17 January 2016

Array of powers on the water

Abhijit Bhattacharyya
International Fleet Review, Sydney, 2013
The tradition of the International Fleet Review can be traced back to the Royal Navy from which independent India's navy adopted virtually all protocol, values, systems and ethos. Initially, it all began as a fleet review which is a 600-year-old British-introduced naval drill, a show of sea power, combat skill and battle readiness which goes back to the 15th century. However, the Royal Navy ensured that to do this there had to be a 'cause of action', an occasion, to celebrate and hold the fleet review, which in course of time became the International Fleet Review. Thus, when the Royal Navy-organized International Fleet Review took place on June 28, 2005, it was to commemorate the 200-year anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar of 1805, which saw a flotilla of boats on the river Thames. The queen of England sailed in a specially designed and decorated 'royal yacht' to review a fleet of almost 170 ships, included in which were vessels from over 30 nations.

Before the 2005 event, however, there took place the queen's silver jubilee yacht review in 1977 and the International Fleet Review of 1999 to commemorate the battle of the Atlantic Ocean. To hold an International Fleet Review, the Royal Navy's code demands an occasion; a historic perspective on victory or a landmark anniversary pertaining to activities of the past of the nation and its navy.
This cue from the British was also followed by the Royal Australian Navy when from October 3 to 11, 2013, it held an International Fleet Review at Sydney harbour as part of the celebration to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the entry of the first Royal Australian Navy fleet in Sydney on October 4, 1913. It was considered a milestone in Australia's maturity as a nation. Similarly, there earlier took place another fleet review in 1986 as the Royal Australian Navy's 75th anniversary and the bicentennial naval salute.

In India's case, however, reportedly the man who masterminded the first International Fleet Review was Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, who just could not make it happen during his own tenure as navy chief, owing to an inglorious marching order he received from the then defence minister, George Fernandes, on December 30, 1998. No doubt the India-hosted International Fleet Review of February 2001, off Mumbai harbour, was a successful naval congregation, yet it remains a mystery whether or not there was actually any cause of action or landmark event to commemorate or celebrate.

Nevertheless, the fact is that for the first time in the history of independent India, navies of 22 nations with more than 50 ships participated across the Mumbai harbour waterfront, thereby giving New Delhi a distinct politico-diplomatic status and position amongst major maritime nations. Thus the unique feature of the Mumbai IFR 2001 was that the president of India, the constitutional supreme commander of the tri-services, was able to review an international fleet, which thus far had eluded Indians. This job had always been the sole privilege and prerogative of the royal personages of the United Kingdom. Hence the IFR-2001 marked the accomplishment of maritime India's mission in the ocean. The wheel of sea power had turned full circle in the Arabian Sea.

Being the host of 22 navies in its own territorial waters, India could now afford to sail with a sense of assured self-confidence; but a question remained unexplored: what about other/smaller participants in the IFR? Did they gain or lose morale, confidence and self-respect? It is important to remember that out of 150-plus naval nations, not more than 15 countries can be considered 'real ocean going' navies, as more than 75 per cent of all 'water powers' exist and operate around shallow, continental-shelf type water with extremely limited deep sea operational capacity, and experience. And that makes the situation odd for both strong as well as not-so-strong participating forces.

Thus at the turn of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st, when the Mumbai IFR-2001 was hosted, there officially existed (at least on paper) 163 navies in global oceans; out of which only 20-odd could be considered naval powers in the true sense, although with varying degrees of capability and competence.

Although 15 years have passed since the first India-hosted IFR-2001, the world naval scenario appears to maintain a status quo as the IFR-2016 nears. The number of navies stands at 165. However, the asset quantum-reduction of some major Western navies are too conspicuous to be ignored. Thus, the Royal Navy of 2000 had three aircraft carriers, of which "only two of the class were fully operational at any one time, the third being either in refit, working-up or on standby". Today it is totally denuded of its carrier force. The Royal Navy fleet of 11 destroyers and 20 frigates of 2001, stands reduced to six destroyers and 13 frigates and the personnel strength of the naval force has dropped from approximately 44,000 (in 2000) to 33, 000 (in 2015). This trend has afflicted virtually all major Western navies except the American fleet, as military expenditure has continued to decline.

In this background one would like to feel that all is progressing well with the Visakhapatnam IFR 2016 to be hosted by the Eastern Command of the Indian navy. And one would also like to believe that it would be better and bigger than the Mumbai IFR. With less than a month to go for the show, it, however, could be that the final list of foreign participants is yet to be ready owing to a change of plan of the invitee marines.

The IFR is a mega event in the calendar of any host. It requires long planning. And the choice of venue is crucial. From all accounts, Visakhapatnam is way behind Mumbai in this respect. Hence any expenditure incurred to acquire, and then dispose of, temporary infrastructure facilities for an event of five days could have all the ingredients of a post-IFR criticism. Since the IFR 2016 appears to have been conceived in a short time one hopes there will not be any loss of face, or lowering of quality in application and performance.

Coming back to possible participants, all eyes surely are likely to be on the Chinese ships and sailors for whom it would be the first IFR in Indian waters. Coming out from the 'high-action' South China Sea theatre to a benign Bay of Bengal, and displaying the Beijing flag in the midst of a vessel formation of non-combatant 'exercise of pomp and show' may turn out to be a useful future 'investment exercise' for the Han navy.

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