy and China’s PLA Navy (PLAN): China constructs 14 warships annually, India only constructs four. A report attributed this problem to the MOD’s lack of specialization and expertise, the finance ministry’s discouragement of long-term spending, and political sensitivity. Experts recommend a more level playing field between public and private sectors and mechanisms to incentivize investment, like predictable capital expenditure to alleviate this problem. In the short to medium term, conceding to the idea of external assistance to build naval platforms is another step to consider.
The SRDP, however, will not be enough for the Philippine Navy to fight the enemy and establish sea control. The Philippine Navy should instead consider “selective sufficiency” for indigenization; it is better to address certain categories of systems and equipment that meet the military’s needs and establish potential linkage with other industries to spur production. The Philippine Navy must express intent of hedging towards certain indigenized systems, while at the same time, availing offers by foreign companies that are nevertheless sensitive to economies of scale.
Peacetime and Wartime Considerations
Currently, India prides itself on its first-ever indigenously produced medium aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant. While impressive, it has concerns about operational limitations to conduct defensive and offensive air operations due to its short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) operations that limit range and payloads as well as the number and types of aircraft carried. It is also vulnerable to drone swarms given the ship’s small deck to carry potent defensive weapon systems. In other words, peacetime operations will be very different from wartime.
A granular look at the Indian Navy’s submarine capabilities suggests that growth is imperfect. There are only 16 active submarines—about a fourth of which are foreign-built and a significant portion now commissioned for 30 years. This is in contrast with the PLAN’s 56 submarines with a more diverse classification. Observers look forward to Project (P)-75i to increase the number and strength of diesel-attack submarines. However, the project remains painfully slow, which explains why the Indian Navy is resorting to refitting some of the existing ones while P-75i is still out for bidding.
In this regard, the Philippine Navy must realize it cannot rely on symbolic acquisitions. Winning the respect of neighbors cannot be demonstrated by simply procuring naval platforms. It must emphasize capabilities—an ecosystem of completing a task under a preferred level of performance using specified platforms. Hence, acquiring submarines should be used to deter and fight wars—not “sex appeal,” as strategist Edward Luttwak says. For a Philippine Navy submarine force capable of accomplishing tasks, it would require procuring more than six submarines.
A Multidomain Reality
India’s growing naval power cannot be divorced from force restructuring in the Indian Armed Forces, given the technological and doctrinal transformations. The 2020s character of warfare is multidomain; militaries compete with and compel their rivals through land, naval, air, cyber, electronic, and space-based domains at different times using certain or multiple domains. For instance, a sea-based threat could either be neutralized by the navy or army or air force counterparts or jointly but may be detected, sensed and targeted otherwise by either of them.
With the PLAN becoming relatively larger, experts note that the Indian Navy needs to foster jointness among their ranks for more effective force structure and combat capability. In essence, they complement each other by helping each other through increased interoperability and information-sharing for detecting, sensing, targeting, and striking enemies. As Indian naval power grows, it should subsume under a workable joint strategy.
For the Philippine context, as the country leans towards external defense, the navy must understand that they are not necessarily at the forefront of these efforts. It is instructive that whoever gets the best approach to neutralize certain multidomain threats should be considered the best bidder. As one Philippine Army officer said, militaries must be “service-agnostic.” Hence, the Philippine Navy needs better strategies for addressing threats either by itself or with the help of its army and air force counterparts.
As the Indian Navy acknowledges operational and political realities in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, it utilizes naval diplomacy to cover its gaps. For instance, the Indian Navy is pushing boundaries to deepen ties with its ASEAN counterparts, particularly the ASEAN-India Maritime Exercise (AIME) held this year and co-hosted by Singapore. It also looks to its Quad partners, for military exercises such as the Malabar. Above all, they use naval diplomacy as a signal to work with regional naval partners to secure political leadership for a “rules-based security.”
The Philippine case works in reverse. It banks on naval diplomacy to build its network to serve as a force multiplier to uphold the 2016 Arbitral Ruling. It also improves these naval relations for capability development. So far, the diplomatic message is that Manila seeks to contribute to a rules-based order, hence the naval modernization. Not only does it risk relying too much on the goodwill of others, but it also sets confusing expectations with partners. The lesson from the Indian Navy is that naval diplomacy requires specific signaling—that one acknowledges limitations yet is shrewd enough to know what it is capable of and will use it for clear intentions while others could fill that gap.
Navies are not perfect yet their governments require them to be in the best shape to address security challenges. As Indian-Philippine naval relations continue down the line, it is also best for Manila to consider relevant lessons from New Delhi’s naval experiences. For the Philippine Navy, it must learn all navies’ experiences—big or small—so that it may present itself as a credible tool for the Philippines’ steady middle power preponderance at sea. This is most crucial at a time when it seeks to become a credible regional player with something to contribute to the rules-based order. Ultimately, if India becomes a global player, it must share its strengths with those it believes are credible partners, like the Philippines, in upholding a rules-based order.