By Commodore Srikant Kesnur,
Navy Day this year is a good occasion to reflect on its journey and evaluate its progress over the last 70 years. The Indian Navy was an exceedingly small force at the dawn of independence and, while being a product of both its British inheritance and the maritime DNA of our forebears, is largely a post-independence construct.
Despite the many problems that besieged the newly independent country — and by extension its Navy — such as low industrial base, problems on our land borders made it imperative to focus on the army and the air force. But the navy was not short on vision.
As early as 1948, it drew up ambitious plans for a balanced navy that would consist of light aircraft carriers, submarines, destroyers, cruisers, auxiliaries and associated training and maintenance infrastructure.
Seen against this backdrop, the Indian Navy has grown quietly but steadily. From a force of less than half a dozen sloops to one that has 135 ships and 235 aircraft, most of them state-of-the-art, is indeed an impressive story.
That we operate in all three dimensions: On, above and below water; that most of our ships are indigenously built; and that we are among the few navies to build and operate an array of platforms from aircraft carriers to nuclear submarines add further strength to the narrative. We are now among the world’s leading navies.
But numbers alone do not tell the whole story. Of particular significance is the fact that the navy has built excellent capacities — both human and material — in several disciplines such as hydrography, special operations, integration engineering, doctrine writing, underwater medicine and disaster relief, to name a few.
These capacities have been particularly useful when the Indian Navy’s achievements in different domains are analysed. If one were to evaluate in terms of roles that navies classically play — military, constabulary (Policing), Diplomatic and Benign (including humanitarian assistance) — the Indian Navy can be said to have ticked all boxes with high scores.
On the military front, while most readers are aware of the navy’s significant role in the 1971 war with Pakistan and liberation of Bangladesh, there are several interesting aspects to the navy’s campaign.
Not only did it fight on two fronts but almost the entire gamut of naval operations came to play in this war. This included aircraft carrier operations in support of the land offensive, anti-submarine operations that led to neutralising of the Pakistan submarine Ghazi, offensive attack by missile boats and blockade of then East Pakistan coast.
More recently, during the Kargil conflict in 1999 and later during Op Parakram, the Indian Navy by its offensive posturing bottled the Pakistani ships inside their harbours and effectively kept the war localised and the situation on even keel. Similarly, Indian Navy’s role in Operation Pawan, our prolonged engagement in Sri Lanka, has not got the attention it, arguably, deserved.
Spread over three years, the Navy was involved in support of the army, transportation of troops and material, amphibious operations, seaward cordon militaire, shore bombardment, special operations and airborne surveillance.
Most remarkably, several smaller ships based in Visakhapatnam and Chennai excelled at giving a good account of themselves in hostile conditions.
The notable point is that it’s a self-reliant force. The Indian Navy was a pioneer of ‘Make in India’ which was an article of faith for it. Compared to the army and the air force, the navy is way ahead in the indigenous content of its combat units.
To be sure, we have a long way to go. We need to have weapons, propulsion and many systems to be sourced from within our country. But every ship that gets constructed has more indigenous content than its predecessor and is an improvement over the previous one.
The increased mettle and muscle of our Navy provides much more traction to our foreign policy initiatives, be it in enhancing cooperation with big powers or in providing a palpable physical dimension to the Act-East Policy. Further, the Indian Navy’s own international initiatives are wide and encompass several arenas.
They include multilateral forums such as Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the MILAN meetings, joint exercises with several nations, assistance in capacity building to nations in the Indian Ocean neighbourhood, hydrographic surveys, providing training to many foreign navy personnel and hosting events like the International Fleet Review in February 2016 or more recently the Goa Maritime Conclave last month.
The Indian Ocean is prone to natural disasters and the relatively poor disaster prevention and management infrastructure in most of the countries in the region places a bigger responsibility on the Indian Navy.
The disaster situations could be natural, such as the Tsunami of 2004 or cyclonic storms that recur with great regularity in the Bay of Bengal, or they could be caused by human intervention such as what occurred in Lebanon in 2006, Libya in 2011 or Yemen in 2015. The latter cases are often messy and often also involve evacuation of non-combatants and deployment in conflict zones.
There will indeed be some areas that provide scope for improvement. Further indigenisation of weapons, ordnance and systems and gaps in inventory are issues that are attracting the attention of decision makers. There is also need for development of expertise, among its personnel, in a range of subjects such as foreign languages, international law, energy security, area studies and economics.
But, overall, it would be fair to say that the ‘Silent Service’ at 70 is a success story.
(Srikant Kesnur is Director, Maritime Warfare Centre, Mumbai. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org)