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#1580, 13 December 2004
Project Seabird: An Example of India's Maritime Prowess
Vijay Sakhuja
Observer Research Foundation

After a delay of over a decade, Indian Navy's most ambitious infrastructure enterprise 'Project Seabird' is now a reality. On 14 November 2004, the first Indian naval ship entered the harbour, heralding the emergence of a new strategic naval base in the Arabian Sea. According to naval authorities, Indian naval ships will begin calling at the naval base from January 2005 and by the end of the year, a few ships will be based there. By then, it is hoped that enough naval support infrastructure for maintenance of ships and other associated shore support for naval personnel will be in place. Besides the naval ship repair yard, the base will have dry docks to accommodate vessels as large as aircraft carriers and a modern armament and missile depot. The base may also serve as the base for nuclear submarines that the Indian navy will acquire on lease from Russia and also those that it would build indigenously. The construction of the naval air station will commence in 2005 and it would be able to support most of the Indian naval air inventory.

In October 1986, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had laid the foundation stone for the project but the venture took a back seat primarily due to limited financial resources. But over the years, a new realization among the ruling elite in New Delhi and a strong canvassing from the naval leadership about vulnerability of Mumbai to Pakistani naval and air attacks, the government understood the strategic importance of alternate bases. Besides, the rapid growth of the Indian Navy in the 1990s precluded any further delay. The base, though yet to be named, is scheduled for commissioning in May 2005. It is planned to host up to three-dozen warships including aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates and submarines after the project achieves maturity towards the end of this decade.

According to Admiral Oscar Stanley Dawson, former Chief of the Naval Staff, as also one of the early architects of Project Seabird, " Karwar's hilly terrain provides excellent camouflage to ground installations, and pens (enclosures) cut on the rock face can conceal submarines. The extent of the land available in and around Karwar will enable the Navy to disperse its forces, a crucial necessity in times of an attack."

While the Karwar base is an example of India's maritime technological prowess, it is important to locate the Project Seabird in the larger maritime strategic framework and examine the connect between maritime and naval actions to national and international issues. Alfred Thayer Mahan, through his most famous work, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, is credited with laying out principles for the formulation of a naval strategy. According to Mahan, a country with a long coastline but no ports could never aspire to be a sea power. It would be at a great disadvantage because it would be unable to engage in sea borne trade, and have no shipping or navy of its own. Ports and harbours were therefore a source of strength and wealth, and would naturally facilitate and encourage both domestic and foreign trade. However, these could become a source of weakness if not properly defended. Mahan also argued that the character of the government and the accompanying institutions were an important factor in determining sea power of a state and can provide directions for growth of maritime enterprise to enhance sea power. Unlike Mahan, Sir Julian Stafford Corbett, an acclaimed British maritime strategist, and regarded as the deepest and most flexible thinker among either maritime or naval theorists, the objective of naval warfare is to control maritime communications, including commercial and economic aspects and naval action can influence the balance of wealth and power among nations. There is a common strand in the thinking of both Mahan and Corbett that maritime capability is the most critical component of national growth.

Over 97% percent of India's trade by volume and 75 percent by value is sea borne. Much of India's industrial and economic activity is located within 200 miles of its 7,500-Km long coast time, which is home to 186 ports both major and minor. India also lays claim to a 2.3 million square kilometers EEZ that is 66% of the landmass. It is a repository of great wealth in terms of oil and gas marine resources both living and non-living and are estimated to be worth Rs 150, 000 crores. India has set strategic targets to boost its naval power and substantial resources in terms of budgets are being augmented to develop Indian Navy's blue water capabilities and acquire power projection platform to safeguard India's maritime interest. To that extent, 'Project Seabird' is a welcome development.

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