Don’t discount navy’s role in armed forces

Bidanda Chengappa | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on December 03, 2017

Naval firepower is critical for India to consolidate its strategic interests in the Indian Ocean region and South China Sea

The Indian Navy celebrates Navy Day on December 4 every year to commemorate its successful sea-borne attack off Karachi harbour during the 1971 India-Pakistan war. In December 1961 it had fought against Portuguese forces to liberate Goa, and thereafter in the 1965 India-Pakistan war a few Indian naval Alize aircraft stationed at Jamnagar undertook surveillance and reconnaissance missions over the Arabian Sea to support the Indian Air Force.

Yet the sea-borne bombardment of Karachi stands out prominently enough in naval memory to be declared Navy Day.

Changing role

Over the years the priority accorded to the army and air force hardware requirements to counter landward threats constrained the navy to warship replacement programmes.

The challenge for any fighting navy is to ensure replacements of its warships. Accordingly the Indian Navy has to maintain a force level of at least 120 ships with an average life of 20 years and towards this objective it has to induct at least six warships annually.

Over the last 70 years the IN has developed skill-sets to build warships for tropical conditions, to sail in the Northern Indian Ocean characterised by high temperatures, humidity and salinity that creates a corrosive climate. Therefore, IN warships designed for tropical conditions are export-worthy marine platforms to other Indian Ocean littoral countries. To that extent this would be totally in tune with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ mantra.

The Prime Minister on his first visit outside New Delhi after assuming office in June 2014 chose to go onboard the country’s largest warship, INS Vikramaditya, an aircraft carrier stationed off the Goa coast. This suggests the ascendance of IN in national security and foreign policy priorities.

Also, Modi’s maritime diplomacy with Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka in March 2015 seeks to strengthen New Delhi’s influence in the Indian Ocean region.

The IN is an instrument of maritime diplomacy which involves goodwill visits by warships to foreign ports, naval exercises, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, besides persuasive deployment. Even coast guards comprise a component of maritime diplomacy. The IN from its base in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands promotes multi-lateral maritime diplomacy through the Milan Exercises conducted every two years with navies of the Southeast Asian region.

Today, the national security establishment’s obsession with Pakistan persists due to compulsions of cross-border terrorism, but there is a strategic shift towards China with the recent stand-off at Doklam and the presence of Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean.

Shift in focus

To that extent, the emphasis on the maritime domain shifts the focus from the army to the navy. The Indian and Chinese navies come into contact with each other either in the waters of the Indian Ocean or the South China Sea. On occasions when the Chinese army has put pressure across the land borders with India, the IN has sailed a small flotilla of warships into the South China Sea to exert counter-pressure on China.

In June 2016 a Chinese spy ship tailed two Indian Navy warships in Japanese territorial waters east of Okinawa — near the South China Sea — during their participation in the Malabar exercises with the US and Japanese maritime forces. Similarly in 2012, another Indian warship, the INS Airawat, was challenged by Chinese navy boats while sailing along the coast of Vietnam.

As the biggest nation in the Indian Ocean region, it becomes incumbent upon India to ensure peace and stability. IN is the sole instrument of national power to assert state sovereignty across the maritime domain which acquires economic importance due to offshore oil, gas and mineral resources.

The writer is a professor of international relations at Christ University, Bengaluru

Published on December 03, 2017
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