By Commodore Anil Jai Singh (Retd)
When the NDA government came to power in May 2014, national security and more specifically , maritime security figured high on the agenda. Within a month of taking over, in his first trip outside Delhi, the Prime Minisiter Narendra Modi spent a day on board the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya. This was followed soon thereafter by his presence at the commissioning of INS Kolkatta, the indigenously built guided missile destroyer. The interim Defence Minister at that time, Shri Arun Jaitley stated that maritime security was the his top priority. In February 2016 an International Fleet Review was held in Visakahapatnam in which more than 50 navies participated and was indicative of India’s growing stature on the global stage. This was followed in April 2016 by a Global Maritime Summit held in Mumbai in which more than 40 countries participated. The Government also initiated two transformational maritime programmes – the multi-crore rupee Sagarmala programme for port-led development of the maritime sector in India and SAGAR ( Security and Growth for All in the Region) to enhance maritime capacity, capability and connectivity in the region of our interest.
From a foreign policy perspective too, these five years (2014-2019) were significant as the Prime Minister’s pro-active policies like the Act East Policy and the Neighbourhood First Policy led to much greater engagement with the countries of the Indo-Pacific and strategic cooperation with many. India’s relations with the Big Powers also saw an incremettal improvement. The presence of extra-regional powers was no longer seen as adverserial to India’s interests.
As a result, the Indian Navy which is an important instrument for furthering the country’s foreign policy objectives became more visible than ever before in the Indo-Pacific. It was much sought after as an exercise partner by regional navies. Exisiting bilateral exercises like Simbex( with Singapore), Malabar ( with the USA), Varuna (with France), Konkan(with the UK), Indra (with Russia) and various others increased in scope and included advanced manoeuvres toward improving interoperability and a common security outlook. Regular interaction with foreign navies has now become the norm. More than a dozen IN ships arenow deployed at any given time in various parts of the Indo-Pacific on a variety of missions. This has also enabled the IN to become more pro-active as the first responder in providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) during natural and man-made calamities besides improving Maritime Domain Awareness which is critical to pre-empt a developing security threat, either national or trans-national. This has also greatly enhanced the navy’s credibility as an effective provider of net security in the Indian Ocean region.
While this naval presence is essential to project India as a major Indo-Pacific power which has been the thrust of the country’s foreign policy initiatives in recent years, the government has been found wanting in providing the means for the navy to do so. In the last few years, the defence budget has been showing a steady decline as a percentage of the country’s GDP. The navy’s share of this budget too has declined .As a result, while the navy has responded magnificently to the increased demands and has maintained an unprecedented operational tempo over the last few years, the existing constraints in providing the adequate resources has placed a considerable strain on the navy’s full spectrum combat capability with critical gaps becoming increasingly apparent.
India is the dominant naval power in the Indian Ocean and amongst the top three resident powers in the Indo-Pacific but it still lacks the ability to shape the maritime environment in its favour. Maritime power is integral to becoming a great power, a Mahanian concept that China has embraced with both arms.
It is certain that Mr Modi, in his second term as Prime Minister will seek to further enhance India’s status as an emerging big power. In 2020, India will take on the presidency of the G20; it is actively seeking to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and in the interim is looking to get elected as a non permanent member. It is therefore imperative that India first establishes itself as a serious Indo-Pacific power. To do so in a distinctly maritime geopolitical construct, the Indian Navy should be equipped with the capability to project this power.
It is a rare coincidence that the new Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Karambir Singh is taking over the reins of the Navy on the same day as Mr Narendra Modi is beginning his second term as Prime Minister. While the former is inheriting a navy that has established its professional credentials in no uncertain terma and is fully committed to furthering the nation’s security and foreign policy objectives, the latter is seeking to consolidate his foreign policy achievements and take India on a new trajectory in its engagement with the world. It is therefore an opportune moment for new beginnings with the navy delivering on its commitments and the Government providing it the necessary means to do so.
–The author is Vice President and Head-Delhi branch, Indian Maritime Foundation.