|INS Mumbai refueling with French replenishment tanker La Meuse|
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The 10-day Indo-French naval exercise code-named ‘Varuna’ recently held off the Goa coast did not get much coverage in the Indian media.
The event was important for several reasons which escaped the editors.
First and foremost, it is vital to note that Planet Earth has slowly been changing its axis from a US dominated world to a Chinese-led one.
At the time of India’s Independence, in his book Asia and Western Dominance, the ‘famous’ Indian historian K.M. Panikkar argued that from the time of Vasco de Gama till the middle of the 20th Century, the Western powers ruled over Asia and the world, by dominating the Sea.
In 1945, Panikkar remarked: ‘India never lost her independence till she lost the command of the sea in the first decade of the 16th Century’. He also said:
“A navy is not meant for the defense of the coast. The coast has to be defended from the land. The objective of the navy is to secure the control of an area of the sea, thus preventing enemy ships from approaching the coast or interfering with trade and commerce.”
During the second part of the 20th Century, Air Power became the major tool of ‘dominance’ and the Sea was temporarily left in the background.
A few years ago, the Beijing leadership realised that the Rise of China will pass not only through land, but through the seas too.
The acceptance of this fact is particularly important at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares for his maiden trip to China as Prime Minister.
President Xi Jinping likes to say that his favorite ‘Two Silks Roads’ mega-project follows the worldwide pattern of regional integration, but tellingly The People’s Daily calls the ‘historic’ scheme ‘China’s One Belt, One Road’.
Even if Xi says that the “initiatives will not be a solo for China but a real chorus comprising all countries along the routes,” it remains a project by China for China; the chorus’ conductor will be Chinese.
The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road will eventually stretch from China to Southeast Asia and Africa and though: “The vision, once realised, will directly benefit 4.4 billion people, or 63 percent of the global population,” don’t be fooled, it will primarily benefit Beijing.
The Indo-French exercises should be seen in this context.
India needs to counter-balance China and to be ready to do so, Delhi should engage with ‘friendly’ Navies, who have the required experience and ships. There are not many.
While attending the joint exercises and spending 4 days aboard 3 French ships (including the Aircraft Carrier Charles de Gaulle), I realised the significance of the Sea in tomorrow’s world, though the ‘C’ word was rarely pronounced.
When President Chirac of France visited India in March 1998, ‘China’ was not in everybody’s mind like today, but using a de Gaulle-like language, the French President saluted India, ‘a nation which has affirmed its personality on the world stage’. At that time, India and France signed a framework for a strategic partnership. It was 17 years ago.
Amongst other things, it was then decided to hold regular joint naval exercises (Varuna), air force exercises (Garuda) and drills between the 2 Armies (Shakti).
Varuna’s 14th edition saw the Indian and French Carrier Strike Groups (CTG) interact in the most sophisticated naval training so far, (it was only the 5th time that aircraft carriers participated).
Apart from aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, the flagship of the French Navy, two destroyers Chevalier Paul and Jean de Vienne and the replenishment tanker La Meuse were present.
One of the attractions was of course the Marine version (Rafale M) of the Rafale combat aircraft recently selected by India to equip the IAF. Super Etendard strike aircrafts, an E2C Hawkeye Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) and several helicopters such as the anti-submarine Lynx, a Dauphin and a few Alouettes, also participated.
The French probably had an elusive nuclear combat submarine, but it is the nature of a sub to remain invisible!
On the Indian side of the naval ‘battle’ was aircraft carrier INS Viraat (the oldest carrier in the world, originally built by the British in 1943 and several times refitted and ‘modernised’), destroyer INS Mumbai, stealth frigate INS Tarkash, guided missile frigate INS Gomati, replenishment tanker INS Deepak, submarine INS Shankul. A few Sea Harriers aircrafts, Seaking 42B and Chetak helicopters (the Indian version of the Alouette) also participated.
Incidentally the INS Mumbai and INS Tarkash participated in the evacuation operations in Yemen. Rear Adm Eric Chaperon, the Commander of Task Force 473 which had just been involved for 2 months in operations against the Islamic State in Iraq complimented the Indian side for ‘Operation Rahat’ and explained that exercises such as the Varuna helped “developing understanding and cooperation between ships and facilitate their cooperation for any kind of mission.”
But these exercises had another dimension: it included ‘all the scenarios’ of maritime operations from aircraft carrier operations, anti-submarines detection, maritime interdiction operations to multi-ship replenishment exercise. All were conducted to the satisfaction of both Navies’ senior staff.
While discussing with the French Admiral, he admitted that the objectives of the Indian CTG were different from the French, which is often asked to intervene in regional conflicts. The Indian CTG is more defensive in nature, he said, though it remains an important instrument of projection of the nation’s power to defend its interests at sea as well on land.
For Admiral Chaperon, the exercises were not just ‘reciting’ a script or something to show off (not merely for a ‘naval parade’, he said), India had now a real power.
He felt that India has crossed over to a new stage (compared to previous Varunas). What was interesting, he believed that the partnership between France and India was balanced; though organised at short notice (the date was finalised at the end of February only), the exercises were extremely meaningful. Despite time constraints (to prepare the tactics and decided on common procedures, using protocols similar to the ones used with NATO’s allies), the results were satisfying.
One interesting aspect was the presence of Liaison Officers from the Indian Navy aboard each French ship and vice-versa (some Indian pilots practicing on the recently commissioned INS Vikaramaditya, the new Indian carrier were also present).
The possibility of integrating the Rafale M was briefly mentioned, though it could only be on the indigenous INS Vikrant which may feature a catapult-assisted take-off.
These friendly exchanges are important because, apart from the US and Russia, only France has an operational CTG to practice with and combat readiness is a crucial aspect if India wants to project its power on the seas (and defend its interests). All the officers interviewed agreed that a CTG was the best instrument of ‘influence’ and ‘deterrence’.
At the same time, China progresses with giant strides. A report recently released by the US Office of Naval Intelligence explains: “During 2014 alone, more than 60 naval ships and craft were laid down, launched, or commissioned, with a similar number expected through the end of 2015. Major qualitative improvements are occurring within naval aviation and the submarine force, which are increasingly capable of striking targets hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland. Although the PLA (Navy) faces capability gaps in some key areas, it is emerging as a well-equipped and competent force.”
It is clear that India can’t match China in this type of speed and quantity, but a smaller, disciplined and well-equipped naval force and some ‘good friends’ could be a deterrent factor …in case of need.
Before his visit to China, Mr. Narendra Modi probably realises that he can’t stop the rise of the Middle Kingdom, neither on land or on seas, but in the years to come, a professional and well-trained Indian Navy could act as a deterrent against the fast occupation of the Sea by a today-peaceful China.
Some pictures of the Varuna exercises.
|Indian Navy Officer attending the briefing on La Meuse|
|Lynx Helicopter on French anti-submarine Frigate Jean de Vienne|
|Indian Navy officer watching the shooting exercises|
|Rafale M landing of Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier|
|Refueling a French Frigate|
|E2C Hawkeye and Rafales on the Charles de Gaulle|
|Super Etendard on the Charles de Gaulle|
|E2C Hawkeye on the Charles de Gaulle|
|Charles de Gaulle carrier in Goa|