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Column: India’s time for maritime prowess

The West, though, could try to stall indigenous production with offers of “latest technology” or “new proposals”

One need not be a rocket scientist to suggest that no nation, in the last 200 years of world history, ever attained glory, prestige and power without a strong navy and indigenous industrial development thereof. In fact, the most obvious and striking feature is that it is always a maritime nation, rather than a landlocked state, which held centre-stage of world realpolitik, and there are no indications that things could be different either today or tomorrow. Thus, it was the British in the 19th century which ruled, and the Americans in the 20th, who continue to rule now, in the the 21st century. These nations set the agenda for the waves and the world, owing to their indigenous marine-industrial engine.

In fact, amongst the non-Anglo-Saxon states, except the brief glory of the former Soviet Navy (European) and Japan, none of the Asian, African or South American nations has ever held the naval centre-stage from the beginning of the 20th century till the end of the World War II in 1945. And during all these years of turmoil and upheaval, resulting from the two World Wars, India was never in the naval picture. Understandably, therefore, when India seriously started thinking and changing its status from a “ship-buying navy” to “ship-producing navy” in the 1980s, the West could not take kindly to the proposed changed maritime status of New Delhi.

The “challenge” was reflected in the 1982-83 edition of the bible of naval ships—Jane’s: “Whether the current statements of a desire for amity between India and Pakistan bear fruit, the current line up of the two fleets is certainly in favour of the Indians.” One is astonished at the tone and tenor of contempt for India which is being compared with a state that is one-eighth the shape, size, economics of New Delhi. Further disdain followed: “Reports continue of an interest in the purchase of HMS Hermes but, if the Indians need a replacement or second carrier, why don’t they use their own resources? The question is whether they do really need large air-capable ships? With a declared policy of peace in the Indian Ocean, a 4,000-mile coastline and a series of airfields about the periphery, is a carrier, or even two, really necessary? Or has the military, as a gift for its support, been promised all the goodies irrespective of role, task, need of financial capability? Or, perhaps, has the Soviet policy of imposing peace through strength had a marked effect? It is hard to discriminate among motives—the facts are simply that India is apparently determined to retain the largest indigenous navy in the Indian Ocean.”

One hardly need comment on such uncharitable expression of semantics by the West at the prospect of India developing and expanding its maritime capability. The psyche of the West has been consistent.

The West means navy and navy means the West, and no non-Western nation should either venture to compete with, or try to break, the monopoly of the sea-power of the Western states.

Fortunately, despite the traditionally-chaotic cauldron of Indian politics, some sensible people in the Indian establishment took up the caustic challenge thrown by the West and decided to go for indigenisation of naval assets of the nation. As luck would have it, it did give dividends, albeit partially. India soon made rapid progress as corvettes, frigates and destroyers started rolling out from Indian shipyards of Mumbai, Kolkata, Kochi, Goa and Visakhapatnam. There, however, cropped up the initial “teething problems” of time and cost over-run—owing to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, which adversely affected the acquisition of spare parts for Soviet-built ships and sourcing of vital components for the indigenous production like the Delhi-class destroyer in Mumbai’s Mazagon dock. INS Delhi took exactly 10 years from being “laid down” to reaching “commission”. Understandably, therefore, India’s dependence on imported ships did not end, as another serious problem—which continues to nag the Indian naval ship-building programme—is the costly and long gestation period of “maintenance and upgrading” of foreign vessels in the yards where they were manufactured.

Today, the Indian Navy, however, stands at a threshold as all five shipyards appear to be busy; and the best part is that at least two strategic missile submarines (Arihant and Aridhaman) are at various stages of construction at Visakhapatnam dockyard. The 41,000-tonne indigenous aircraft carrier at the Kochi shipyard too seems to be on course, a slight time- and cost-over-run notwithstanding.

Although it is “so far, so good”, a lurking danger remains nevertheless. Naval construction involves one of the biggest engineering, R&D, and employment-generating economics; and India’s rapid indigenisation is bound to result in a loss of business opportunities and order for some traditional, new or potential foreign vendor. Hence, there always could be a possibility of the shrinking naval industry of the West trying to lure India with “new proposals” and “latest technology” and the slipping away of the lucrative (traditional) ship-buying market of India.

Amidst this rising indigenous naval industrial activities, one serious question requires geopolitical consideration and diplomatic initiative. Should the future deployment of the Indian Navy remain confined to its own bases, from Andaman to Mumbai and Kochi to Visakhapatnam only? Is it not the time to explore the possibility of distant bases, like those of the Western nations and those of China, built around the Indian Ocean? The Chinese began in November 2012 when Hu Jintao, in his last days as president, endeavoured to “build China into a maritime power” and emphasised the need to “resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests.” Geographically, India is much more exposed to the ocean than China is. Hence, India’s time for maritime strategy has come. It is now.

The author is a graduate of National Defence College, New Delhi.
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