Sunday, December 16, 2012

Don't be on the back foot: Those who seek to dilute Navy Chief Joshi's message don't really understand sea power
By Admiral Sushil Kumar | Dec 10, 2012, 12.00 AM IST

Was it fair of the government to brush aside the Navy Day message of Navy chief D K Joshi, suggesting that it was a media goof-up? The admiral's message merely conveyed the classical role of any navy such as ours which has a blue water capability. It is universally known that navies are meant to swiftly deploy and operate in any oceanic area where the interests of the nation require it to
do so. That has always been the purpose of any navy and China certainly knows this.

Frankly speaking, did not the media get it right when it linked the Navy chief's message to China 's aggressive maritime posture? Rather than fault the media, we need to seriously introspect on India 's timidity. Why do we always remain on the back foot when dealing with China ?

The Chinese debacle of 1962 is now history and the military equation is quite different today. Yet, we are just not able to deal with China on an equal footing. What this recent incident shows is that our inferio-rity complex does not lie only across the McMahon Line but extends even to India 's maritime dimension.

This is indeed ironic, for unlike the landward frontier with China where we find ourselves tactically disadvantaged, the situation at sea is entirely in our favour; we have an immense geographical advantage. India 's geographical location in the Indian Ocean could provide us with strategic leverage which our political leadership ought to bear in mind.

With the Indian subcontinent positioned dominantly astride the vital sea lanes of communication (SLOC) - which include China 's new silk route through the Indian Ocean - it is not India but China that finds itself on the back foot.

India is unable to exploit its advantage on the maritime front simply because our geopolitical attention remains consumed by the Line of Control and the McMahon Line. Our strategic compulsions vis-a-vis these land frontiers have led to a landlocked mindset, blinding us to the geographical reality that India is actually a maritime country.

In short, other countries like China have learnt to exploit the geographical facts far better than us. Moreover, using the sea is not just a matter of increasing understanding, but above all, a process of building capabilities. That indeed was the essence of Joshi's message on December 4. The people of India would be reassured to know that ours is the only navy in the Indian Ocean region that has the capability to operate aircraft carrier battle groups and nuclear submarines.

Explaining the role of a navy has never been easy, since there is a vast difference in the way that a navy operates compared to an army or air force. Since navies invariably operate in international waters, which are open highways, they have the intrinsic advantage of being able to deploy to any part of the globe, unlike the army or air force which are confined to the nation's borders. Whilst all navies are well aware of their designated role and potential, it is the diplomats on both sides of the border who need to get attuned to the concept of naval operations. The Kargil conflict of 1999 is a case in point.

While the Indian army and air force were still preparing to evict the Pakistani intruders, the Indian Navy fleets had already deployed and seized
the initiative at sea. The swift deployment of Indian Navy battle groups prevented escalation and confined the hostilities to the Kargil sector. Gunboat diplomacy certainly has great possibilities.

Reach and endurance is the concern of every blue water navy, and it is for this reason that the Indian Navy regularly deploys and operates across the world in different oceanic areas. That the Chinese have a healthy respect for the Indian Navy's capability has also been well established.

In September 2000 when the Indian Navy deployed a task force of submarines and destroyers to exercise in the South China Sea , there were misgivings in certain political circles. To those who understand what sea power is all about, it came as no surprise that this task force, which operated for more than a month in the region, was finally received by the Chinese at Shanghai naval base with full military ceremony.

Not many would know that the year 2012 is a historical landmark for the Indian Navy, for it came into being exactly four centuries ago, commissioned by the British East India Company in 1612. From a ragtag marine force, the navy is today a blue water force with potent capabilities. This is the sort of maritime heritage that would make any nation proud and is surely what every Indian would like to hear.

Joshi's reassuring message on our Navy's 400th anniversary was essentially meant for the people of India . That such a message was misconstrued
as a diplomatic faux pas clearly shows that we have a scant understanding of what sea power is all about.

Perhaps we need to learn why the Greeks of antiquity and the emperors of ancient Rome went about building their navies even though it was an era of continental wars. If we do not want to fail the test of sea power as happened with Alexander, Napoleon and Hitler, it is time that we in India understood the purpose of a navy.

The writer is former chief of the Indian Navy.

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