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Turfed out of our own backyard

In all the world,the Indian Navy is one of just two navies still growing. The other is the Chinese Navy. It is no accident that the rise of...

Written by Raja Menon | Published: November 2, 2009 2:54:08 am

In all the world,the Indian Navy is one of just two navies still growing. The other is the Chinese Navy. It is no accident that the rise of the two Asian giants is accompanied by a return to their original status as maritime powers. China had its Admiral Zheng Ho and the Grand fleet that came to collect tribute from the littoral countries of Asia — except India. India’s maritime power overseas is more long lasting,as the Pallavas under Jayavarman inspired the building of Angkor Wat,the largest planned metropolis in the world of 700 AD. The Chinese Army surprisingly is growing smaller as it models itself on the US Army,relying more on UAVs,wide band connectivity,air mobile troops and helicopter gunships. Not surprisingly,most countries seeking strategic partnerships with India are looking either at its soft power (knowledge and culture) or its overseas power projection capability based on its Navy.

The Indian Navy has travelled a long,rough and lonely road to get to where it is,and having got this far,is in danger of losing its way. But to start at the beginning,it was not even a navy in 1947. Endangered by 250 brilliant teak ships built in Bombay by the Wadias,British monopolists forced Wadia to shut down by abolishing the Indian Navy in 1868 and off-sourcing India’s maritime defence to the Royal Navy,from Singapore. The British partially made amends in 1947 by loaning to India,senior officers to fill the posts of admirals,naval planners and technology teachers for almost ten years,under the paternal eye of Lord Mountbatten. Doctrine,strategy and tactical documents came with the British officers and led the Navy to look for a future where India would once again be a maritime power.

That vision did not have place for Pakistan,a preoccupation that tied down the funding of the army and air force for sixty years. It led to bizarre acquisitions like the fighter aircraft that the air force bought,that could only fly for 35 minutes and the recruiting of lakhs of infantry soldiers to implement the ridiculous political directive of not losing ‘an inch of sacred territory . The navy paid a heavy price,by having its budget reduced to 12 per cent of the defence budget,but kept its head and pursued its long term strategic goal.

Having come this far,it is in danger of losing its way,as the challenges of the 21st century demand even more courageous decisions than were taken by the admirals of the 1950s and ‘60s. The threat comes from the aftermath of the attack on Mumbai and by India’s limited response to the growing menace of piracy off the Horn of Africa. When Mumbai occurred,the Navy had long felt that the 14 agencies operating at sea should at some stage have a coordinating head. Instead of dealing with the arguments already on the file,the national security apparatus gave the responsibility for coastal security to the Navy,with vaguely defined charters to the coast guard. Similarly,off Somalia,the government for long resisted doing anything at all despite UN resolutions exhorting states to coordinate naval forces to suppress piracy. It even,at one stage,prevented a naval ship close to the scene from intervening in attacking pirates who had hijacked an Indian crew. Under the pressure of UN resolutions,a Contact Group on Somalia Piracy (CGSP) met in January,where the coordination of operations has been handed over to the UK,the judicial aspects to Denmark and the industry aspects to the US. All this has occurred in what is called the ‘Indian’ ocean.

The Indian Navy lost a golden opportunity off Somalia,by not being permitted to join the international coalition and lead it,instead of patrolling one end of it in sulky isolation. The Europeans will never fight piracy — they can’t. Every time a pirate is shot,a judicial commission comes all the way from London or Berlin to conduct an enquiry. No pirate has been sentenced adequately,because the eventual concern is the pirate’s human rights. The UN resolution actually permits naval forces to enter Somalian territorial waters and ‘territory’ to suppress piracy. The blue water aspirations of the Indian Navy should have inspired it to the lead International Task Force 151 with the INS Jalashwa — with marine commandos,and army snipers and military police embarked,with powers of arrest — to free the hijacked ships in the ports of Eyl and Hobyo.

The responsibilities for coastal security after 26/11 may also lead the Navy into losing its way in an area which is really that of the coast guard’s. Just as the army lost its way in counter-insurgency,with the attraction of raising 60 battalions of Rashtriya Rifles,and neglected technological modernisation,the Navy might do the same. To prevent another Mumbai,a blue water navy should really go and pick up Hafiz Sayed,or Dawood or Tiger Memon. If they can’t be found in Pakistan,wait till they come to Dubai. After all,the most brilliant tactical action in Afghanistan was fought by US Navy Seals. The ultimate kingpin of Afghan drug smuggling,Haji Juma Khan who allegedly employs Mullah Omar,is now in a Manhattan jail,put there by the US drugs suppression agency.

Blue water navies don’t patrol the coast in peacetime,doing police work,when the coast guard is available. The Europeans may be happy doing that,for they have no war to prepare for. The Indian Navy is the only punitive instrument the government has in the great swing of power from the West to the East. The Indian Ocean is the theatre of the future. The current vision should be to dominate it strategically. The policeman’s duty is important,but let us not lose our way.

The writer is a retired rear admiral

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