The use of oceans, seas and waterways is as old as human existence itself. They have been the medium through which humanity, culture, ideas and trade have travelled across the globe. This would not be a counterintuitive idea given that two-third of the globe is covered with water. It is said that while borders on land divide, the oceans of the world unite. This quality of the oceans brings great significance to all nations, more so to a maritime nation such as ours.
The history of the world is replete with examples of seafaring and maritime nations that progressed and gained ascendancy by powering their national progress through the oceans. It was in the late 19th-early 20th century that Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840 – 1914) articulated the concept of the ‘maritime virtuous cycle’. This comprised three variables: industrial and agricultural production; merchant and naval; and markets. The maritime virtuous cycle operates within these elements with the merchant marine carrying goods to and from trading nations, creating national wealth and engendering national prosperity. As trade expands, the prosperous nation funds and maintains a naval force, which in turn ensures and protects national commerce.
The basic tenets of the maritime virtuous cycle have not changed in the hundred years since it was postulated. However, the maritime environment is very different today. As oceans facilitate access and create the global commons for humanity, being unregulated and unowned they also become the medium of source for threats to national security and prosperity. Historically, this has been well documented – be it the arrival of the Portuguese in the Indian ocean in the late 15th century or the ensuing loss of control of our oceans for the next three hundred years to the present day, when our coastal cities remain vulnerable to a few marauders in a small boat, albeit with support from inimical nations.
With the articulation of the maritime vision of India as SAGAR—Security and Growth for All in the Region—our maritime awakening is indeed well on its way. While we move outwards from our coast to reach out to our maritime neighbours, as we have done for many centuries before colonial rule, the spectrum of challenges our nation faces from the sea has also multiplied.
The Navy Day is celebrated every year on 4 December to commemorate the pivotal role of the Navy in the 1971 war with Pakistan. While this is the commemoration of a military victory at sea, the Navy is and must be seen as much more than a security force. It is a force for nation-building and contributes to strengthening our nation in many ways, in addition to providing a safe and secure maritime environment for the socio-economic prosperity of our citizens.
Oft repeated facts about our maritime domain are that India has a coastline of about 7,500 km with more than 1,100 islands and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of over 2 million sq km with a vast seabed area that is rich in resources. Over 97 per cent of our national trade is carried by sea routes – this in itself calls for a modern, mission-capable and forward-deployed Navy.
The manner in which the Navy contributes to both the hard and soft power of our nation is best understood by an examination of the various roles of the Navy. In simple terms, the Indian Navy and indeed most navies of the world have four predominant roles: Military, Diplomatic, Constabulary and Benign. While the military role is easily seen and understood, the latter three roles are as important and are a significant measure of national power.
It is said that it takes a lifetime to build a Navy. And our naval planners have always created a force structure keeping in mind the roles the Navy will be called upon to perform in service to the nation. Today, the Indian Navy is the preeminent element of our national diplomatic outreach in the Indo-Pacific Region, enabling and supporting the amalgamation of like-minded nations facilitating a convergence of ideas on maritime security and national prosperity. With regard to the constabulary role, the Indian Navy is the agency tasked with coordinating national coastal defence and has also been at the forefront of providing constabulary support to our friendly maritime nations through coordinated patrols and EEZ patrols, on request. Thus, not only does the Navy keep our own maritime environment safe, it also extends the umbrella of security to other maritime nations.
The benign role of the Navy has been in the news in the recent past, with Operation Samudra Setu, bringing home many thousands of our stranded citizens when the world was in lockdown as the pandemic raged incessantly. With Operation Sagar, the Navy also reached out as a nation to maritime neighbours and extended a helping hand to their own national efforts in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. The Navy’s will, cooperative posture and national outreach have earned the nation and the Navy the rightful sobriquets of ‘Preferred Security Partner’ and ‘First Responder’ in our maritime neighbourhood.
The contribution of the Indian Navy in nation-building can be expressed in more tangible terms too. The Navy today is a force comprising over 90,000 men and women in uniform and supporting staff. The Indian Navy, therefore, provides the opportunity to our citizens to serve the nation with pride, thus creating generations of skilled and disciplined men and women who continue to maintain and uphold high professional and moral ideals that reflect the ethos of the Navy.
As mentioned earlier, it takes a lifetime to build a Navy and this where the Indian Navy has been a most significant contributor to nation-building through shipbuilding. Even a cursory look at the maritime nations in the world will reveal that shipbuilding is the backbone of a nation’s maritime strength. This significance did not escape our naval planners who have, since Independence, focussed on indigenous shipbuilding to build our navy. Today, the Indian Navy is proud to be a ‘builder’s navy’ rather than a ‘buyer’s navy’. The link of shipbuilding with nation-building is not as tenuous as would be believed. As a fully mission-capable navy, the Navy’s shipbuilding efforts are focused on indigenous shipbuilders. More than 60 percent of the Navy’s budget is reserved for creation of assets and almost 70 percent of this is spent on indigenous shipbuilders—who in turn create an ecosystem of smaller industrial enterprises. Thus, the Indian Navy’s focus on indigenous shipbuilding spurs economic growth, engenders industrial skilling and creates strategic outcomes by sharing shipbuilding capacity with our friendly maritime neighbours.
The Indian Navy comprises a patriotic, motivated and capable cross-section of our nation’s youth and is cognisant of the nation’s faith in the Service. The investment of national resources in the Navy is significant and the Navy remains committed to plough back this investment to the maximum extent to the nation. The Indian Navy stands prepared and willing to rise to the nation’s defence no matter the cost, and to deliver help and support to our citizens across our entire maritime domain. While the oceans span outwards from our shores, the Navy not only keeps a firm eye on the maritime environment but has always been ready and willing to contribute to nation-building in the aftermath of calamities.
On the occasion of Navy Day 2020, the Indian Navy rededicates itself to the service of the nation and I conclude with the Vedic expression ‘Sham No Varunah’—may the Lord of the Seas be auspicious unto us—a reminder of our rich maritime heritage.
Commodore Susheel Menon is a serving Indian naval officer presently posted at Naval Headquarters and has interests in geopolitics and maritime strategy. The contents of this article are the personal views of the author and do not represent official position of the Indian Navy or the Government of India.