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‘Promoting peace and maintaining stability’: the evolution of the Bangladesh Navy April 15, 2013

Posted by aungsi in : Bangladesh, DeSilva-Ranasinghe, Serge , trackback

Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe

This article originally appeared in South Asia Defence and Strategic Review

As a Bay of Bengal littoral state Bangladesh has strong maritime interests. Increasingly, Bangladesh has recognised the importance of its maritime domain and the requirement to augment its Navy to secure and project its regional interests. Bangladesh Navy chief, Vice Admiral Zahir Uddin Ahmed spoke to Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe about the navy’s changing responsibilities, maritime security challenges, efforts to mitigate the effect of natural disasters and the need for naval diplomacy.

Vice Admiral Zahir Uddin Ahmed (right) and Vice Admiral Anil Chopra of the Eastern Naval Command, India. Source: http://indiannavy.nic.in/

Evolving role

The modern Bangladesh Navy has come a long way since it was formally sanctioned in 1972.

“Since 1972,” said Vice Adm Zahir, “our role has expanded over time due to the rapidly changing global security environment, emerging asymmetric threats, paradigm shift in the globalization of trade and commerce, increasing dependency on the sea, and rising vulnerability to natural calamities.

“In addition to our traditional roles the Navy undertakes constabulary duties like anti-piracy and -robbery, fishery protection, maritime law enforcement at sea and anti-smuggling. Protection of shipping from robbery at sea threatens our seaborne trade, which is more than 90% of Bangladesh’s total flow.

“Indeed, the rise of piracy, global terrorism and other transnational threats are posing the greatest security challenges to sea lines of communication. The Bangladesh Navy is actively trying to mitigate these challenges within our maritime jurisdiction.”

“Due to our commitment to global peace and security, we also extend our reach internationally in support of UN operations.”

The Bangladesh Navy has around 520 personnel assigned to eight UN missions worldwide, namely: UNIFIL in Lebanon, UNMIS in Sudan, MINURSO in Western Sahara, MONUC in Congo, UNMIL in Liberia, UNOCI in Ivory Coast, UNAMID in Darfur, UNIFIL in Lebanon and staff seconded to UNDPKO in New York.

“Our UN commitments have increased our operational challenges as the demand for capable platforms have increased. Optimum utilization of our budget to develop a balanced fleet with sustenance capability is, therefore, the Bangladesh government’s priority,” he said.

Given the increased responsibility shouldered by the Navy, since 2010, Bangladesh has embarked on a major naval modernisation programme aiming to upgrade, replace and expand its surface fleet and naval aviation assets with the ambitious goal of building a three-dimensional navy by 2021.

Vice Adm Zahir elaborated: “As our Navy’s role has diversified in spectrum and level: we need purpose-built ships and craft to man these platforms effectively, and require a quality work force with an appropriate structure.”

The modernization of the Bangladesh Navy has emphasised the acquisition of frigates, corvettes, missile boats, hydrographic survey ships, sea launched surface-to-surface missiles, helicopters and aircraft.

Maritime security challenges

Replete with 54 trans-boundary river systems and a large Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), monitoring the nation’s maritime domain is a significant challenge for the Navy, especially given the unique delta region that characterizes Bangladesh’s geography.

“The challenges of operating in maritime and riverine environments are numerous,” said Vice Adm Zahir.

“The quantum of sea transportation and exploitation of sea resources is increasing exponentially due greater national demand. All these cargoes and sea resources flow through the hinterland river systems.

“On the other hand, siltation, erosion and accretion are very high in Bangladeshi rivers due to our deltaic geography. River passages keep changing continuously which presents a major operational challenge for naval vessels at night. In this environment marking and maintaining the inland navigable channels is quite challenging.

“Hence, maritime security has to be augmented proportionately to ensure naval vigilance both within inland waters and at sea. The great challenge for us lies in keeping a gapless presence in our entire maritime domain,” he said.

As a nation that is highly prone to natural disasters, such as catastrophic flooding, Bangladesh’s Navy has played an increasingly vital enabling role in the wake of such events.

“Bangladesh has experienced a number of severe cyclones and floods in the recent past. The Navy was able to respond quickly, particularly in remote coastal areas, with relief materials and medical support. Hence, the coastal people have confidence in the Navy’s capability to prevail in the face of natural calamities.”

He further emphasised: “Leadership prior, during and following the disaster is the key for any successful Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operation. Establishing people-to-people contact, effective civil-military relations, and prompt access to the remote areas are essential for successful conduct of any disaster relief operations.”

“As a result of these natural disasters we’ve gained significant expertise in HADR responses and can undertake short, mid- and long-term measures in any natural disaster scenarios.

“The short term response includes immediate supply of vital material like food, safe drinking water, medical care and shelter to affected people.

“The mid- to long-term responses include restoration of normality in affected areas, and commencing rehabilitation and rebuilding programs such as the Asrayon Project, which is a low cost house building programme for landless people in the coastal belt.”

Regional cooperation

As a country that is geographically hemmed in by India and Burma, cooperation with regional navies in the Bay of Bengal has become increasingly important to Bangladesh over the last decade as its maritime interests have grown markedly.

“The emergence of transnational threats also demands greater maritime cooperation as these threats persist across boundaries. Potential for mineral resources and increasing sea dependency have also created multiple challenges in the Bay of Bengal.

“Sustainable exploitation of natural resources of the sea, maritime safety and sea governance require a great deal of empathy and information sharing between numerous maritime agencies and stakeholders,” he said.

“To address this, the Bangladesh Navy continuously engages in trust and confidence building initiatives and intends to develop interoperability as a cornerstone for combined effort against regional maritime security challenges where required.

“The Bangladesh Navy maintains excellent relations with the neighboring navies and always pursues to advance its relations further through greater engagements.”

Today, the Bangladesh Navy conducts bilateral navy-to-navy exercises with USA, France, South Korea, India and Malaysia.

Vice Adm Zahir explained: “We are conducting combined exercises with other navies in our sea area, as well as in foreign waters. In fact, Bangladesh Navy warships exchanged port calls with our neighbors, participated in friendly combined exercises, seminars and symposiums, training exchange programs and HADR responses.”

“I think the Bay of Bengal littoral states share the common view of maritime security cooperation in meeting the challenge posed by natural and man-made disasters.”

Indeed, after the 2004 tsunami the Bangladesh Navy responded by deploying its frigates and personnel to assist Sri Lanka and Maldives. Outside of UN operations, this was the first time the Bangladesh Navy was operationally deployed outside of the Bay of Bengal region – an event that was noticed internationally.

“As a recognition of our navy’s capability, the International Maritime Organisation designated our Navy as the primary responder for search and rescue within Provisional MSSR in the Bay of Bengal,” said Vice Adm Zahir.

The acceptance of such maritime responsibilities is a clear indication of the Bangladesh Navy’s ambition to operate in its EEZ and beyond in order to influence and safeguard its national interests.

“We believe in ensuring safe and unfettered maritime commerce is not only our duty, but an obligation as a seafaring nation. We bear Bangladesh’s core values in terms of foreign relations: ‘Friendship to all, malice to none.’ Therefore, the Bangladesh Navy believes in promoting peace and maintaining stability in the Bay of Bengal and, in general, the Indian Ocean region.”

Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe is a security analyst, defence writer and a non-resident Visiting Fellow at the National Security Institute, University of Canberra.

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