Thursday, May 7, 2015

Advantages of having water-tight friendship

Lynx antisubmarine helicopter taking off for a joint mission
One more article on the Varuna joint naval exercises between India and France.
This time in the Edit page of The Pioneer. It is entitled: Advantages of having water-tight friendship

Here the link...

By initiating the Maritime Silk Road, China hopes to take Asia's leadership. The Indo-French exercise, Varuna, should be seen in this context. It is vital for New Delhi to engage with friendly navies and learn from them

Have you heard of the SLOC? In the years to come, this acronym for Sea Lines of Communication will take a more and more preponderant place. In times of peace, the control of the maritime routes used for trade, logistics or naval operations, provides a definitive advantage for commerce and raw material supplies; in time of war, it gives a country a decisive lead over the enemy.
Napoleon realised this too late, the British blockade of countries associated with France was one of the reasons for the Emperor’s downfall. At the time of India’s independence, in his book, Asia and Western Dominance, the good historian (and poor diplomat) KM Panikkar argued that from the time of Vasco da Gama till the middle of the 20th century, Western powers ruled over Asia and the world, by dominating the sea.
Panikkar remarked: “India never lost her independence till she lost the command of the sea in the first decade of the 16th century.” During the second part of the 20th century, air power became the major tool of ‘dominance’; the sea was temporarily left in the background. But times are changing; Beijing was quick to realise that the rise of China will pass not only through land, but through the seas too. This fact is particularly important at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares for his maiden trip to China.
I had this in mind when I joined the 10-day Indo-French naval exercise, code-named Varuna, recently held off the Goa coast. The event, which escaped most of the Indian editors, was important for several reasons. President Xi Jinping argues that his ‘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’.
By initiating the 21st century Maritime Silk Road, which will eventually stretch from China to South-East Asia and Africa, China clearly hopes to take Asia’s leadership. The Indo-French exercises should be seen in this context. It is vital for New Delhi to engage with ‘friendly’ navies and learn from those who have the required experience, ships and armament and there are very few!
Varuna’s 14th edition saw the Indian and French Carrier Strike Groups interact in the most sophisticated naval training so far, (it was only the fifth 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 the presence of the marine version (Rafale M) of the Rafale combat aircraft recently selected by India to equip the Indian Air Force; it was accompanied by Super Etendard strike aircraft, an E2C Hawkeye Airborne Warning And Control System and several helicopters. The French probably had an elusive nuclear combat submarine hiding somewhere, but isn’t it 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 and several times refitted and ‘modernised’), destroyer INS Mumbai, stealth frigate INS Tarkash, (both had just participated in the repatriation operations in Yemen), guided-missile frigate INS Gomati, replenishment tanker INS Deepak and the submarine INS Shankul.
Rear Admiral Eric Chaperon, the Commander of Task Force 473, which had just been involved for two months in operations against the Islamic State in Iraq, admits that the objectives of the Indian CSG were different from the French one, which is often asked to intervene in regional conflicts. The Indian CSG 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 an occasion to show off (nor merely for a ‘naval parade’, he said), India has indeed a professional and motivated Navy. One of the interesting features of Varuna was that the partnership was balanced. Though organised at short notice (the date was finalised at the end of February) and despite other constraints to prepare agreed tactics and decide on common procedures and protocols, the exercises were extremely meaningful.
Indian naval officers onboard the French ships felt that it was a good training for both navies, and though most of the protocols were largely similar, they were impressed by the fact that the French sailors could do most of the tasks with less people, perhaps a question of experience …or culture, they said. And of course, the Indian Navy does not have, like its French counterpart, a strong contingent of ladies (up to 15 per cent). Again a question of culture!
But these exercises had another dimension: It included ‘all scenarios’ of maritime operations, from aircraft carrier operations, anti submarines detection, maritime interdiction operations to multi-ship replenishment exercises, which were all conducted to the satisfaction of both Navies’ senior staff. One interesting aspect was the presence of Liaison officers from the Indian Navy aboard each French ship and vice-versa.
These friendly exchanges are crucial for India, because apart from the US and Russia, only France has an operational CSG to practice with and today, combat readiness is a critical aspect to project one’s power on the seas (and defend one’s interests). All the officers interviewed agreed that a CSG is the best instrument of ‘regional influence’ and ‘deterrence’.
Though the French officers did not want to comment on the ‘rise’ of China, nobody can deny that the Middle Kingdom 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.”
It is clear that India can’t match China, though a smaller, disciplined and well-equipped naval force and some ‘good friends’ could be a deterrent factorin case of need. Before his visit to China, Mr Modi probably realises that he can’t stop the rise of the Middle Kingdom, neither on land or on the seas. But in the years to come, despite today’s grim situation, a professional and well-trained Indian Navy can act as a deterrent.
A great regret: Nobody was allowed on board the Indian ships. I was told that it was South Block’s decision. ‘Communication’ has never been the babu’s forte. It is a great pity, because the nation is entitled to know that the Indian Navy is doing well, despite its budgetary constraints. Would the bureaucrats, still living in a bygone era, be more mature, they would know that good ‘communication’ is a form of deterrence too.

No comments: