The ignominy of INS Betwa, a frontline warship lying on its side in a dry-dock with a totally damaged mast is an inglorious visual that frames one end of the trajectory of the Indian Navy (IN) in 2016. Sadly for the IN, this unprecedented and highly embarrassing mishap took place in Mumbai’s naval dockyard on December 5 – a day after Navy Day (Dec 4) was celebrated nationwide. On this day, the silent service is more vocal and highlights its many achievements over the year – and it must be acknowledged that these are a feather in the cap for the service given the severe setbacks that plagued the IN over the last three years.
2016 began with the International Fleet Review off Visakhapatnam where as many as 100 ships from 48 nations participated and this mega-maritime event showcased India’s competence and credibility in the regional context.The high-point for India as a nation was the fact that in the course of the year, the indigenously designed and built nuclear submarine – the Arihant reached its desired level of operational readiness. Though the entire process took longer than envisaged, this remains a truly remarkable achievement for the IN and the many national agencies that were part of this effort. The valuable support provided by Moscow merits notice and this is reflective of the depth of the bilateral relationship that India has traditionally had with the former USSR/ now Russia.
On the sunny side for the IN, the sailship Mhadei has been winning accolades globally for the splendid sea-faring skills being demonstrated by the intrepid sailors of the Navy. Most recently, an all women crew has carried out long voyages and is now preparing for circumnavigation of the globe in 2017. More power to Indian women and a hattip to Admiral Manohar Awati, the grandold maritime historian of the IN who has been leading the cause of sail-ships and the need to instill the love of the sea in young India.
But reverting to the ignominy of the Betwa and the travails of the IN, it may be recalled that over the last three years, beginning with the loss of the submarine INS Sindhurakshak in August 2013, (also while in harbour) – the IN has had as many as 12 accidents big and small. In the process, the service has seen the resignation of a Chief and a C-in-C in the finest traditions of the service where the final responsibility rests with the apex.
Has the IN expanded too quickly and is the support system – both human and material unable to cope? These are complex professional matters that warrant the most rigorous and objective introspection by the service and appropriate course-correction is called for. High levels of professional competence and commitment of the Navy have to be located within the larger national maritime eco-system and this needs the collective Indian effort. In the last two decades there has been a steady acknowledgement of India’s maritime potential (when in doubt, turn the map of India upside down!) and PM Narendra Modi has been advocating SAGAR – or security and growth for all in the region.
Interestingly the word ‘region’ has taken on a more expansive connotation – and it is relevant to note that the official vision document of the IN – Maritime Doctrine 2015 invokes the term ‘Indo- Pacific.’ This elastic term encompasses the maritime domain from the Indian Ocean to the western Pacific through the Malacca – and is often referred to as the ‘New Silk Route.’ The emerging strategic scenario in this extended region will see three major powers engaging with each other – India, China and the USA. This is an asymmetric and uneasy triangular relationship with many anomalies embedded among them. Chief among them is the empirical reality that in the near future, China will emerge as the world’s number one GDP but it will not be the world’s foremost military power – that perch will still be occupied by the USA.
Dis-aggregatedfurther, China may acquire more quantifiable assets – from ships and submarines to better ports and related technology – but maritime empathy is an intangible qualitative capability. India has a distinctive niche in this regard and Betwa must serve as the spur to ensure that such ignominy will never be allowed to happen again.
Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. He was previously Director, National Maritime Foundation (NMF) and prior to that he headed the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).