By Seema Guha

The International Fleet Review which is now on in Visakhapatnam can well be termed the Indian Navy’s coming-out party. The first one held in 2001 in Mumbai was on a much smaller scale. But this edition is bigger and better, perhaps reflecting India’s growing stature in the world and the navy’s growing interaction with foreign fleets. Fifty countries have sent in their delegations, 24 nations including the US and China have their warships on display and the chiefs of 22 navies are in attendance. 4,000 foreign sailors are also participating in this mega event.

Today, the Indian Navy is projecting its presence not just in the Indian Ocean but beyond to the Pacific and the Gulf of Aden. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also paying much more attention to build ties with India’s maritime neighbours, as China aggressively expands its presence in the Indian Ocean.

President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Chief of Naval Staff Admiral RK Dhowan at the International Fleet Review and Flypast in Visakhapatnam on Saturday. PTI Photo(PTI2_6_2016_000046B) *** Local Caption ***

President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Chief of Naval Staff Admiral RK Dhowan at the International Fleet Review and Flypast in Visakhapatnam on Saturday. PTI

While the UPA was over-cautious in asserting India’s maritime presence, the Modi government is ready to take on a greater responsibility in the neighbourhood. East Asian nations have privately been asking India to be part of the future defence architecture of the Asia-Pacific region. With Modi, it is clear that India will want to play a larger role not just in its vicinity but beyond. But is the Indian Navy in a position to do so? Yes and no.

It will take time but the Navy is on the right track.

“India is on the cusp of becoming a blue water navy,’’ said defence analyst Rahul Bedi. “Of the three services, the navy is the most forward-looking, thanks to a succession of good chiefs and the fact that the politicians have somehow not interfered much in naval matters. The navy has operated quietly and used its resources efficiently.’’

An array of ships including India’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya were on show when President Pranab Mukherjee, the commander of India’s defence forces, took the salute and reviewed the fleet on Saturday. The President on the INS Sumitra sailed past 75 ships lining up in the waters.

“India’s geographical location, astride the major shipping routes of the Indian Ocean, gives it a pivotal maritime role. Considering the globalised nature of today’s political and economic environment, it is our belief that the present day maritime domain requires navies across the world to re-focus their efforts to counter the rising tide of non-traditional maritime challenges in the brown, green and blue waters across all oceans,” Mukherjee said in his address. “The Indian Navy, accordingly, has realigned its maritime strategy, to reflect the changes in the evolving global environment, and has established a credible record of cooperative initiatives to promote stability of the oceans, and played a central role in ensuring safety of the vital sea lines of communication, across the Indian Ocean.’’

INS Sumitra is an indigenously built Naval Offshore Patrol Vessel (NOPV). This is where the navy has scored over the army and the air force. It has had a design bureau in place since the 1950s and has over the years succeeded in building a homegrown industry. Many warships and naval patrol boats are being built in several shipyards across the country.

India sold its first home grown warship, the Barracuda, to the Mauritius Coast Guard in December 2014. It was commissioned by Modi during his visit to the island state in March last year. The hope is that the sale of the Barracuda will be followed by many more such deals and will give a fillip to Modi’s Make in India policy. Building defence equipment in the country will not only bring down huge export bills but develop the country’s defence-industrial complex, which can provide hundreds of jobs in the future. India can save up to $50 billion of the over $260 billion on defence equipment in the next 12 years, says an Ernst and Young report. The navy as pointed out earlier is leading the way in indigenisation.

The Indian Navy’s submarine arm is weak.

There have been two major accidents, and one of its submarines blew up a few years ago. India at the moment has just 13 submarines: Four German-built and nine of Russian make. It needs to have a minimum of 24 to be effective. The navy is aiming to get the numbers by 2021-2022. India is also building a nuclear-powered submarine, the Arihant, with Russian help. The Arihant has undergone sea trials and was earlier expected to be a part of the IFR. By 2022, India hopes to have a fleet of 162 ships and medium submarines including three aircraft carriers. Once this is complete, the Indian Navy will be in a better position to play an effective role in protecting the global commons.

China however is way ahead of India and remains, with Japan, the most powerful navy in Asia.

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Fleet Review: India seeks larger strategic role in surrounding waters, but it will take some doing