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Down by the sea

Hopefully, 26/11 has jolted us out of our nautical slumber and the purpose of a navy will soon be realised, writes Sushil Kumar.

india Updated: Dec 02, 2009 20:49 IST

Tomorrow is Navy Day. Proudly proclaiming its role and justifying the need for a strong navy has always been the standard Navy Week format. Yet, year in and year out it almost sounds like a lament. I went through this drill a decade ago and wonder if anything has changed.

The Indian Navy knows deep within that it has to reckon with a nation besieged by a ‘continental’ outlook. For the sailors, it predicates the ground reality where the navy remains the ‘Cinderella’ among the armed services. Even the most profound advice that India is actually a maritime country with a maritime destiny is overshadowed by problems that plague our land frontiers. With a security paradigm conditioned by a Line of Control-(LOC) orientation, it’s not without reason that our strategic focus remains riveted to the north. Perhaps this is because the seas around the subcontinent seem peaceful while the disturbed neighbourhood to the north compellingly draws our attention.

Hopefully, 26/11 has jolted us out of our nautical slumber and the purpose of a navy will soon be realised. Apart from the continental obsession it faces, there is a new issue that could derail the navy from its path of development. It’s the nuclear deterrent that is taking shape with the launching of our first Indian-built Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) firing nuclear submarine, INS Arihant.

The strategic importance of the seaward leg of the nuclear triad can’t be questioned. And as long as the ocean remains impervious to the electro-magnetic spectrum, the ICBM-firing N-submarine will remain the ultimate deterrent in the nuclear equation. Arihant has placed the Indian Navy in an exclusive league, yet it also poses a predicament for the navy.

We need to guard against the misconception that a nuclear deterrent reduces the need for conventional forces. INS Arihant and others that follow would be vital strategic assets, but they can’t be considered as part of the navy’s war-fighting capability. Unless this proposition is understood, it will be worrisome for the navy if it had to divert resources from a dwindling defence budget that is already skewed by a land-locked perception.

I recall the time when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee spent a couple of days with our Western Fleet. The navy’s combat-readiness was on display and the PM seemed pleased to see the business end of the navy. But even as he seemed to give me a profound nod, I noticed a glazed look in Vajpayee’s eye. His mind was far away, well beyond the sea horizon. It was April 1999. A month later the LoC erupted and Kargil happened.

Several months later, I was at the University of Pune to deliver a talk on ‘national security in the wake of Kargil’. I highlighted the vulnerability of our seaward flanks. It must have sounded like a philosophical refrain, for the media responded tongue-in-cheek: ‘Next Kargil from seaward, warns navy chief’. It made me feel I’d got it all wrong.
Then out of the blue, 26/11 happened. It may have been a flash in the pan but it certainly awoke the nation from its nautical slumber. Now at least, we have the benefit of hindsight.

Sushil Kumar was Chief of the Indian Navy, 1998–2001

The views expressed by the author are personal