India was, is and will always be a maritime nation. The oceans are an integral part of her mythology and history, and find repeated mention in the Mahabharata and the Vedas. While the Indian Navy has been the guardian of India’s maritime bounty for over seven decades, this Navy is not a new entity—rather, it is a culmination, as well as resurgence, of a sea-faring tradition, which harks back to ancient times.
The inhabitants of Indus Valley, from whom India derives her name, traded with Mesopotamia and the Greco-Roman empires many millennia ago. Intrepid Harappan engineers also built the world’s first tidal dock for sea-going vessels at Lothal (2400 BC). Incidentally, India’s National Maritime Heritage Museum is now being built at Lothal, presently located at Saragwala village, Dholka taluka of Ahmedabad district; a fitting tribute not only to the navies of ancient India, but indeed, of the entire world.
The Indian Navy has today come a long way from what it was at India’s Independence, and has transformed into a multi-dimensional, highly capable, blue-water force, ready to address threats and challenges in the maritime domain.
INDIA IN THE INDIAN OCEAN
The Indian Ocean covers nearly a quarter of the world’s oceanic surface and its waters lap the shores of over 40 nations, constituting one-third of the world’s population. Further, half of all global shipping and nearly three-quarters of all oil trade transits through this Ocean—there are an average of 12,000-13,000 ships transiting within this vast expanse at any given time.
Although smaller than the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the Indian Ocean has witnessed resurgence and its unfolding dynamics will now be a crucial factor in 21st century geopolitics. While the rise of India is a significant geo-political driver, it is India’s engagement with the Indian Ocean that will define India’s trajectory in the coming decades. The Indian Navy, as India’s lead maritime agency, is therefore poised to play a significant role to shape the destiny of the nation, and indeed, of the entire region.
INDIA’S MARITIME OUTLOOK
A study of India’s maritime history reveals that her civilisational connect with the rest of the world was essentially effected through the medium of the oceans. Today, the drivers of modern India’s maritime outlook are a unique and advantageous geography, need for sustained economic growth, dynamic geo-strategic environment, need to ensure safety and security of SLOCs (Sea Lines of Communication), and security of Indian investments and other interests overseas, including a large Indian diaspora. India’s relationship with her neighbours and finally the threats to national security, both traditional and non-traditional, as also internal and external, are the key contributors towards shaping her maritime outlook. India also has overwhelming reliance on the oceans for external trade and sustaining its energy needs. This dependence on the oceans for sustaining growth necessitates that the Navy ensure uninterrupted pursuit of economic activities, which in turn requires peace, security and stability in the maritime domain.
ROLES OF INDIAN NAVY
The Indian Navy has four classical roles, namely military, diplomatic, constabulary and benign, with their associated objectives, missions and tasks, to attain the final aim which is to “safeguard India’s national maritime interests at all times”.
Thanks to the vision of its perspicacious forbearers, today’s Indian Navy has acquired adequate capability to meet all challenges in its primary and secondary areas of interest. Here, it is pertinent to mention that a mere bean count of any Navy’s total number of ships, either by net tonnage or number of ships, is only a partial metric of its capability. Comparisons of numbers of ships or platforms of competing Navies do not account for their core missions, area of operations, cultural ethos and national responsibilities, which can significantly affect combat potential.
India’s central position astride the main International Shipping Lanes (ISLs) also accords distinct advantages in respect of force, space and time, critical factors for maritime operations. The outer fringes of the Indian Ocean and most chokepoints are almost equidistant from India, thereby facilitating reach, sustenance and mobility of the Navy’s forces, across the region. Navies also have to operate wherever the national and maritime interests of the country demand. Using organic and cooperative capabilities, the Indian Navy has developed the capability for extended reach and sustenance away from own shores, thus ensuring security of energy and trade, which is its prime responsibility.
Although traditional threats are the raison d’etre of the Navy, in recent years, non-traditional security threats such as terrorism, piracy, robbery, IUU fishing (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated), human/arms/drugs trafficking etc., have necessitated the Indian Navy to adapt and create fresh paradigms for maritime security. Towards this, the Navy transitioned to Mission Based Deployments in 2017, which has facilitated deployment of mission-ready ships and aircraft to maintain near continuous presence in critical shipping lanes and chokepoints. Additionally, post 26/11, the Indian Navy has also been made responsible for overall maritime, coastal and offshore security of the nation, a mandate being fulfilled on 24×7 basis in synergy with over 20 other government agencies.
Ancient India’s naval diplomacy is recorded by Greek historian Megasthenes, who in his seminal work Indika, mentions that Ashoka the Great (250 BC) may have used the Mauryan navy for some part of the journey of his diplomatic missions to Greece, Syria, Egypt, Cyrene (Libya), Macedonia, Epirus and the Malay peninsula. Over four millennia later, under Hon’ble Prime Minister’s vision of Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), India’s Navy continues to assist friendly maritime nations in capacity building and also undertaking flag-showing visits to friendly countries (Indian Navy’s warships have visited over 100 countries since Independence).
Further, given that oceans are considered as global commons, national interests of India and like-minded nations often converge. This gives rise to multifarious cooperative engagements to harness resources, process information and jointly execute missions to achieve a common end-state. The Indian Navy today conducts maritime operations and exercises with nearly 30 nations, such as the recently concluded Malabar-2020 with Australia, Japan and the United States. Further, the Navy has also conducted two International Fleet Reviews in 2001 and 2016, which have greatly enhanced India’s stature as a global maritime power.
The spirit of adventure infused by the sea-breeze of the Indian Ocean has led fearless personnel of the Indian Navy from the heights of Mount Everest to the depths of the oceans. In a tribute to India’s ancient mariners, an all-female crew of Naval officers brought laurels to the nation in 2018 by undertaking Navika Sagar Parikrama, using a sail-vessel to circumnavigate the globe, sailing 40,000 kilometres in 254 days across three oceans.
There has also been a higher incidence of natural disasters and regional instabilities over the past few decades, necessitating increased deployment of the Indian Navy for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations such as 2004 Tsunami (Maldives, Sri Lanka, Indonesia), Op Neer (water assistance to Maldives in 2014), Op Sahayta (Mozambique floods, 2019), UNWFP escort (Somalia, 2018-2020), Mission SAGAR I&II (COVID-19 assistance to IOR and African countries) and Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) such as Op Sukoon (Beirut, 2006) Op Rahat (Yemen, 2015) Op Samudra Setu (COVID-19 related repatriation of 3992 citizens from Maldives, Sri Lanka and Iran, 2020).
RISING TIDE LIFTS ALL
The nation’s first indigenously built warship (INS Ajay, 1961) put the Indian Navy on the path of Indigenisation. Today the Navy remains at the forefront of the nation’s indigenisation efforts and Atma Nirbhar Bharat through close association with defence PSUs and private industry, developing capabilities in emerging cyber and space domains, and leapfrogging the technology curve by investing in artificial intelligence, big data and directed energy weapons. Maritime Domain Awareness, battle-space transparency and connectivity is facilitated by a slew of high-tech measures ranging from satellites to networked sensors.
As on date, more than 130 warships of the Indian Navy have been constructed at Indian shipyards, saving precious foreign exchange and ploughing back its budget to boost the local economy. Presently, over 40 ships and submarines are on order from public and private sector Indian shipyards and the nation will soon have an aircraft carrier built to its own design—a capability which only a handful of countries can boast of. In the coming years, the Navy is likely to induct an aircraft carrier, stealth destroyers and frigates, submarines, diving support vessels, survey vessels, ASW craft, amphibious ships, Dornier aircraft, ALH and Chetak helicopters constructed in India; while additional state-of-the-art P8I aircraft, multi-role helicopters and HALE RPAs are being procured from overseas.
LOTHAL TO LETHAL
Today, Indian Navy is the pre-eminent stabilising force in the Indian Ocean, and is likely to remain so in the coming decades. The Navy operates a wide range of cutting-edge platforms bristling with state-of-the-art weapons and sensors and has nearly six decades’ experience of operating aircraft carriers, including undertaking carrier-borne combat operations over East Pakistan in 1971. As one of only six Navies operating nuclear submarines, the Navy completes the nation’s nuclear triad, providing strategic deterrence and second-strike capability. Given its professionalism and prominence in the Indian Ocean, many major Navies see the benefit of associating and exercising with the Indian Navy for mutual learning, which is in itself an acknowledgement of the Navy’s global standards.
As India takes steady steps towards reacquiring its rightful place in the world order, the nation has rightly understood that “to be secure on land, we must be supreme at sea”. It is, therefore, imperative not only for mariners, but for all Indian citizens, descendants of an ancient sea-faring civilization, to understand nuances of our vast maritime domain, its unique sets of challenges and opportunities, and the key role it will play in determining our destiny in the 21st century. Ancient mariners of Harappa would today, over four millennia later, indeed be proud to witness the transformation of India’s Navy from Lothal to Lethal.
Captain Prashant Handu is a serving Indian Naval Officer presently posted at Naval Headquarters, New Delhi. He has a keen interest in nautical antiquity.
Source: Sunday Guardian Live