2 May 2016

A grand show of ships

Abhijit Bhattacharyya

The second International Fleet Review 2016 off the Visakhapatnam coast has been indeed successful from all accounts. Nevertheless, there exists a similarity between the first IFR in 2001 in Mumbai and this one of 2016 too conspicuous to be ignored. The first IFR in February 2001 took place two years after the unceremonious exit in December 1998 of the then navy chief, Vishnu Bhagwat (who reportedly had conceived the idea of an IFR), during George Fernandes's tenure as defence minister. Again, the second IFR in February 2016 took place after another prematurely aborted tenure, the inglorious exit of the navy chief, D.K. Joshi, in February 2014, followed by the resignation of the next-senior-most vice-admiral of the Western Command, Mumbai in April 2014, during the period that A.K. Antony was defence minister.

A brief comparison between the two mega naval shows of 21st-century India is not only essential, but inevitable. When a recent media blitzkrieg was launched to harp on the point that the 2016 IFR was much bigger, better and more glittering in comparison to the one held in Mumbai in 2001, it left one wondering. True, 2016 was better than 2001. Should not the successor, as a matter of routine, be better and brighter than the predecessor?

Be that as it may, going purely by the statistics of nations and the ships thereof, the first IFR saw the participation of 29 nations and 22 foreign ships lined up for fleet review. But it undoubtedly gave access to more people, both naval as well as civilians, to witness the show, owing to Mumbai's better logistics. In contrast, although the second IFR saw the participation of 50 foreign nations, the participation of a total of only 25 foreign ships does not match up to the Mumbai 2001 IFR, thereby reflecting the host's inability to attract more modern ships to be deployed to the Visakhapatnam anchorage. Does this imply that nations which came without ships for the fleet review were non-serious? Or were they wary of potential espionage? Or perhaps they did not want to showcase their technological advancement in public in an alien arena?

Nevertheless, since the primary purpose and aim of an IFR is a show of ships, it would be in order to analyse the quality of participation in Visakhapatnam 2016. Thus the largest sea-participation understandably was that of the host, the Indian navy, which shared the sea space off Visakhapatnam with 71 of its 150 plus active combat ships of the fleet, in tandem with 25 foreign vessels.

Expectedly again, it was the deployment of 11 Asian ships, out of a total of 25 foreign vessels, which indicated successful participation of the Asians. However, barring China, Myanmar, Indonesia, Oman and Vietnam, the other six participants could not sail any of their new assets for the IFR. The Chinese were the smartest of Asian navies. They came with a purpose: to showcase their combat vessels and to attract attention as well as potential customers. Hence, they brought two of their latest Jiangkai II (Type 054A) ton 3963 full load frigates (Liuzhou and Sanya). Manufactured in 2012 and 2013 respectively at Hudong Shipyard, Shanghai, in the incredibly short span of 14 months. With a 3800 nautical mile range with constant 18 knot speed are very useful in taking counter-measures as well as mapping areas of hitherto uncharted water. In comparison, the Japanese navy's Hatsuyuki class 4267 ton full load destroyer (Matsuyuki), built by Ishikawajima Harima, Tokyo, is a 30-year old (1986 manufactured) ship.

Myanmar, however, brought its 2012 indigenously built (with Chinese-assisted Jiangwei design) 2500 ton frigate, Aung Zeya. Indonesia's (United Kingdom made) 1940-ton frigate, commissioned 2014, and Vietnam's 2011 commissioned 2134-ton frigate, Dinh Tien Hoang of Russian origin, were star Asian attractions. Oman's brand new 2013 commissioned 2743-ton British-made corvette, Al Shamikh, with a small 75-ton coastal patrol craft in tow, "equipped with survey equipment" as an additional role, must be complimented for its smartness. Obviously, Oman realizes the dangers emanating from shallow-water seas rather too well, being strategically (and at times dangerously) located at the tri-junction of the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

Old ships like Samudra Joy from Bangladesh (1971 manufactured American vessel); Iran's (US-made 1971-commissioned) 1372-ton frigate, Alvand; Thailand's 24-year-old, Hudong Shipyard, Shanghai-made 1955-ton frigate, Saiburi, and Sri Lanka's offshore patrol vessel, Sayura (which originally was a Sukanya class vessel constructed by Hindustan Shipyard, Visakhapatnam in 1991 and used by the Indian coast guard and transferred to Colombo in 2000) lined up for the fleet review.

Sea-participation of Europe, however, raised the question, has Europe really declined in the sea? There could be some truth in rumour. Given Europe's drastically reduced defence budget, fast-declining trained manpower in research and development, ageing population along with financial turbulence, only London, Paris and Moscow ships were present. Both France and the UK, however, showed quality products: full load 6096 ton French destroyer, Provence (of Aquitaine class), commissioned 2015, undoubtedly was the newest vessel on display. The British too sailed one of their biggest, full load 7570 ton (Daring class-Type 45) destroyers commissioned 2013. Both ships surely showed the best of whatever is left in Europe's ship-building industry.

Moscow, too, acted smart by sending an auxiliary force (utility) vessel as diving support/submarine support rescue vessel. Obviously, Russians appear keen on getting deeper underwater to counter potential threats from the sea; especially as asymmetric and unconventional threats from terrorists and fundamentalists are increasing.

One 32-year-old 4267 ton Australian frigate (Darwin), a nine-year-old (German made) South African frigate, Spioenkop, and a four-year-old offshore patrol vessel from Brazil completed the representations of the continents of Africa, Latin America and Australia, thereby leaving the United States of America to showcase two of its veteran vessels: the 29-year-old battle cruiser, the 10117 ton, Ticonderoga-class Antietam and the 14-year-old Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the 9425 ton Mccampbell, both essentially used for power projection and blue water operations.

The IFR success notwithstanding, the emerging scenario was the disparity in the naval strength of the participants; at best, six of the participating countries could be referred to as nations with navy. The weak will bank on those who are makers of ships. That is the message.

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