The Presidential Fleet Review held in Vishakhapatnam on February 18-22, 2022 was followed by the biennial multilateral Milan series of naval exercises between February 24 and March 4. Both these events are the first of its kind to be held in India after the onset of COVID-19 pandemic and despite this challenge, Ex. Milan-2022 is the largest such exercise that India has hosted thus far. Both the Fleet Review and Ex. Milan are instrumental in reflecting the nation’s commitment to the maritime domain, despite COVID disruptions. The Presidential Fleet Review was originally slated to have been held in 2022 but was rescheduled owing to the pandemic.
Beyond the Symbolism of a Fleet Review
The Fleet Review in the past was more of an assemble of the naval force, or in military parlance, concentration of force or mobilising the fleet prior to engaging in a military campaign. However, nowadays a naval review has now gained greater nuanced symbolism and serves many purposes. The first is to mark fidelity of the navy to the sovereign. The second and still relevant is a display of military strength -- that by itself is a signal to both friends and foes. The third purpose of such an undertaking is to reflect the diplomatic posturing of a state. This can be gauged by those nations that are invited to participate in a Fleet Review. As an instrument of diplomacy, the Fleet Review works not only towards enhancing trust and confidence but also serves the purpose of improving inter-operability[i] between navies. The fourth purpose of a Fleet Review is ceremonial such as marking a historic event.
In the present day and age, a Fleet Review seems to have lost much of its past symbolic charm. This is because the established democracies like India, the fidelity of the armed forces to the state is a given. Secondly, owing to the changed nature of warfare and the kind of arsenal that nations possess, a Fleet Review as an instrument of combat mobilisation is of limited tactical value to the modern battle space.
However, the symbolism of the Presidential Fleet Review like Republic Day Parade does instil pride among the citizens of the nation. Military displays like these also have the inherent ability to establish a connect with the general population. And more importantly, “the review of the fleet by the Head of State reaffirms the faith in the fleet and its ability to defend the nation’s maritime interest”.[ii]
2022 Fleet Review and Ex. Milan
The first recorded Fleet Review in the Indian waters date back to the days of the Maratha navy in the 18th century. Sarkhel (Grand Admiral) Kanhoji Angre (1669-1729) assembled a fleet of ‘Ghurabs’ and ‘Gallivats’[iii] class of vessels along the coastal fortress of Ratnagiri in the Arabian Sea.[iv]
The recently-concluded review was the twelfth edition of the Presidential Fleet Review since Independence, with President Ram Nath Govind taking the salute. The Presidential review dates back to 1953, when Dr. Rajendra Prasad was the President and was held in the waters of the Arabian Sea. The recently concluded Presidential Fleet Review has been only the second instances of such an exercise being held in the eastern sea board of India. The first such review to be held on the east coast was in the 2016 when it was held in the waters of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In 2016, like the 2001 edition, was also an International Fleet Review with vessels from friendly Navies participating.
The current edition of Fleet Review consisted of 60 ships and submarines, and 55 aircraft from the Indian Navy, Indian Coast Guard and Merchant Marine.[v] The subsequent Milan Exercise saw the participation of 36 nations. Among them, New Delhi has had a multifaceted security and strategic relationship with the likes of Australia, Bangladesh, France, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Maldives, Mauritius, Myanmar, Oman, Russia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the UK and the USA of greater maturity. Whereas with nations like Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, New Zealand, Thailand, Togo and the UAE the nature of security and strategic engagement are at various levels of evolving maturity. The scope of the partnership with the first list of nations is wider than the second list of nations. What is of note is the potential scope for New Delhi to expand the vistas of its naval diplomacy and outreach. The participation of foreign navies in the Presidential Fleet Review and Ex. Milan also reflect upon Indian Navy’s outreach and the goodwill that India carries with these nations.
The participation of both Comoros and Djibouti needs to be highlighted given the strategic implications of their geographic location. With respect to Comoros, an archipelago nation that sits on the northern mouth of the Mozambique Channel; despite the mutually responsive bilateral ties that dates back to 1976, neither India nor Comoros maintains a resident diplomatic mission in each other’s territory.[vi] Comoros as a member of the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) along with Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles, and the French overseas department of Réunion, has shaped the sub-regional cooperation in the western Indian Ocean since 1982. It is to be noted that the IOC member states are also part of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), a regional forum that works towards maintaining stability and advance the social-economic progress in the Indian Ocean Region.
The significance of the East Africa nation of Djibouti which is sandwiched between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden also lies in the fact that it is home to a soup bowl of foreign military bases that includes China, France (including Germany and Spain), Italy, Japan and United States.[vii] Saudi Arabia on its part has been working on establishing its military toehold in the region.[viii] The presence of foreign militaries in the Horn of Africa is not new, per se, for some of these nations have a continuous history of global reach that spans at least a few decades if not centuries. However, for both China and Japan, their military establishment in Djibouti is the first in contemporary times. The Chinese presence in this African nation had raised number of concerns and questions about the intention and role that Beijing would like to play with respect to the stability of the regional and global security architecture.
It is in this backdrop that the participation of both Comoros and Djibouti is of significance, given the strategic location of these two nations, and more evidently in the case of Djibouti. They have been the critical in shaping both the regional and the global security architecture. And as such these nations have been seen as partners for India not only within the Indian Ocean Region but also with respect to New Delhi’s outreach with Africa. They also bring with them a new dynamic to the larger maritime security outlook of India.
The Fleet Review and Ex. Milan when taken along with other non-combat operations like humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and other non-military operations should be seen as a part of the larger maritime outlook of India. This is because these vectors of engagements not only broaden the scope of the maritime security canvas but also opens up new avenues for naval cooperation among nations. This is so because such a kind of maritime engagement is an instrument of naval diplomacy, which in turn becomes a subset of the nation’s larger diplomatic posturing. Additionally, military/navy as an instrumentality of statecraft is seen as a hard power projection per se. However, in the context of diplomatic outreach, engagements like the Fleet Review and joint military exercise become an instrument of soft power.
For instance, Ex. Milan, since its inception, is a reflection of New Delhi’s larger foreign policy outlook. The first edition of Milan that was held in 1995 was in continuation of India’s then ‘Look East Policy’. Resultantly, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka were the invitees and participants.[ix] With the growing footprint, both regionally and globally, the scope and scale of India’s naval outreach have come to reflect the same. With the current thrust of India’s foreign policy being guided in parts by its Act East Policy, SAGAR initiative (‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’) and Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), the nature of participation and scope of cooperation is also reflected in Ex. Milan. Resultantly, as many as 36 navies participated in this year’s Ex. Milan, nations that are either littorals or have significant stake in the stability of the Indo-Pacific Region. Ex. Milan-2022 marks a shift from the pre-pandemic 2018 edition that had only 17 countries in attendance.[x] With more than twice the number of participating navies, the 2022 edition is a testimony to India’s growing importance among the comity of nations.
Going beyond the Fleet Review and Ex. Milan
This year’s Ex. Milan was followed by the ninth edition of a Sri Lanka–India Naval Exercise (SLINEX) that was held between March 7-10 in the Bay of Bengal region. Like in the past, SLINEX is independent of Ex. Milan. The significance of this year’s SLINEX lies in the fact that it took place within days of Ex. Milan, and thereby can be interpreted as reflecting the operations durability of the Indian Navy that is capable of operating in multiple dimensions at tandem.
At the time of the Fleet Review and the Ex. Milan, there were few other developments taking place in the Indo-Pacific Region. Some of the notable developments have been External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar being invited to address the inaugural session of the European Union (EU) Ministerial Forum on Indo-Pacific on February 22. While a month earlier the third Marine Security Belt exercise between Iran, China and Russia was held in the northern Indian Ocean Region.[xi] And the Foreign and Defence Ministers of Japan and France were also deliberating on avenues for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.
In the backdrop of the then simmering tensions in Eastern Europe, between Russia and Ukraine, the above mentioned engagements are an unmistakable testimony to the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific region. It is also to be noted that by the time the Presidential Fleet Review was underway, Russian forces were to commence their military operations against Ukraine. At the EU Ministerial, Minister Jaishankar said that the EU’s Indo-Pacific initiative is a reflection of the importance that Europe was attaching to this region even when they had concerns in their near-periphery. What the Minister did not mention but should be noted is the presence of a number of European participants in Ex. Milan even as tensions were mounting in Europe. This is also a reflection of India’s goodwill and international stature in the backdrop of the global geopolitical tensions. And this is one of the biggest takeaways of this year’s Ex. Milan and` Fleet Review. Secondly, despite both China and Russia having strong reservations about the usage of the phrase Indo-Pacific Region, they both individually and collectively pay close attention to this region. It is in this context that the 2022 Marine Security Belt exercise should be seen, independent of their relationship with Iran.
For India, Milan is one of the more prominent naval diplomatic calling-card, while the Presidential Fleet Review on the other hand is the largest display of its military might after the annual Republic Day Parade. However, on a cautious note, New Delhi should not lose sight of the multiplicity of developments, both within and beyond the Indo-Pacific Region, and should also stay abreast of the potential implications of the same. This is of immense importance as the geostrategic contour in India’s larger periphery both at present and in the future will be increasingly shaped by developments at sea. This holds true even when there have been significant developments on the continental front. Owing to this interplay and also increasing interests expressed by multiple nations in this region, India’s initiatives of SAGAR and IPOI gain additional and timely importance.
While both these two policy initiatives and others will be work in progress, the Presidential Fleet Review and Ex. Milan symbolise the importance that India attaches to ocean spaces. They also reinforce India’s commitment towards strengthening the existing maritime order. Ex. Milan and other similar bilateral and multilateral naval exercises also serve to strengthen security-related ties between India and its partner nations as such exchanges are a platform to build mutual trust, confidence, and inter-operability between friendly navies.[xii]
*Dr. Sripathi Narayanan, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] International Fleet Review 2016, Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Defence, Government of India, October 14, 2016, https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=128718, accessed on March 1, 2022.
[ii] Explained: History of President’s Fleet Review, its significance and what to expect from the 12th edition, First Post, February 21, 2022, https://www.firstpost.com/india/explained-history-of-presidents-fleet-review-its-significance-and-what-to-expect-from-the-12th-edition-10382231.html, accessed on February 24, 2022
[iii] Ahoy: International Fleet Review 2016, Indian Navy, 2016, Page 4, https://www.indiannavy.nic.in/sites/default/files/Ahoy-11Apr16.pdf, accessed on February 28, 2022.
[iv] Explained: History of President’s Fleet Review, its significance and what to expect from the 12th edition, First Post, February 21, 2022, https://www.firstpost.com/india/explained-history-of-presidents-fleet-review-its-significance-and-what-to-expect-from-the-12th-edition-10382231.html, accessed on February 24, 2022.
[v] Naval Fleet Review LIVE with Doordarshan, Press Information Bureau, Government of India, February 20, 2022, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1799751, accessed on March 3, 2022.
[vi] India-Comoros brief for website, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Comoros2020_new.pdf, accessed on March 14, 2022.
[vii] Andreu Sola-Martin, RED SEA DYNAMICS: PART 2, The African Reporter, D3ecember 2, 2020, https://www.theafricareport.com/49957/ports-military-bases-and-treaties-whos-who-in-the-red-sea/, accessed on march, 14, 2022.
[viii] Neil Melvin, The Foreign Military Presence In The Horn Of Africa Region, SIPRI Background Paper, SIPRI, April 2019, https://sipri.org/sites/default/files/2019-04/sipribp1904.pdf, accessed on March 22, 2014
[ix] Huma Siddiqui, “Largest ever MILAN naval exercise will have frigates, destroyers and other ships participating”, Financial Express, February 12, 2022, https://www.financialexpress.com/defence/largest-ever-milan-naval-exercise-will-have-frigates-destroyers-and-other-ships-participating-know-more/2432308/, accessed on March 8, 2022
[xi] Marine Security Belt 2022 Exercise kicks off in Indian Ocean, Islamic Republic News Agency, January 21, 2022, https://en.irna.ir/news/84621335/Marine-Security-Belt-2022-Exercise-kicks-off-in-Indian-Ocean, accessed on March 1, 2022
[xii] Don Mclain Gill, “Why the Milan 2022 naval exercise matters”, Asian Times, October 21, 2021, https://asiatimes.com/2021/10/why-the-milan-2022-naval-exercise-matters/, accessed on March 7, 2022.