India has launched a massive naval buildup aimed at making it the dominant power in the region between the Persian Gulf and Indonesia, according to military analysts and diplomats here. Newly armed with a Soviet-made, nuclear-powered submarine, the Navy is being geared to play an assertive role in the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, and Arabian Sea, these experts say.
After years of neglect, policymakers have given the Navy a large slice of the $10 billion military budget for the current fiscal year.
``With a large coastline, India is concerned over naval threats, particularly from China, which has the world's third-largest, though obsolescent, navy,'' says R.R. Subramanian, a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a government think tank. ``The possibility of the Chinese Navy linking up with Pakistan in a war must be weighing heavily in the minds of our policymakers.'' [Study urges attention to India-Pakistan nuclear rivalry. Story, P. 5.]
Indian officials have also been concerned that the Pakistani naval fleet holds more sophisticated ships and weapons than their own Navy.
Adm. S.N. Kohli, a former Navy chief, says a ``buildup is essential,'' because policymakers now realize that the major threats to Indian security have always emanated from the sea.
``History reveals that invaders who came by sea, including the British, became our rulers. Sea power would hold the key to the outcome of a future conflict,'' Admiral Kohli said in an interview.
According to Adm. Jayant G. Nadkarni, the new Navy chief, the Indian strategy is ``not only to ensure that the sea areas of importance to us are controlled by us, but to deny them to our adversary. For this the primary weapon would be submarines.''
The Navy's acquisition of a Soviet-made nuclear-powered submarine earlier this month has made India only the sixth country to possess such a submarine.
The Navy's multibillion-dollar modernization plan has included the purchase of two West German Class 209 submarines, two Soviet-made Kilo-class submarines, and new Soviet Kashin 2 destroyers.
The old British Leanders are being replaced by modern 5,000-ton, Indian-built frigates.
A new 704-acre submarine dockyard has been built with Soviet assistance at Vishakapatnam, headquarters of the Indian submarine force. Two additional Class 209 submarines, with wire-guided torpedoes, are being built at Bombay in collaboration with West Germany's Howaldtswerke.
India's expenditures on defense reached 25 percent of the government's budget in fiscal 1987-88, as compared with 17.8 percent in 1982-83.
T.T. Poulose, a professor of disarmament studies at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, contends that the naval buildup is part of a more aggressive foreign policy aimed at reinforcing India's role as the main regional power. The role involves thwarting attempts by big powers to gain a foothold in the region, Professor Poulose says.
``India's military intervention in the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict, which reflects this strategy, was partly prompted by fears of Trincomalee becoming a US naval base,'' Poulose said in an interview.
Indian defense experts and Western diplomats say the acquisition of a nuclear-propelled submarine marks a ``significant jump'' in India's military capabilities. India can now counter the kind of threat it faced in the 1971 war with Pakistan, when the US Navy sent its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal, according to these experts and diplomats.
It is widely believed here that the ship is the first of at least two nuclear-powered SSN fleet submarines India is to get from the Soviet Union.
The only government comment so far has been that the Navy has received one submarine ``on lease for training purposes.''
A Western diplomatic source says the deal involved the transfer of reconditioned old-model submarines phased out from the Soviet fleet.
``Each sub should be worth $150 to $400 million,'' according to the diplomat, a nuclear policy specialist.
But a second Western diplomatic source says the number of Indian crew members trained by the Soviets shows that the submarine is of the Alfa or Victor I class powered by two pressurized-water or liquid metal-cooled reactors. Either type can stay underwater for three months, but the Alfa is regarded as a superior attack submarine with a deep-diving maneuverability.
Although the submarine has no atomic arms on board, the crew would have to be trained on how to operate the submarine reactors and handle its highly radioactive wastes.
India, which demonstrated its atomic-weapons capability in 1974 by exploding a plutonium device, is now trying to develop a nuclear-propulsion system for indigenous submarines, according to officials.
Poulose says the project ``raises the long-term possibility of India developing a submarine-launched ballistic missile capability.''
But the buildup has also exposed weaknesses in Indian naval defense. The foremost is the failure to plug the tactical missile threat from Pakistan. The Indians are still shopping for an effective countersystem to Pakistan's US-supplied, submarine-launched Harpoon missile.
The Navy is also in danger of what Kohli calls ``the placing of all eggs in one basket.''
Despite attempts in recent years to diversify arms purchases, the Indian military remains dependent on Moscow for sophisticated weapon systems and spare parts. Soviet influence is the strongest in the Indian Navy. This is reflected in the predominance of Soviet-made ships in the Indian fleet.
They include the new Yevgenya minesweepers, Nanuchka 2-class corvettes, Foxtrot submarines, and Polnochny-class landing ships.
There is concern that the SSN lease would not only give the Soviets the right of periodic submarine inspection, but also provide them a means of increasing their leverage over the Indian Navy.
India has a large arms industry, manufacturing fighter-jets, tanks, and frigates. In recent years, however, it has spent billions of dollars importing weapon systems.
India's newly emerging status as the largest arms importer in Asia has raised an important question: Can India become a regional superpower without producing most weapons indigenously?
``Self-reliance means security,'' Kohli says. ``The more weapons you produce on your own, the more secure you feel,'' the admiral adds. ``But no navy, including the United States Navy, is absolutely self-reliant.''