By Abhijit Singh*
The event plans to unite regional navies, but the security environment remains fraught.
The Indian Navy is preparing to conduct its showcase event – the prestigious International Fleet Review (IFR) – at Visakhapatnam from February 4 to 8. With the first foreign ships due to make an appearance tomorrow, the excitement in India’s maritime circles is palpable. This is only the second time since 2001 that such an event has been organized in India. More significantly, it is the first international fleet review on India’s Eastern seaboard, a theater of growing interest for New Delhi.
Indian naval officers and maritime watchers, however, aren’t the only ones looking forward to the event. With an expected participation of 90 ships and 60 aircraft, and more than 30 service chiefs in attendance, international interest in the IFR is high. With days to go to the event, the organizing team had received 52 firm confirmations – a significant increase from the first international fleet review in February 2001 at Mumbai when 29 nations participated.
The IFR, however, isn’t just planned as a congregation of armed warships and aircraft. Organizers have designed the event as a multi-dimensional experience – a display of camaraderie and converging interests in a complex maritime environment. Besides the naval ships review by President Pranab Mukherjee, a nautical exhibition, a city parade, a maritime conference, an operational demonstration, and a book release function celebrating the maritime heritage of India are also planned.
The official theme of the IFR, “United through Oceans,” is also the driving inspiration for the event. By bringing a large number of warships together, the Indian Navy hopes to draw on the cooperative instinct of participants, urging them to join hands in combating common security and humanitarian threats at sea. In highlighting the utility of multilateral collaboration and interoperability, the event’s organizers hope to foster greater regional solidarity, comradeship and goodwill.
Such honorable missions, however, are easier conceived than executed. Many of the event’s participants still harbor deep suspicion of each other. China, which was excluded from Japan’s International Fleet Review at Sagami Bay a few months ago, has disputes with many of its neighbors over control of the East Asian commons. Beijing views multilateral naval exercises by its competitors as an attempt to undermine China’s maritime leverage in Asia. Its opponents, meanwhile, see Beijing’s maritime posturing and large-scale reclamation in the South China Sea as an intolerable provocation. Still, the Indian Navy is urging participants to drop their reservations and collaborate in larger regional interest. As Admiral RK Dhowan, the Indian naval chief noted at a recent press conference, “While we may be divided by geography, we must be united through the oceans.”
Building “bridges of friendship,” however, isn’t the Indian Navy’s only objective for undertaking this onerous enterprise – replete with logistical, administrative and political challenges. Indian maritime planners hope to achieve some of the more conventional objectives associated with fleet reviews. The exercise of assembling foreign warships is being regarded by many as an opportunity to display maritime might and battle-readiness. Despite downplaying the event’s strategic dimensions in public, the Indian Navy is keen to raise its Indian Ocean profile through the display of operational capability and combat assets. New Delhi wants to burnish its credentials as a net provider of regional security, a prominent theme in the Navy’s new maritime strategy released in October 2015.
The other key objective for organizing this event is to showcase indigenization. The IFR is meant to complement the “Make in India” campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship initiative for India’s internal rejuvenation. The Indian navy had originally planned to field many of its domestically manufactured assets, most significantly the ballistic missile nuclear submarine, Arihant. However, IFR organizers were forced to rethink their plans when participants conveyed their hesitation to send submarines. Instead, India’s main showcase platform will now be the INS Kadmatt – a new ASW corvette that is almost completely indigenous in design and production.
Geopolitics, however, could still play spoilsport. A few days ago, there were reports that the Indian Navy deployed P8I maritime patrol aircraft based at the strategically located Andaman and Nicobar Command to search for a suspected Chinese submarine prowling Indian waters. The submarine was reported to be a part of the Chinese 21st anti-piracy task-force in the Gulf of Aden. Around the same time, the Indian aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, was headed on an official visit to Colombo – the first by an Indian aircraft carrier to Sri Lanka. The ship’s stay at Colombo came immediately after the visit of three Chinese vessels from the 21st taskforce that had earlier engaged in a naval exercise with the Pakistan Navy. Oddly enough, the same ships are now scheduled to attend the IFR at Vizag.
Meanwhile, Beijing has its own worries about India’s maritime activities in the Western Pacific – particularly its naval deployments to Vietnam and Japan. In October last year, INS Sahyadri’s participation in Japan’s international fleet review at Sagami Bay, and an earlier visit to Na Trang in Vietnam created considerable unease in Beijing. The inclusion of Japan in the Indo-U.S. bilateral naval exercise Malabar and the first India-Australia maritime exercise (AUSINDEX) in the Indian Ocean further offended Chinese sensitivities. New Delhi, however, is seized of its awkward maritime equation with China. Mindful of the mutual suspicion that exists between the two sides, the Indian Navy has invited the People’s Liberation Army Navy to attend the IFR, hoping it would lead to greater confidence and goodwill.
It isn’t as if India is being overly sensitive towards Chinese concerns. New Delhi’s spirit of inclusion even extended to Pakistan, where subtle diplomatic overtures were made to secure the participation of the Pakistan Navy. Unfortunately, bilateral ties are at a particularly fraught juncture, with neither side willing to be seen making special concessions. Islamabad’s unfavorable response then has been on expected lines.
To keep the focus away from the politics, IFR organizers are hoping to leverage a sentimental aspect of the event. The fleet review will be India’s oldest aircraft carrier, INS Viraat’s last operational tour of duty, as it prepares to retire after 29 years of yeomen service. With advancing age and high maintenance costs, the old warhorse has been having problems keeping up with the pace of modern operations. Despite many operational extensions, it gradually became clear the ship is approaching the end of its active service life. Viraat, however, will still go out with a bang. The Indian Navy has reportedly managed to put six Sea Harrier jump-jets on its deck, and ordered the INS Vikramaditya to be her companion at the IFR.
There is a popular saying about aircraft carriers: Even when they are gone they are never really forgotten. The International Fleet Review at Visakhapatnam should be the perfect stage for INS Viraat to take a final bow. Its presence alongside the INS Vikramaditya will also present New Delhi with the perfect opportunity to seize the strategic narrative in the Indian Ocean Region.
This article originally appeared in The Diplomat.