Uniting through Oceans
Sarosh Bana

Bolstered by its robust surface, undersea and aerial capabilities, the Indian Navy staged a spectacular maritime pageant off the eastern seaboard, as it hosted its International Fleet Review (IFR) 2016 earlier this month. As many as 50 countries ranging from the US, the UK, Germany, France, China, Russia, Australia and Japan to Iran, Israel, Mauritius, Myanmar, Somalia and even landlocked Turkmenistan participated in this landmark event, which was held by the Indian Navy at the port city and Eastern Naval Command (ENC) base of Visakhapatnam from 4 to 8 February 2016.

At anchorage in six columns for review by President Pranab Mukherjee, the Supreme Commander of India’s armed forces, were 24 foreign warships and 75 of the Indian Navy, including three submarines, as also two ships from the Indian Coast Guard (CG) and three from mercantile marine. In attendance were Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and the state governor and chief minister, along with 22 navy chiefs, including the host Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Robin Dhowan, as also 27 heads of delegations, apart from over 4,000 international naval officers and men. The review concluded with a fly-past by the Naval Air Arm and a daring display by Marine Commandos (Marcos). The fly-past by 15 formations of 45 aircraft, including two CG formations, showcased the latest acquisitions of the Indian Navy such as the Russian-built MiG 29K and AEW helicopter Ka31, and the US-made long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft, P8I.

“The sheer number of navies represented from across the globe is an endorsement and recognition of India’s emerging status as a major naval power,” said Dhowan. “The event allows the host nation an occasion to display its maritime capabilities and the ‘bridges of friendship’ and trust it has built with other maritime nations.”

As fulfillment of its assigned military, diplomatic, constabulary and benign roles, the Indian Navy regularly conducts joint exercises with other navies at their shores or in Indian waters, embarks ships on goodwill missions that call on navies internationally, and lends ships for peacekeeping and anti-piracy operations from the Horn of Africa to the Malacca Straits. Indian warships have besides assisted in evacuating the embattled from the war zones of Yemen (Operation Rahat in 2015), Libya (Operation Safe Homecoming in 2011), Lebanon (Operation Sukoon in 2006), and the Maldives (Operation Cactus in 1988), apart from moving out victims of national disasters as the Gujarat earthquake in 2001 and the tsunami at the eastern coast in 2004. The country has also gifted or sold several warships, new and used, and occasionally also maritime patrol aircraft, to smaller nations such as the Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

India’s vast coastline of 7,615 km abuts onto the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, and one of its island enclaves, Andaman & Nicobar, is closer to Myanmar and Thailand than to the Indian mainland. With 66 per cent of global oil, 50 per cent of global container traffic and 33 per cent of global cargo trade passing through the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which stretches from the Persian Gulf to the west to the Malacca Straits in the east, the India Navy has a vital responsibility in ensuring the safety and security in keeping sea lines open to global maritime movement.

Noting that navies the world over conduct fleet reviews to symbolise their loyalty and allegiance to the nation, and to strengthen bonds between sailors and the state, President Mukherjee said IFR 2016 did all this and more. Addressing the fleet during the review, he observed that IFR 2016, while showcasing the prowess of the Indian Navy, had brought together navies from across the globe to Indian shores, underlining a common desire to use the seas to promote peace, cooperation and friendship, as also to develop partnerships for a secure maritime future.

IFR 2016 was only the second international review ever conducted in India, the first having been organised by the WNC in Mumbai in February 2001 in the presence of then President K.R. Narayanan. It had elicited a turnout of 29 foreign and 60 Indian warships. There have besides been nine Presidential Fleet Reviews since India’s Independence in 1947, the first such having been held in 1953 and the last, in 2011. By their nomenclature, these have been national rather than international exercises.

‘United through Oceans’ was the motto and underlying theme of the IFR, signifying that while the world was divided by geography, it was unified by the seas. There was repeated emphasis that oceans were the great blue ‘commons’ that not only linked the global community, but granted it unfettered access. “IFR 2016 has enabled us to join hands and work together to secure our seas for the greater good of humanity and the world,” the President maintained.

This need was reiterated by speakers at the concurrent two-day International Maritime Conference, on the theme, Partnering together for a secure maritime future. There were concerns over sea-borne terrorism, piracy, human-trafficking, and smuggling of arms and drugs across the seas, and the security challenges in the East and South China Seas where China has maritime disputes with many of its neighbours in the littoral. In his presentation, Ye Hailin, professor, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, saw this ‘dispute’ escalating as competitive issues got emphasised instead of cooperative solutions. “It is argued that, given the overlap among the actions and policies of parties, the situation in the South China Sea may deteriorate with the possible risk of serious conflict due to collision of differing interests,” he warned.

The return of Asia-Pacific to the centre of world affairs is the great power shift of the 21st century. With this economically integrated region traversed by half the world’s commercial shipping worth $5 trillion of trade a year, the participating navies deemed it imperative to secure the regional Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) that are critical to the survival of the entire Asia-Pacific community.

The Indian Navy is mindful of Washington’s keenness to check Beijing’s growing maritime assertion and its looking to India as the power that can tilt the strategic balance. Ultimately, all three countries will define the strategic nature of maritime influence. India has emerged as the regional superpower and views the IOR, which it dominates, as its theatre of influence, just as China is seeking a similar role in the Western Pacific. Though India has no disputes in the IOR, its navy already maintains a stronger force, on conventional warfare, than Russia, France or the UK, and is poised to emerge as the third strongest, after the US and China, in the coming years.

It is in this context that IFR 2016 gained importance, with 50 nations joining it in an acknowledgment of India’s emergence as a maritime power, and by extension, its role and importance in international geo-politics. Apart from a vast fleet that includes two aircraft carriers, 10 destroyers, 15 frigates, one nuclear-propelled submarine and eight diesel-electric submarines, the Indian Navy has 41 ships on order from Indian yards at a combined cost of Rs1,08,761 crore (about $16 billion).

It is again in this context that India and the US are exploring the joint development of India’s next-generation aircraft carrier that will have combat capabilities superior to its Chinese counterparts’. Admiral John Richardson, the Chief of US Naval Operations present at the IFR, said talks on this, potentially the biggest military collaboration between the two countries, were progressing well and ranged from its design to construction. The joint working group on the project is meeting in New Delhi later in February to take this forward. “Today, US-India defence ties are strong and continue to grow stronger with each passing engagement,” said Richardson. “We are two countries with similar values - democratic governments, civilian control of the military and all volunteer forces, and there is much that binds our nations and navies together.”

Representing the US Navy at the IFR were the Ticonderoga Class guided missile cruiser, USS Antietam, and the Arleigh Burke Class guided missile destroyer, USS McCampbell. “A central line of effort is to expand and strengthen our network of partners and the visit to India and interactions with Indian and other navy leaders help deepen relationships and expand shared maritime interests,” Richardson remarked. “We value like-minded partner countries like India, as a close, continuing and expanding partnership is important for security and stability in Asia and for effectively managing Indian Ocean security in the 21st century.”

Lt Cdr T. Öwezgulyýew, Vice Chief of the Turkmenistan Naval Staff, said his landlocked navy, essentially a compact flotilla of patrol boats, safeguards its waters in the Caspian Sea, which is variously classed as the world’s largest lake or a full-fledged sea. A landlocked navy is that operated by a country bereft of a coastline. The Caspian states are Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan and Iran and in 1993, the former Soviet Union’s Caspian Sea Flotilla was divided among the first four states. The Caspian states have to deal with the challenges of drug smuggling, the ‘sea’ having become a transit route for narcotics coming from Afghanistan, human trafficking, cross border crime, extremism and terrorism. All this is confounded by the fact that maritime borders are not yet settled between them and they have differing views on how ownership should be divided.

Struck by the maritime power of the Indian Navy, Öwezgulyýew said bilateral partnership will need to be heightened with construction launched last December on the TAPI pipeline running 1,814 km from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan all the way to Fazilka in Punjab, India, these four countries making the acronym, TAPI. This route, especially through Afghanistan and Balochistan in Pakistan, is fraught with peril. Militant groups like the Taliban and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan had briefly captured villages on Turkmenistan’s borders in 2015. The pipeline, estimated to cost $10 billion and to be functional by 2019, will carry 33 billion cu m of gas from southern Turkmenistan.

In Indian fleet reviews, the President’s yacht steams past an impressive array of ships of both the Indian and merchant navies and the Coast Guard, while reviews held by some other navies have ships sailing past the reviewing yacht or ship. The Royal Navy, from whom the Indian Navy has inherited much of its customs, dates its first Review to 1415 when Henry V – King of England from 1413 to 1422 - inspected his fleet before embarking for war with France. It was also an occasion, perhaps the only one, when the ruler or sovereign appeared before the sailors as symbol of his country to strengthen the bond between Lord and subject.

A fleet review is a long-standing tradition followed by various navies and is a grand occasion when every operational ship is spruced up, proudly displaying its crest and company. It was perhaps conceived as a show of naval might or an inspection of readiness for battle at sea, while later reviews were celebratory demonstrations for victories in battle, for a coronation or a royal visit. Reviews today entail parading of warships without any belligerent intentions. Indian Navy ships have often sailed across the seas to participate in fleet reviews of friendly nations. While India’s maritime traditions hark back to the Vedic times (1,500-500 BC), its earliest recorded fleet review was in the 18th century by the powerful Maratha fleet off the Ratnagiri fort on the west coast.

A highlight of IFR 2016 was the Operational Demonstration and International City Parade at the Visakhapatnam waterfront in the presence of the Prime Minister. Several warships, submarines, aircraft and squads of Marcos displayed the multidimensional operational tasks of the various arms of the Indian Navy. The city parade had marching and military band contingents from the visiting navies and the three Indian services, replete with floats and dances. The parade was followed by illumination of ships and pyrotechnics, culminating in a light and sound show.

(The author is Executive Editor, Business India)

Published Date: 18th February 2016, Image Source: http://www.facenfacts.com
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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