The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Navies of South Asia By K.R. Singh, Rupa, Rs 500

From the dawn of civilization to the present era, navies have always been at the forefront in all major wars. At the beginning of the 21st century, the symbol of the West’s militaristic culture remains the giant aircraft carriers. But what about the maritime requirements of south Asia' Does India and its neighbours require navies' K.R. Singh charts the evolution of the navies in the subcontinent and their future roles.

A strong navy, argues Singh, attempts to control the sea-lanes with the aid of warships — this is sea control strategy. In contrast, a weaker navy tries to threaten its enemy’s surface fleet with subsurface platforms like submarines — the sea denial strategy.

While the Indian navy with its aircraft carriers continues to pursue a sea control strategy, its opponent, Pakistan, with its submarines, follows the sea denial programme. Which means in case of a prolonged war, Pakistan may threaten India’s oil supply from west Asia by denying the tankers a safe passage through the Arabian Sea. Singh reminds us that Pakistan retains the edge over India in submarine warfare.

To blunt Pakistan’s edge, India needs to pursue more vigorously its sea control strategy. For this India needs more aircraft carriers. The anti-submarine warfare in the high seas need air cover. And the shore-based fighters lack such long ranges. Only the carriers could help in the context. So Singh differs in his opinion from Ashley Tellis, who claims that the aircraft carriers are white elephants. Singh writes that India should not only buy an old aircraft carrier from Russia but New Delhi should also go ahead with the programme of building an indigenous carrier.

Navies are essential as much to diplomacy as to war. The traditional gunboat diplomacy is now termed as coercive diplomacy. However, warships are still essential for peacekeeping missions. Ships occasionally visit foreign ports on goodwill visits. And this paves the way for regional cooperation.

The author rightly stresses that since south Asia is a geo-strategic cum geo-economic entity, the regional navies ought to cooperate in order to deter intervention by the navies of the extra-regional powers. This is all the more important for securing the mineral resources and fishery of the continental shelf and the exclusive economic zones of the countries. Growing maritime insurgency is also bringing to the fore the importance of a strong navy. Singh shows that Sri Lanka’s lack of an adequate navy allows the LTTE to smuggle arms from southeast Asia. The absence of offshore vessels also prevents it from launching amphibious assaults against the Tiger in Jaffna.

Singh argues that India in the coming decades will require both an aircraft carrier as well as a nuclear missile-armed submarine. But the fund available to the Indian navy will be adequate for financing either one of these projects. And the security managers of India will have to make a harsh choice in the near future about the option to follow. One lacuna of this book is that Singh fails to assess the merits and demerits of both the aircraft carrier and the nuclear submarine. A naval analyst like Singh should have passed a judgment about which project will be more important for India.

Singh has undoubtedly written a very important book. Not only educated civilians but the army and navy personnel also seem to be oblivious to the necessity of possessing a strong navy. Singh, by showing the indispensability of having an aggressive navy for politico-economic, diplomatic and military purpose, makes an important intervention at an important time.

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