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Premvir Das: Navies are for more than just fighting

The ability to reach far out and sustain this reach over long periods gives the navy a global face the other two services do not have

Premvir Das 

Premvir Das

In the context of a nation's military power, many people make the mistake of summing up the capabilities of the army, the navy and the air force and producing that aggregation as the country's prowess. In today's environment, the mechanisms that a country must have to effectively counter the threats that it faces from terrorism, both indigenous and that sponsored from external sources, should be added too - as also its mechanisms to counter the stresses and strains to internal stability and cohesion, which require more nuanced responses.

But, in this broad spectrum of issues that must confront any nation and, especially, one as large and multi-dimensional as ours, the one capability that is easily visible and usable, not just close to home but also quite far away, is the one represented by the navy. Interestingly, it does not always need to sail away from home to be seen; it also achieves that effect by staying in its own waters. For this, it must do a variety of things and the fields of training, joint exercises and hosting ship visits are only a few of them. At the very top of this list, and something that cannot be done too often, is the Fleet Review.

In essence, the concept of the fleet being reviewed is a very old British one, in which the monarch had the ships, all looking spic and span, lined up in some order and then sailed past them in his or her own royal barge even as the crews stood at attention and saluted. Our navy, like some others, has followed this practice. In theory, the event was initially designed to show to the reviewing person that the navy was in fine fettle or "good shape" as the sailors call it.

In practice, however, it has also had ceremonial content which has grown over the years. There are parades, band concerts and 'Beating Retreat' events; and to this list has been added, quite correctly, some professional touch in which maritime security issues are debated. So, a Fleet Review is a major naval display of its maritime attributes by the host nation, which cannot go unnoticed by those present as well as those who are not.

The Indian Navy has been holding Fleet Reviews every five years for over four decades, once during the tenure of each president. In 2001, it took a quantum jump when it invited ships from several foreign countries to participate in the event as well. Nearly 70 ships from some 21 countries were present in Bombay (now Mumbai) harbour at this first International Fleet Review (IFR). The chief dignitary sailed around the neatly formed lines of ships in the presidential yacht; there was a parade by contingents of the foreign ships down Marine Drive watched by thousands of people; a concert in which bands of several navies performed; a seminar in which maritime cooperation and security issues were discussed; and, of course, a "Beating Retreat' ceremony at the magnificent Gateway of India followed by a display of fireworks. It was a proud moment in the history of the still young Indian Navy - and, even as participating countries and their naval arms enjoyed our hospitality, they sensed what lay behind the event, a display of maritime power.

In early February 2016, the navy will host its second IFR at Visakhapatnam on the east coast. In these intervening fifteen years, two smaller scale and internal equivalents have been held in 2006 and 2011. These also send messages - but an IFR is a much larger and more comprehensive signal. Once again, ships from many nations, including China, will be present, more than were there last time, and the ceremonial will be given more spectacle by weapon demonstrations, which will be watched by millions of people crowding the beautiful Ramakrishna Beach which offers this possibility. Delegations - in many cases led by chiefs of the participating navies - will be present. A display of naval air power will add to the blue water picture. In sum, IFR 2016 will send a more comprehensive maritime message than its predecessor of 2001.

What is achieved by such extravaganzas is a question that can legitimately be asked. Ceremonials and parades are all very well, but is there something beyond these that merits discussion? For one, the IFR generates pride and confidence in one's own capabilities - operational, organisational and administrative. These spectacles give joy and a sense of achievement to the people who watch them, live or on television, and speak of what they saw. The ships and delegations that come from across the seas go back with memories not just of the hospitality received, but even more of what they saw for themselves at first hand.

Such events contribute to greater recognition of what India's maritime power is and is likely to be in the years ahead, what the country sees as its maritime interests and how it seeks to promote them, in peace as much as in war, possibly more. A message goes out that India stands at the forefront of countries which seek to act as net maritime security providers in cooperation with all others similarly inclined and stands for safety of commerce and freedom of navigation at sea. To those who harbour ill-will against us, IFRs are cautionary - a demonstration of our ability to respond. They are, by any standard, a win-win event, as much in support of diplomacy as an essential adjunct as in furtherance of our national goals.

As we celebrate Navy Day tomorrow, it needs recognition that this service is not just a combination of platforms that is geared to fight adversaries in war. It also acts as a messenger of goodwill and friendship as when ships deploy far overseas, east and west; it is also there to bring relief and assistance to those in need of it during natural disasters, as it demonstrated so handsomely during the tsunami of December 2004 and in other such incidents later.

On a different plane, when safety of commerce is threatened, it acts as a major player, be it in the waters off the Malacca Straits or in the Gulf of Aden. Its presence offshore in areas of concern makes an impact as it did during the Kargil War, when then US President Bill Clinton had to caution Pakistan's prime minister that India had its navy deployed in the northern Arabian Sea and stood ready to escalate the level of conflict unless the aggression was vacated. It is this unique capability of being able to reach far and, even more important, to sustain this reach over long periods, that gives the navy a face that other two services do not have and which must be exploited in close concert with diplomacy to further our interests. IFRs serve this objective very well. February 2016 is just around the corner and all of us must wish our navy well as it gets ready to receive its guests.

The writer is a former Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command. He has also served on the National Security Advisory Board

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First Published: Wed, December 02 2015. 21:50 IST