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This Navy Day, let’s focus on building a strong navy to meet India’s global aspirations

The navy’s role must be spelt out, and its force architecture defined as well as funded, accordingly. This can happen only if the national security elite conceives a comprehensive “maritime vision”, and articulate it in a “National Strategy for Maritime Security”

In the half-century since the Bangladesh War, our navy has emerged as a compact but potent and professional force. (Representational/File)

The 30-month-long Sino-Indian military impasse in the Himalayas and China’s strategic posturing in the South China Sea should be clear pointers for India’s decision-makers that maritime power will have a critical role to play as an instrument of state policy in future outcomes. Navy Day, celebrated annually to commemorate a famous naval victory, and to remind us of our maritime heritage, also provides an opportunity for “maritime stocktaking”.

Still smarting from the ignominy of its — government imposed — inaction in the 1965 Indo-Pak war, the navy’s leadership had pre-determined that maritime power would play a pivotal role in the 1971 conflict. On the night of December 4, 1971, a force of small missile boats audaciously approached Karachi port to unleash missile salvoes that sank warships, set alight huge fuel reserves, bottled up the Pakistan Navy and blockaded merchant shipping. In the Bay of Bengal, while INS Vikrant’s aircraft mounted sustained attacks on East Pakistan’s airfields, ports and riverine traffic, its escorts cast a naval cordon that ensured that neither reinforcement nor evacuation was possible for the Pakistani army. The fact that maritime dominance had expedited Pakistan’s surrender, however, failed to lift the pall of “sea-blindness” over Raisina Hill.

This is also an appropriate occasion to remind fellow citizens of some outstanding figures in our maritime past. The navy of 10th century South Indian Emperor Rajendra Chola vanquished the Sumatra-based Sri Vijaya thalassocracy to establish Chola power across present-day Malaysia and Indonesia. The resolute and visionary zamorins of Kozhikode waged a 90-year-long naval campaign led by the captains of the Kunjali Marakkar clan to eject the Portuguese from Malabar. The 17th century Maratha “sarkhel” or admiral Kanhoji Angre’s Konkan fleet ceaselessly harried the British, Dutch and Portuguese, scoring many victories.

It is time also to recall two unsung shipbuilding pioneers. In 1736, Bombay’s Lovji Nusserwanji Wadia started a tradition which saw seven generations of Wadia master shipbuilders constructing superb merchantmen and warships for the British. Two centuries later, in 1941, the visionary Seth Walchand Hirachand, resurrected Indian shipbuilding by founding Scindia Shipyard Ltd. in Visakhapatnam. The first modern, Indian-built merchant vessel, MV Jalusha, joined Seth Walchand’s Scindia Steam Navigation Co. in 1948.

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Carrying forward this tradition, India’s far-sighted naval leadership in the 1960s persuaded a reluctant government that the nation must also embark upon indigenous warships production. In the face of great scepticism, Mazagon Docks delivered the first, licence-built frigate, INS Nilgiri, in 1972. In the half-century since, Indian shipyards have launched over a hundred warships; ranging from patrol boats to destroyers and from hydrographic vessels to nuclear submarines.

The navy’s bold vision saw its pinnacle in 2013 when Cochin Shipyard Ltd. launched India’s largest indigenously designed and built warship — an aircraft carrier. Commissioned in September 2022 by the Prime Minister as (the reincarnated) INS Vikrant, the conception and successful completion of this complex project signified a major achievement for our naval staff, ship designers and builders.

Initiated by the Directorate of Naval Design in the late 1970s, the aircraft carrier project assumed urgency when it was realised that both the navy’s carriers — Vikrant and Viraat — would face retirement by century-end. Even as the navy juggled ship-design options, aircraft choices and other imponderables, the government, in a recurrence of “sea-blindness”, rejected the project in 1990. It took 12 years and the persuasive powers of successive chiefs to obtain approval for a 37,500-ton ship, capable of operating the “navalised” Russian MiG-29K fighter from a ski-jump.

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While the awe-inspiring sight of this mammoth, Indian-built warship kindles justifiable pride, there should be a pause for reflection, especially amongst our defence R&D scientists when it is described as an “indigenous product”. Many of the ship’s major systems, including gas-turbine engines, guns, missiles and radars, are imported. Of equal concern is the foreign origin of aviation-related facilities such as workshops, aircraft lifts, arrester-wires and landing-aids, vital for flying operations. Only when all these have been delivered and installed and have passed flying trials will Vikrant be combat-ready.

The hiatus between ordering, launch and commissioning of Vikrant may be excessive by international standards but this prolonged gestation would have served a purpose if the invaluable experience gained and the priceless skills acquired, are ploughed back into a bigger/better follow-on carrier; with much greater involvement and contribution from our scientists. The case for IAC-2 remains in limbo, even as China awaits the third ship in its carrier-building programme and envisions a carrier-led Indian Ocean task force. Navy Day stocktaking shows that the Indian Navy has in the past decade realised many of its long-cherished objectives in all three dimensions of capability. New, indigenously designed, destroyers and frigates, stealthy in form, fielding long-range sensors and heavily armed with missiles, guns and anti-submarine weapons are being delivered at a slow but steady pace by domestic shipyards. Voids, however, remain in mine counter-measures, amphibious-lift and fleet-support capabilities.

The haemorrhaging of our diesel-submarine strength will be temporarily halted by the addition of six, modern, licence-produced French boats. But the government must urgently green-light Project 75 (I) so that serial production of submarines can commence. With PLA Navy units now frequently prowling the Indian Ocean, aerial surveillance and anti-submarine warfare assume strategic dimensions. Recent inductions of US-built, shipborne helicopters and maritime-reconnaissance aircraft are going to not only boost the Indian Navy’s surveillance and anti-submarine capabilities but also enhance interoperability with partner navies.

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In the half-century since the Bangladesh War, our navy has emerged as a compact but potent and professional force. Given the political leadership’s regional/global aspirations, the service has a significant contribution to make — whether as a Quad member or as the regional “net security provider”. The navy’s role must be spelt out, and its force architecture defined as well as funded, accordingly. This can happen only if the national security elite conceives a comprehensive “maritime vision”, and articulates it in a “National Strategy for Maritime Security”.

The writer is a retired chief of naval staff

First published on: 03-12-2022 at 07:26 IST
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