Sea Power and Strategic Importance of the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean covering about twenty percent of the world ocean areas has consistently occupied position of pre-eminence unrivalled by the Pacific or the Atlantic. The Ocean figured prominently not only in the lives of people in the littoral countries, but also of the people of distant lands. The geopolitical prominence of the Ocean was intimately connected with the fabulous riches and spices of the Indies. The importance of spices in the distant past is probably surpassed only by the present day prominence of oil and the Ocean came to see incessant maritime activity from antiquity on. The Indian Ocean is geographically important because it has been the corridor for East West trade for centuries. It is linked to the West through the Red Sea in the North and the Cape of Good Hope in the South. The entries to the Indian Ocean are guarded by ‘Bab-el-Mandeb’ in the Red Sea and ‘Straits of Malacca’ in the East. Geographically the Indian Ocean countries may be divided as follows:

Littoral countries:      Whose shores are washed by the waters of the Indian Ocean.

Hinterland countries: The maritime trade of which passes through above countries.

The user countries:    All those countries outside the Indian Ocean region making use of the ocean for maritime trade.

A region of utmost strategic importance to the East and West, the Indian Ocean has become a focus of the new cold war confrontation. The strategic importance of the Indian Ocean has come to be recognized increasingly in recent decades. This recognition has been accompanied by growing militarisation throughout the area, which has included naval build up both by the littoral states and the great powers. There are three aspects of the great power interest in the region: the strategic location of the ocean basin, the existence of natural resources, especially oil and local rivalries.

Changes in passenger transportation over the past century have tended to obscure the still central role of the sea. First railroads, then highways then aircraft have all moved people much faster than ships or riverboats. For example due to the competition of jet airliners, ocean passenger ships have become very nearly extinct over the past two decades. However, goods still tend to travel by water, because such transportation is so much more efficient. The key issue is the capacity of the alternative means of transportation, in terms of tonnage delivered continuously per unit time. A second important issue is fuel; a given weight of fuel drives a ship much faster than an aircraft, to the extent that fuel supply limits air transport operations. Cargo transport capacity can be compared in two ways: the speed with which a particular item is delivered, and the rate at which cargo arrives over the long term. For the individual item an aircraft clearly provides the quickest service. Trucks on a highway or trains on a railway can move materiel fairly quickly, but there is of the same order of magnitude as that of a ship.


Sea power is the term used to describe the ability of a nation to exploit the oceans to its advantage. Sea power consists not only the ability of exploiting the oceans commercially, but the strength to protect this ability from interference. It also implies the ability of a nation to influence others in peace and impose its will in war. Sea power is made up of following elements:

  • The strength of merchant fleet and the ship building capacity to sustain them.
  • The availability of ports and naval bases in adequate numbers and capacity with internal communications serving them.
  • The industrial capacity to sustain national economy through overseas trade.
  • The personnel to man the various instrument of sea power.
  • The capacity to safeguard sea borne trade and other maritime interest.
  • The maritime forces to enable a nation to impose its will on an enemy in war, to influence others in peace and to protect other elements of sea power.

The naval power might be powerful globally, regionally, or just locally. The maritime background still creates interests that states perceive as requiring defence by military force deployed on, over, and under the oceans. The great naval strategist and theoretician Admiral AT Mahan emphasized that the ‘principal conditions affecting the sea power of nations’ were:

Geographical position:          Mahan said that a nation so situated is neither forced to defend itself by land nor induced to seek extension of its territory by way of the land. It has by the very unity of its aim directed upon the sea.

Physical Conformation:        Mahan argued those countries with long seaboards and good harbours tend to be more maritime friendly than others. It is, of course, not just the possession of a coast that is important.

Extent of Territory:     A fundamental weakness of Mahan was that he was unconcerned with ‘total number of square miles which a country contains’ in his analysis of a nation’s potential as a sea power. In this he was almost completely wrong. True, possession of large areas of unex­ploited territory on its own is no help, but the current century was to prove that the extent of territory in terms of masses of exploitable resources was a key factor in building state power to equally massive proportions.

Number of Population:         By this Mahan meant the number of the population following the sea, or at least readily available for employment on ship borne and related it to his point about the need for coasts and harbours. The number of population in its relationship to the general resources and economic develop­ment of the state is a vital factor in determining the resources available for diversion to naval purposes.

National Character:     The national character is most impor­tant in the development of sea power. The appreciation of economics now goes somewhat further than instinct, although cultural factors do play a part in economic growth and power. Only countries of considerable economic strength can afford to be major sea powers in the modern world.

Character of Government:       Government policy can foster sea power by fostering general economic growth, or by specially emphasizing defence in general and the navy in particular within the normal peacetime. Britain under the Thatcher Administration is a classic example.


The strategies should be appropriate to the present reality and future contingency. They must take full account of interests, threats and resources, must compound them for national security and well-being and can be broadly categorized as follows:

Deterrence:                Deterrence is a strategic idea in commonplace. It is in general use not only by western writers on defence but also by those in non-aligned countries. The word deterrence seems to be of comparatively recent origin, although it was used in the context of strategy in the 1930s. The idea is as old as strategy itself, by making military operation, to convince a potential opponent that military action will be unprofitable for him. But the advent of the atomic bomb, with its threat is of widespread destruction of life and property greatly enhanced in the eyes of some statesmen and strategists the feasibility of the ideas general application.

Sea Command and Sea Control:     The reasons lie deep in the scale and nature of world relationships at sea. The sea is very large compared with either a ship or a fleet; coastlines are similarly long. Maritime units are numerous and varied in size, strength and manoeuvrability. Nations are many, adversary conditions and confrontations diverse. It is therefore beyond the bounds of possibility that at all times and in all places any power could be in a position comprehensively to impose its will on all goes on at sea. Today where the threat and conflict at sea have spread into the media, which gives greatly, enhanced options for the application of power by sea. They also give much bigger and more diverse opportunities to the opposition.

Sea Use:          ‘The ability to use the sea’ is one definition of maritime power. Sea use in normal conditions can result in great economic gain, and great advantages for the states. The economic uses of the sea consist of trade and commerce on its surface, and exploitation of resources in its depth and subsoil. A notable characteristic of sea resource exploitation is that, although it occurs beneath the surface, it is almost always dependent on surface borne agents for its effectiveness. Turning to the use of the sea for military purposes in their broadest sense, the surface again assumes primary importance. Large formations of troops, ready for combat and logistically supported, can only be carried on the surface of the sea. Thus it turns out that sea use is, overwhelmingly, use of the sea’s surface, but it raises considerable problems since sea use is vulnerable to sea denial.

Sea Denial:                 Denial of the sea to one’s adversary has often been regarded as to be opposite of sea control for one’s own use. Yet history and geography combine to assert that this is a sweeping statement. Sea denial, then, may be a policy embarked upon by any national actor at any stage of a dispute and does not depend on a complementary need for sea use or sea control. It may be used as a means of helping to secure sea use; either in the same geographical arena or elsewhere and a sunken enemy can no longer threaten. Sea denial tends to be the policy of the powerless dependent on the sea, and of the inferior naval power.


  1. Peter Cozens. The Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean.
  2. Eric Grove. The Future of Sea Power.
  3. Admiral A T Mahan. US Navy. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.
  4. Rear Admiral JR Hill, Maritime Strategy for Medium Powers.

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