Pushing the boats out

Like post-quake diplomacy in the mountains, post-tsunami diplomacy is paying off at sea, writes SHIV AROOR, in the lead-up to Navy Day on December 4, 2005.On December 4, when the Navy celebrates Navy Day, it will be with a sense that the year gone by has been one full of gains. The deep conflict of last year’s tsunami propelled to the fore a force willing to reach further out than it has before, and be, possibly for the first time ever, recognised unanimously as an established and growing maritime power in the region.

PM Manmohan Singh’s thoughts at the Combined Commanders Conference month reflected these gains. He said the future lay in maritime security, and friendly relations with like-minded neighbours were critical to energy security in the region. It was enough recognition of a year when the Navy truly came of age, demonstrating not just remarkable operational maturity in open sea, but also rapidly harnessing the fruits of a new-found global recognition thereafter.

Celebrating the 34th anniversary of the 1971 war on December 4, a day when Naval missiles hit Pakistani bases, a sense of urgency pervades Naval Headquarters. The long, gruelling months of post-tsunami relief across whole sectors in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), resulted almost instantaneously in deeply altered perceptions of the Navy. The unprecedented diplomatic response to the relief operations boiled down to deeply valuable strategic pacts with countries strewn across the region.

Even China — the only country that the Indian Navy will voluntarily voice its concern about — has reached out. But notwithstanding Beijing’s string-of-pearls strategy to accumulate access points all the way from the Gulf of Hormuz to the South China Sea, strategic perceptions within the Navy in just the last eleven months have begun to see deep synergies working with the People’s Liberation Army across the sensitive energy sea lanes in South Asia.

Even then, the decidedly improved equation with Beijing is only one of the seeming fallouts of post-tsunami diplomacy in the region. While expending a strong focus on revitalising relations with Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand that flank the globally critical Strait of Malacca which house energy lanes critical to every country in the region, the Navy has also found wisdom in consolidating its traditional friendships with the smaller island nations in the open Indian Ocean, Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius and Japan in the Far East.

Admiral Prakash, who has made it a point to busy himself this year with visits to all of these countries, confesses that interest in operating and learning from the Indian Navy has never been more pronounced. So while it continues to engage with the Pacific navies of the US and Russia in joint exercises in the Arabian Sea, the Navy has recognised that this is the time for it to establish itself unequivocally as a South Asian maritime power.

But the Navy has been and continues to be careful not to project itself too much as a principally peace-time force, a perception that the Navy chief believes was amplified by post-tsunami activity. It has therefore carefully evolved the new found channels of diplomacy to also be useful pathways for strategic power projection. In June, the Navy chief took a complement of warships to the South East on a ceremonial visit, including for the first time ever, the aircraft carrier INS Viraat. The visit was measured, but the show of strength anything but subtle.

But for a strategic vision that was supposed to, in the medium-term, focus on India’s maritime neighbourhood, the Navy has decided to speed things up. In the words of a former Navy chief at a recent military gathering, “We are now planting seeds in the Pacific.” Admittedly, the Navy’s movement far into the Pacific is still restricted by operational requirements, but the wisdom in engaging Pacific nations has not passed it by. Since October, the Navy has arrived at understandings with Japan and Chile. In the future, this could stretch to Australia, and involve movement for exercises with the US Navy off Hawaii and the West Coast of America.

But Central to the Navy’s clearly enhanced maritime security profile is a deep realisation that for it to maintain its new-found prowess, it must rapidly fill gaping holes in its operational strength as well — good relations, it believes, will ultimately be predicated on respect. Wasting no time in the haze of goodwill, it has established its inordinate lack of heavy sea-lift and mass landing capabilities. For the former, it is already in the market for a large number of deck helicopters. For the latter, it has decided to purchase a US Navy Austin-class landing vessel, the USS Trenton, and then build its own expeditiously.

The rationale for delivering more men and materials over larger distances neatly straddles the line between peace-time relief operations and open battle mission requirements. The serendipitous felicity of projecting what would otherwise be a controversial requirement is not lost on the Navy’s senior brass.

A Vice Admiral with one of the Navy’s operational commands recently said, “We are ultimately a fighting force. If the assets we need can be meaningfully used for peacetime operations, that would come to define reputation we are after. I believe we have made commendably progress in just the last few months?”

Nobody in the Navy denies that the work of the last eleven months has been but a good start to much larger and more critical gains. With a government that has promised to look into its expanding interests with sincerity, the Navy’s strategic thinkers must, to use and old yet apt cliche, push the boat out.

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