How prescient was Aldous Huxley? “That, men don’t learn very much from the lessons of history, is the most important of all lesson of history”? How penetrating was Winston Churchill (despite being an India-baiter)? “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see”!
While “looking farther backward”, one is struck by British historian Stuart Laycock’s book: “All the countries we have ever invaded: and the few we never got around to”. Laycock found that 90 per cent of countries around the world had faced a British invasion, and only 22 were spared. The French came a close second. Understandably, both the British and French quest for global conquest succeeded primarily because they outclassed and outgunned everyone else with their world-class, tech-superior maritime arm. That lesson still holds true, and is relevant even today. Only sea power states, including military and commercial, can get a place under the sun and continue doing so in future.
War or peace, no army in the world can cross an inch of border without facing fire. No air force can violate the airspace of another nation, no matter how friendly. Contrast this with the unrestricted, uncharted, unscripted contours of the voyage of nations with an ocean-going navy. The military and civilian vessels of maritime states freely sail thousands of nautical miles away from home bases to make friendly visits to alien ports. They operate beyond the horizon for months, often years. Acting as the sentinel and envoy, trader and missionary of the State.
This was how Britain, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries built up its global empire, on which the sun never set! How Japan, in the first half of the twentieth century, set out to dominate Asia and looked beyond, as did the United States at the end of the First World War. This is something it continues to do today, despite the decades of Cold War rivalry for power and influence with the erstwhile Soviet Union, and notwithstanding fast-moving Chinese efforts today to close the tech and ops gap.
Not surprisingly, they all upgraded the “club of sea states” with sailing prowess, backed by industrial might. In India’s context, what must be remembered is that whereas land constituted the irresistible lure to West Asians, it was Anglo-French naval power that fattened their finance with trade as the flag of the fleet’s firepower, following the fusillade of missiles close behind. The gaze of multiple Indian rulers simply failed to track, detect and discover the inherent supremacy and danger of the West’s ship-borne merchants’ machine, military, gunners and missionaries who captured the imagination of the populace. In the process, the latter lost home and hearth and their rulers were duly made subordinate vassals.
Indians paid a heavy price through two centuries of subjugation, first at the hands of a private trading company headquartered in London, which was perhaps the world’s first true multinational, and when it failed to effectively subjugate Hindustan, as evident from the events of 1857, at the hands of the Crown, under Queen Victoria and her successors (1858-1947). But what made British rule unique in the history of South Asia is that for the first time in thousands of years, a tiny maritime island nation with a powerful Navy and a flourishing mercantile marine could capture and subjugate a giant land mass. The message was loud and clear. Even the biggest, strongest land power could not ultimately prevail without naval power.
The supremacy, endurance and resilience of sea power over land-based posts are visible even today. The 1982 (April-June) Falkland War, fought 10,000 miles from London, showed the Royal Navy smashing the ships and sailors of the battlefield-proximate power of Argentina. The Korea (1950s), Vietnam (1960-1970s) and Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts of the present century, even if substantially fought on land, could be sustained principally through naval might.
In South Asia, though the British became a trans-continental power by its conquests from the Marathas to the Nizam of Bengal, from Tipu Sultan in Mysore to Oudh, the Gurkhas, the Sikhs in Punjab, the Afghans, in Sindh and Burma through land wars; their adversaries were always conscious of the formidable European naval might -- not just of the British, but also the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese. Eventually, of course, the Englishmen edged out all their European rivals to become the pre-eminent power in the region.
Today, as a rising India, now 75, is trying to reach its deserved place in the comity of nations and to make up for lost time, having overcome centuries of subjugation, a growing naval presence is essential. India should urgently initiate a four-tier water resources development plan. First is the continued growth and modernisation of a balanced Navy. The second requirement is a renovated Coast Guard -- a combined economic-cum-defence unit. The third is expansion of the mercantile marine to play a supplementary forward-deployment fleet role. Finally, in all nine coastal states -- West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat -- the fishing community must be brought under an apex body for development, upgradation and reform of their lives, livelihood, boat replenishment, maintenance and operational capability the way Beijing has done to its mammoth fishing fleet.
China’s 25,000-strong fishing fleet is an ultra-forward deployed armada operating 10,000 nautical miles beyond its shoreline. The Communist Party of China and its People’s Liberation Army have informally integrated it with its overall command, control, communication, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system with high-tech equipment. From the west coast of South America to the west or east coast of Africa, this fishing fleet can convey and communicate real-time to Beijing all naval movement from their remote “fishing” areas, proving once again the vital role the sea has played in the progress of civilisation.
But a strong, effective Navy can’t be built in a day, nor does it forgive a lackadaisical approach to maintenance or modernisation. Naval ships, including aircraft-carriers and submarines, as well as helicopters and aircraft, are among the most expensive instruments of the State, which requires big buck investments to yield mega returns. Hence, no nation with grandiose ideas of a grand naval armada on a shoe-pinching budget will ever succeed. It will, at best, be a grand delusion of grandeur and self-deceiving project, to be dumped into the dustbin of history. The British failed to maintain their Navy, so the Americans took over. The USSR collapsed, then China filled the vacuum. India still has the edge in the Indian Ocean. Let’s not squander it....