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BATTLE FOR THE HIGH SEAS
- Joint naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal are a step in the right direction

Although a maritime nation on the map, India had lacked a naval tradition for ages. Indian states confined themselves to mostly land skirmishes throughout history till the Europeans arrived by sea. It was the British who built a united army, as well as a modern navy, for the country. However, credit must be given to Indira Gandhi for a navy that is respected for its operational preparedness and professionalism today. Against this backdrop, the Indian governmentís decision to hold joint naval exercises with friendly navies deserves praise.

The naval forces of the United States of America, Japan, Australia, Singapore and India are all set for joint exercises off the eastern coast of India. Australia, Japan, Singapore and the US are wary of the Chinese navy and of the threat posed by maritime piracy and terrorism to sea routes. Interestingly, all four nations have recently undertaken massive naval modernization projects.

The transformation of the Australian Navy into an expeditionary force sped up in 2006 with the commissioning of the three Air Warfare Destroyers programme. Besides, all its six Collins class submarines are new and have a long range of 9,000 nautical miles. Its eight Meko class frigates were built between 1996 and 2006 and have a range of 6,000 nautical miles at 18 knot.

A traditional naval power with the rare glory of sinking both Russian and American ships, Japanís maritime legacy still haunts the world. In 2005, Japan signalled a shift from a purely defensive military stance to one capable of handling the threats of ballistic missiles, terrorism and guerrilla warfare. And understandably, Japan looks with concern at the rise of the Chinese navy. Hence, Japan is likely to base its navy on aircraft carriers. With five submarines and four destroyers in the production pipeline, the Japanese fleet consists of a variety of powerful submarines, destroyers and frigates.

One of the tiniest naval states, Singapore, nevertheless, has a coastline of 104 nautical miles. The Singapore Strait is the most important shipping channel linking the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea through which pass Australian and Japanese ships. Not surprisingly, the one-city, one-airport and one-port state has a navy of six modern submarines of Swedish origin and six German-designed corvettes and has now gone for six French-made frigates with a range of 4,000 nautical miles.

Little, of course, needs to be said about the US navy. The Indian navy will soon be using the US-built Austin class amphibious transport dock ship Trenton. In fact, India may also go for a second ship named Nashville of the same class.

Thus, the Indian move to go for joint exercises in the Bay of Bengal with modern and powerful navies does not appear to be either unwise or myopic. The threat to sea lanes and lines of communication, commerce and crude oil is more real than ever before. What the Royal Navy alone could have done in the 20th century can no longer be resorted to by even the American navy. Todayís navies need to pool their expertise and resources to deal with the common threat from terrorists and fundamentalists. The Indian navy is on the right track, politically motivated protests notwithstanding. A land-fixated elephant can never understand the depth and the dangers of the sheet of water that constitutes two-thirds of the earthís surface.

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