The Indian Navy is preparing to conduct its showcase event – the prestigious International Fleet Review(IFR) – at Visakhapatnam from February 4 to 8. With the first foreign ships due to make an appearance tomorrow, the excitement in India’s maritime circles is palpable. This is only the second time since 2001 that such an event has been organized in India. More significantly, it is the first international fleet review on India’s Eastern seaboard, a theater of growing interest for New Delhi.
Indian naval officers and maritime watchers, however, aren’t the only ones looking forward to the event. With an expected participation of 90 ships and 60 aircraft, and more than 30 service chiefs in attendance, international interest in the IFR is high. The organizing team had received 52 firm confirmations – a significant increase from the first international fleet review in February 2001 at Mumbai when 29 nations participated.
The IFR, however, isn’t just planned as a congregation of armed warships and aircraft. Organizers have designed the event as a multi-dimensional experience – a display of camaraderie and converging interests in a complex maritime environment. Besides the naval ships review by President Pranab Mukherjee, a nautical exhibition, a city parade, a maritime conference, an operational demonstration, and a book release function celebrating the maritime heritage of India are also planned.
The official theme of the IFR, “United through Oceans,” is also the driving inspiration for the event. Watch the Navy’s IFR 16 theme video here. By bringing a large number of warships together, the Indian Navy hopes to draw on the cooperative instinct of participants, urging them to join hands in combating common security and humanitarian threats at sea. In highlighting the utility of multilateral collaboration and interoperability, the event’s organizers hope to foster greater regional solidarity, comradeship and goodwill.
Such honorable missions, however, are easier conceived than executed. Many of the event’s participants still harbor deep suspicion of each other. China, which was excluded from Japan’s International Fleet Review at Sagami Bay a few months ago, has disputes with many of its neighbors over control of the East Asian commons. Beijing views multilateral naval exercises by its competitors as an attempt to undermine China’s maritime leverage in Asia. Its opponents, meanwhile, see Beijing’s maritime posturing and large-scale reclamation in the South China Sea as an intolerable provocation. Still, the Indian Navy is urging participants to drop their reservations and collaborate in larger regional interest. As Admiral RK Dhowan, the Indian naval chief noted at a recent press conference, “While we may be divided by geography, we must be united through the oceans.”
- Building “bridges of friendship,” however, isn’t the Indian Navy’s only objective. The exercise of assembling foreign warships is being regarded by many as an opportunity to display maritime might and battle-readiness. Despite downplaying the event’s strategic dimensions in public, the Indian Navy is keen to raise its Indian Ocean profile through the display of operational capability and combat assets.
- The other key objective for organizing this event is to showcase indigenization. The IFR is meant to complement the “Make in India” campaign. The Indian navy had originally planned to field many of its domestically manufactured assets, most significantly the ballistic missile nuclear submarine, Arihant. However, IFR organizers were forced to rethink their plans when participants conveyed their hesitation to send submarines. Instead, India’s main showcase platform will now be the INS Kadmatt – a new ASW corvette that is almost completely indigenous in design and production.
IFR organizers are hoping to leverage a sentimental aspect of the event. The fleet review will be India’s oldest aircraft carrier, INS Viraat’s last operational tour of duty, as it prepares to retire after 29 years of yeomen service. The Indian Navy has reportedly managed to put six Sea Harrier jump-jets on its deck, and ordered the INS Vikramaditya to be her companion at the IFR.
There is a popular saying about aircraft carriers: Even when they are gone they are never really forgotten. The International Fleet Review at Visakhapatnam should be the perfect stage for INS Viraat to take a final bow. Its presence alongside the INS Vikramaditya will also present New Delhi with the perfect opportunity to seize the strategic narrative in the Indian Ocean Region.