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An Indian Marine Corps ?

Did ancient India have a Marine Corps? Yes, it did. Considering that aircraft and helicopters were not on the scene in medieval India other than in epics of Ramayan and Mahabharat, the Navy or rather ‘Naval Infantry’ of the Chola Empire could well be classified as the Marine Corps of that period. Historical records actually mention of Chola Navy having a core of Marines including trained saboteurs who were trained pearl-fishermen employed for diving and disabling enemy vessels by destroying / damaging the rudder. The Imperial navy of medieval Cholas was composed of a multitude of forces in its command. In addition to the regular navy, there were many auxiliary forces that could be used in naval combat. Chola Navy had the capacity to establish beachheads and or reinforce the Army when required. Expeditionary voyages of the Chola Navy were accompanied with other naval arms of ancient India. Chola Navy played a vital role in the conquest of then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Bengal and present day Indonesia. The array of Hindu temples built in South East Asia stand witness to exploits of the Chola Navy.

As per recorded history, Chola Admirals commanded much respect and prestige in the society, even acting as diplomats in some instances. From 900 CE to 1100 CE, the Chola Navy had grown from a small backwater entity to that of a potent power projection and diplomatic symbol in all of Asia. The early Chola naval ships are known to have rudimentary flame-throwers and catapult type weapons but at the height of power of the Chola Dynasty (985-1014 CE) the Cholas incorporated foreigners, mainly Arabs and Chinese, in their naval ship building program and developed modern combat ships of that era that gave them blue water capability. What is more significant is the organization and classic employment of Naval Infantry in Chola conquests in foreign lands. Chola Navy was thus effectively employed for securing beachheads, against sea pirates, protection of SLOCs, trade commerce and diplomacy, extending Chola influence to China and Southeast Asia. The Tang dynasty of China, the Srivijaya Empire in the Malayan archipelago (now Indonesia) and the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad were their main trading partners.

Ironically, India has been slow in learning lessons from past history. That is the reason we never drew strategic value from recorded history of the Chola Navy and neglected our Navy in the initial years after independence. In fact, the military as a whole was neglected despite the 1947-1948 war with Pakistan till we were shamed in the 1962 Sino-India war. In the utopian fallacy of everlasting peace, we could not recognize the fact that on the high seas lay the country’s hopes, even ignoring the words of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan who said in 1897, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean, will dominate Asia. This ocean will be the key to the seven seas in the 21st Century. The destiny of the world will be decided on its waters.” However, over the years the importance of the sea has dawned to some extent, egged on by the fact that 97 percent of our trade is by sea, presence of foreign navies in the area, expanding arc of Somali piracy and above all Chinese strategic designs in IOR including their port building activities in countries like Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Seychelles. In 2008 a senior Chinese naval officer had suggested that China and the US should divide the Pacific Ocean; China to keep western half and the Indian Ocean and the US to keep the Eastern half from Hawaii.

The establishment of Baaz, a new maritime-cum-air base at Campbell Bay in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a strategically sound step considering proximity of the base from the Malacca straits and Indonesia - strategically overlooking the mouth of Malacca Straits and across Aceh in Indonesia.  Baaz will significantly increase India's strategic reach in the region, considering Campbell Bay is about 300 nautical miles from Carnic – a major forward operating base of India Navy on the southeastern fringe of mainland India. Considering the expanding arc of Somali piracy and threat to SLOCs, India should also open strategic dialogue with countries like Maldives, Mauritius and Indian Ocean Rim countries for establishing joint anti-piracy facilities. 

When the Kargil Review Committee and the GoP were recommending establishment of an ANC (Andaman & Nicobar Command) they surely did not have a toothless organization like the one in the present shape – looking over the shoulder at mainland India for troops despite an enormous area of responsibility.  What needs to be added to strengthen India’s strategic muscle is a Marine Corps. Ironically, the Indian Navy’s case for raising of a Marine Brigade has been languishing with MoD for over a decade now, without headway for lack of strategic thought an absence of requisite politico-military connect. Establishment of a full fledged Marine Corps as part of an Integrated Commando Command (ICC) and locating the Marines in the area of responsibility of ANC needs to be given due consideration. This will assist the ANC and dilute to some extent the present disadvantage of the ANC looking to the mainland for troops that may be unworkable in the emerging strategic environment given ANC’s vast regional responsibility and possibilities of the IOR heating up. Why do we need Marines – simply because they have a different mission and they are designed for flexibility and speed as opposed to more conventional forces meant for protracted engagement, mass action and holding ground. 21st Century requirements clearly establish the need for expeditionary forces in the three Services. The Marines should be configured as a self-contained military, with sea, land and air elements and as part of their tasking also to take land from the sea, as naval infantry. The requirement is to have a smaller, more agile organization with a specific mission and training, designed for short engagements rather than open-ended campaigns – an organization with flexibility in the short term, with specialists who can always step down and execute generally when required. That would also relieve some of the pressure on the Army’s Infantry facing problems of turnover especially in counter insurgency areas, particularly by infantry regiments responsible for contributing manpower to Rashtriya Rifles units. 

The author is a veteran Lieutenant General of the Indian Army

Views expressed are personal

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Prakash Katoch
Prakash Katoch is veteran Lt Gen of Indian Army.
Contact at: [email protected]
Sir: What are the chances that the huge 89K MSC at a cost of 65K crores, either includes a bridge for marine operations or the entire MSC has dual responsibility due to its location in WB and the MSC designation (light and mobility being its key operational mantras) and also the fact that the proposal has gone back to the three service chiefs for deliberation
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