India's Ocean

Could New Delhi's growing naval force change the balance of power in the Pacific? 

Is the Indian Navy about to start mixing it up with China on the high seas? For years, as the Chinese have modernized their naval fleet, Indian strategists have worried about what that might mean for India's political and economic interests. A recent book by C. Raja Mohan, one of India's most influential strategic thinkers, explores the prospect of Sino-Indian competition spilling from the Himalayas to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, risking a struggle for maritime influence in the region among the United States, China, and India.

So it was all the more interesting, when, at a press conference Monday, India's top admiral appeared to suggest that his navy would defend Indo-Vietnamese oil exploration efforts in the South China Sea against Chinese aggression. An Indian state-owned oil company, ONGC Videsh, has been involved in deepwater explorations with Vietnam in the South China Sea since 2006, despite Chinese claims of sovereignty over that area.

But the reality of Admiral D.K. Joshi's statement was far less sensational. Rather than signalling a deployment, he merely reinforced the longstanding Indian position that China's naval modernization concerned India, and that like other maritime powers, India was preparing for worst-case scenarios. It wasn't even a signal to clear the decks, let alone a shot across the bow.

Nonetheless, India is far more likely to become a regular naval presence in the Pacific than many previously imagined, due to its rapidly expanding economy, improving military technologies, and growing energy interests. The Indian Navy has historically been the smallest and most poorly-resourced of India's three military services, in keeping with the country's security preoccupations at home and its unresolved land border disputes with Pakistan and China. It has just 60,000 active personnel and a $7 billion annual budget, roughly a quarter of the strength and resources of China's People's Liberation Army Navy. Its long-range capabilities come from a single aircraft carrier, a second-hand amphibious transport dock, 14 German- or Russian-designed diesel-powered submarines, and about 20 destroyers and frigates.

But power is relative, and this seemingly small flotilla today constitutes the largest naval presence in the Indian Ocean after the U.S. Navy. Beyond the United States and China, only Japan, South Korea, and perhaps Taiwan boast even comparable capacities for the region, although their navies are more narrowly focused. But India's navy dwarfs those of other countries embroiled in territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. The two strongest rival claimants to China, Vietnam and the Philippines, boast just three active frigates between them. The temporary presence of even a small Indian squadron in the Pacific could make a meaningful difference to the region's balance of power.

India's growing interests, resources, and technological capabilities will likely lead it to increased naval activity east of the Strait of Malacca, the critical junction of the Pacific and Indian Oceans through which 40 percent of the world's trade and most of East Asia's oil imports flow. India is conducting sea trials of an indigenously-designed nuclear-powered submarine, which will significantly increase its navy's operational range. In the next two years, India will induct a second aircraft carrier and modern French submarines into active service, to upgrade its aging fleet. The navy's share of the defense budget has steadily grown from less than 15 percent of India's annual military expenditure in 2000 to 19 percent in 2012, outpacing India's overall defense spending. And the 2009 agreement to purchase P-8 aircraft from the United States, capable of interdicting ships and tracking submarines, signals India's technological ambitions in the high seas.

Perhaps more importantly, India is able to work with other regional navies. Beginning with basic exercises in the early 2000s, the Indian Navy's collaboration with the U.S. Pacific Command has evolved into complex war games. In 2004, India tested its ability to respond to regional crises in coordination with the United States, Japan, and Australia by performing humanitarian relief operations in Southeast Asia following the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. And the Malabar series of naval exercises between India and the United States, which have also involved Japan, Australia, and Singapore, has strengthened the Indian Navy's ability to work closely with partners far from its shores. Contrast this to China: Beyond dustups with Southeast Asian countries, and with Japan over disputed islands -- which only generate further suspicion of Chinese military intentions -- Beijing is also quick to break off military ties, like it did after Washington sold weapons to Taiwan in 2010.

None of this means that India is looking to pick a fight with China in the South China Sea, particularly as India has no territorial stakes there. Other facets of the Sino-Indian relationship -- the fragile boundary talks over disputed Himalayan territory and bilateral trade of more than $70 billion and growing -- are of far greater importance to New Delhi. At the same time, renouncing claims to its assets in Vietnam in response to perceived Chinese pressure could embarrass the Indian government, both domestically and internationally. When confronted with pressure from Beijing -- as during the Dalai Lama's 2009 visit to the disputed border town of Tawang or periods when China has refused to issue visas in some Indian passports -- New Delhi's response has generally been to stick to its guns.

India evidently needs to do a better job of managing its message. Its National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, who was in Beijing for border negotiations when Joshi made his statement, countered that the Indian media had "manufactured" the story. For its part, China needs to appreciate that its aggressive pursuit of maritime territory compels India to cooperate more closely with Vietnam and the Philippines. Beijing's issuing of passports this November featuring a map showing the fullest extent of its territorial claims was a remarkably clumsy gesture, provoking simultaneous outrage in India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan. China may have only itself to blame if these states find greater common cause with one another, and with other regional maritime powers.

India's steadily growing naval capabilities and its deepening commercial engagements in the Pacific Rim means that it now has the ability to provide security in the region to ensure open and secure sea lines of communication. For many countries invested in the region -- not least the United States -- that is welcome. For China too, this presents another opportunity for improving cooperation with New Delhi, but that would require it to accept India's ability to play the role of a Pacific power.


National Security

Why Assad Won’t Use His Chemical Weapons

And why you should still be worried.

Since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, concerns over the country's chemical arsenal have largely reflected the fear that terrorists might steal them in the chaotic aftermath of Bashar al Assad's overthrow. Military use against the Free Syrian Army seemed less likely, largely because the use of unconventional weapons would violate international law and norms. If it broke that taboo, the regime would risk losing Russian and Chinese support, legitimizing foreign military intervention, and, ultimately, hastening its own end. As one Syrian official said, "We would not commit suicide."

But this week chemical anxieties shifted. President Barack Obama warned Syria that "[t]he use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable" -- a comment echoed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, both of whom said that use of the arsenal would cross a "red line" for the United States. Despite these admonitions -- and a barrage of reports that Syria is preparing to deploy its chemical arsenal -- it remains doubtful that Damascus is at the point where the use of chemical weapons against rebels makes tactical or strategic sense.

Chemical weapons have rarely been militarily decisive. In World War I -- which marked the historical debut of choking, blister, and blood agents -- they caused only 4 percent of the war's casualties and only 3 percent of those casualties died. Used episodically in the years since, blistering agents rarely achieved notable results. Italy had little success incorporating them into its attempted conquest of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), and Libya's use of blistering agents against Chadian forces in the 1980s had little impact on battle outcomes. Used in isolation, World War I-era chemical agents were relatively ineffective.

Other chemical agents, however -- most notably nerve agents, which kill by shutting down respiration and other vital functions -- have enabled some tactical successes, while killing tens of thousands civilians. The most notable is example is Iraq's use during its war with Iran, which reportedly suffered 60,000 casualties from chemical weapons. Although difficult to manufacture, nerve agents are immensely lethal and, in some cases, easier to weaponize and deliver. First developed by the Germans, these agents include tabun, soman, and sarin.

So, while blistering agents remain a likely element of the Syrian chemical arsenal, it is the regime's likely possession of nerve agent that provokes far greater concern. Experts note that Syria likely has hundreds of tons of sarin -- a lethal dose is approximately half a milligram. Deliverable by planes and artillery, 100-200 Syrian Scud missiles also reportedly serve as a quickly readied additional delivery platform. There is also suspicion that Syria possesses VX, a far deadlier nerve agent that is 100-400 times more toxic than sarin.

But even these weapons have become obsolete for states. They are rarely strategically decisive, they have been obviated by advanced conventional arms (and, of course, nuclear weapons), and they are stigmatized. That is why all but six states belong to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the production and use of chemical weapons. Syria's weapons, produced beginning in the early 1970s with Egyptian assistance, have been intended to deter Israel's nuclear capability and to offset Syrian conventional inferiority. It's unlikely they could have served either purpose, but designed for use in large-scale, state-to-state warfare, Syria's chemical weapons are particularly unsuited for the urban fights that have characterized the civil war. Close-quarters combat renders chemical weapons not only ineffective but counterproductive; with sarin or VX, a simple wind shift could turn the deadly agent against the Syrian military. Syria's likely blister agent -- so called "mustard gas" -- is highly corrosive, remaining a hazard for forces attempting to occupy the affected area.

That doesn't mean Assad won't use chemical weapons -- in particular, there is the possibility of irrational action if the regime is on the verge of collapse. The more isolated the top leadership becomes, the more likely it is to make unsound decisions based on an altered sense of reality. But the greater threat remains terrorist acquisition of chemical weapons if the military loses control over relevant sites and facilities. The Pentagon estimated earlier this year that it would take more than 75,000 troops to secure Syria's chemical weapons against theft -- and that assumes that U.S. intelligence knows precisely where they all are. After the fall of Baghdad, looters gained access to Iraq's Al-Qaqaa military installation, and close to 200 tons of military grade explosives vanished, even though there were 200,000 coalition forces available and the International Atomic Energy Agency had specifically warned of the explosives' vulnerability.

Some commentators have warned that, as with Iraq, intelligence could be faulty: perhaps Syria has no (or few) WMD. Alas, that is unlikely given Syria's early chemical cooperation with Egypt and its perceived need to deter nuclear-armed Israel. Indeed, following the 2007 destruction of its al-Kibar nuclear facility, Syria may well have doubled down on its reliance on chemical, and possibly, biological weapons to afford the country a perceived deterrent against existential threats. Given all the variables in play, it seems all but certain that in the end an inventory of Syria's chemical stockpile will reveal significant gaps in the current assessments. 

Uncertainties regarding this crisis are pervasive, yet at least one outcome is highly probable: terrorist acquisition of chemical weapons if the regime falls. Although militarily ineffective for states, chemical agents still evoke disproportionate fear and anxiety with civilians. Used effectively, they are excellent tools for spreading terror beyond their immediate victims to a far wider audience.

The good news is that few terrorist groups would actually be able to use any materials they acquired. Nerve agents require precision and perennial care. Absent the scientific expertise to maintain and replenish various precursors, many of the agents' purity rates will degrade. Depending on how the particular precursor or agent is stored, its shelf-life could diminish rapidly. The United States, for example, applied certain techniques to its sarin-filled munitions that reportedly retained their purity rate at 90 percent for over three decades. In contrast, Iraqi agents, intended for use in a short period of time, degraded to less than 10 percent, and in some cases 1 percent, in less than two years. Actually delivering the weapons is another hurdle.

Unfortunately, some of the terrorist groups operating in or near Syria do in fact possess the operational capabilities to competently control various quantities of deadly chemical agents. Given Syria's porous border, there are legitimate fears that these agents could find their way to Western Europe, Russia, the United States, or elsewhere. Some could also remain in-country, complicating the transition to a post-Assad government. The ethnic and religious divisions that have plagued Iraq are likely to be replicated with the fall of the Syrian regime. Were chemical agents to fall into the hands of armed factions battling for control of the nation, the implications would be stark and ominous. So, the United States is right to worry about Syria's chemical weapons -- it may just be worried about them for the wrong reason.

Javier Manzano/AFP/Getty Images