New Delhi. India’s first citizen, President Pranab Mukherjee, will be accorded a rare honour by the Indian Navy (IN), on Saturday, February 6. Embarked on the, white-painted, Presidential Yacht, Mukherjee, who is also the Supreme Commander of India’s armed forces, will review a fleet of nearly 100 warships, submarines and merchantmen, anchored, in neat columns off Vishakhapatnam harbour. As he passes each ship, its crew will doff their caps and render the traditional ‘three-cheers’ (the Hindi version is ‘teen jai’). Among those paying this mark of respect will be ships and sailors from many foreign navies, while overhead, aircraft of the navy’s Fleet Air Arm flies past in formation.
The fleet review’s provenance is, essentially, British and it was instituted in the 15th century to enable the monarch to formally inspect his/her navy and to convey to friends and adversaries, alike, its readiness for war. Subsequently, reviews were also held to celebrate coronations or other royal occasions. The sheltered Spithead anchorage off Portsmouth has been the traditional venue for reviews in the UK; and it was here, on July 18, 1914, that 250 warships of the Royal Navy, which enabled ‘Britannia to rule the waves’, assembled for a review by King George V. At a time when war-clouds were building up across Europe, Spithead had actually cloaked a timely mobilisation of the Royal Navy, from which ships sailed to participate in operations against Germany.
In India, ceremonial reviews have been held, once in each President’s tenure, with Mumbai as the traditional venue. On occasions, when foreign ships and delegations are invited, it becomes an International Fleet Review (IFR). The favoured period being winter, these events frequently ran the gauntlet of debilitating industrial haze which bedevils Mumbai during these months. The pall of smog would not only endanger the participating aircraft, but also ruin the view of spectators lining the seafront. Mainly for this reason, but also because Mumbai harbour is constricted by space and depth of water, the IN decided to shift the venue to the east coast. In 2006, for the first time, President APJ Abdul Kalam reviewed the fleet off Visakhapatnam, whose deep water and open sea frontage allowed thousands to obtain a ringside view of ships and aircraft from the Ramakrishna beach.
I had the privilege of being at the helm of the IN at the time and Dr Kalam had, typically, conveyed to me that (against his physician’s advice), immediately after the review, he would like to sail in a submarine. The Supreme Commander’s ‘wish’ being ‘our command’ the submarine Sindhurakshak, (which was to meet with a tragic accident in 2014), was readied, but a major hurdle faced us; the IN lacked a submarine rescue facility – it still does. The US Navy, graciously, came to our help and promised to keep an airborne submarine rescue facility in instant readiness for the duration of the President’s underwater sojourn. Needless to say, Dr Kalam thoroughly enjoyed his six-hour dived passage on the Sindhurakshak and insisted on investigating every corner of the submarine.
The last IFR, in 2001, had seen 29 foreign navies participating, but this time around it promises to be a much grander affair, with many more overseas guests – both warships and delegations. The decade and a half elapsed since the last such occasion has seen the IN gain substantially in numbers, capability and most importantly – in professional standing among maritime forces worldwide. No foreign observer would fail to notice the impact of the revolution in military affairs (RMA) on the IN. It is manifest in the recent induction of a large aircraft-carrier with supersonic fighters, a nuclear attack submarine, advanced long-range missiles and torpedoes, phased-array radars, airborne early-warning helicopters, modern anti-submarine warfare (ASW) patrol aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. Much of this will be on display in Visakhapatnam.
Navies, unlike armies and air forces, have a substantive role to play in peacetime; as handmaidens of diplomacy. The Indian Navy’s active outreach to its counterparts internationally has been a powerful catalyst in strengthening old relationships and creating new ones. For the IN, ‘foreign cooperation’ has wide connotations and covers a range of activities that include, bilateral exercises, joint patrols, port-calls and flag-showing deployments that enhance rapport, inter-operability, goodwill and understanding.
Apart from being an elaborate ceremonial and ‘coming out’ party for a rejuvenated IN, IFR-2016 is also a medium for its message: ‘united through the oceans.’ This huge international gathering of young sailors and officers as well as senior leaders, of all major and regional navies, provides an invaluable opportunity to strike bonds of friendship at the personal, professional and service-to-service levels. In this context, the presence of Chinese navy ships in Visakhapatnam is to be welcomed.
India has been trying to give substance to its vision of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as a unified and cohesive geo-political space by creating multi-lateral forums. Two examples are, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), formed in 1994 and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), initiated by the navy in 2008. So far, both these bodies have seen limited success. Borrowing from Clausewitz, can we hope that IFR-2016 will enable India to more effectively ‘pursue foreign policy by other means’?
(Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd) is a former Indian Navy chief and Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee.)
© South Asia Monitor