On eve of Indian Navy Day on 4th December, Chief of the Naval Staff, Adm Karambir Singh, spoke to our Editor-in-Chief Nitin A. Gokhale on a host of issues that the Indian Navy is focused upon: From taking steps to face rising Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean region to build partnerships in the region and from stressing on more indigenisation in the navy to his plans for enhancing the Indian Navy’s reach.
Q: Hello and welcome! Fourth December is a special day for Indian Navy. On the eve of the Indian Navy day, I am delighted to join Admiral Karambir Singh, Chief of Naval Staff of the Indian Navy, to ask him about the Indian Navy’s current status and future plans. Admiral Karambir Singh, thank you very much for your time. We are delighted to have you in this interview. The Indian Navy has had a glorious tradition; in fact, fourth December is celebrated because of its big success, wartime success in 1971. How do you see the Navy’s status currently, Indian Navy’s status?
A: Thank you so much for having me on this interview. When I took over, I was fortunate to take over from a very illustrious predecessor and quite a visionary. So, he had put the Navy on a different track. He had started something called the mission-based deployments that put our ships into various important positions in the Indian Ocean Region. And not only that, not only were we deployed there, but also he put in mechanisms to ensure in terms of maintenance and in terms of refits etc so that we could have our ships deployed in these various positions. So that has had a lot of, given us a lot rich operational dividend and it is also, (we’re) the Indian Navy is also being seen now in a very positive, in a positive way and in a credible fashion in the Indian Ocean Region.
After having joined, my intention was to steer the steady course and only consolidate on what he had started and my vision that I had enunciated after taking over was of a combat-ready, credible and cohesive force. When I say combat-ready, it’s pretty clear. But the fact remains that we are, we would like to have a force that can react quickly to various challenges and situations, especially in the maritime domain. The nation will not, no longer like a force that is a force in being, they will like a force that could produce results and in quick time.
So that is the reason why I said combat-ready. The second part was of credibility. Credibility is shown not only by having the potential but showing that you can do (Q: the outcomes). Yeah, that’s right. So that is where we put (our) focus. We’ve tried to build the preferred partnerships and now with the nations around us. For example, when Mozambique had the cyclone, a devastating cyclone Idai, we had our forces there and it showed our credibility that we could deploy there. We were the first to reach there and we were there for a week, providing succour to the people who were hit by this.
So that is what I meant by credibility, so we wanted credibility and also in terms of our interaction with the neighbourhood and islands in the Indian Ocean Region, we wanted to build something called the comprehensive military. As a group, we would like to take the leadership role in getting our Indian Ocean Region a comprehensive military capability to tackle all challenges. So that is why I said credible and when I said cohesive, we wanted to basically break silos internally in all; for example, all maritime stakeholders not only in coastal security but also in the larger blue economy so that we can work as a cohesive team and react to any challenge.
Q: It also sorts of flows from the Prime Minister’s SAGAR concept that he had enunciated a number of years ago. But I think one of the other credible operations that you did was also in the Gulf of Persia when the Saudi Arabia-Iran issue was hotting up. I think that must have been another big experience for the Indian warships there I guess.
A: That’s right. One of our enunciated rules is to protect trade and you’re aware that a very large percentage of our crude and gas comes from that region. As also the fact that we’ve got a very large population, expatriate population staying in that area. So, when this problem started in early June, we were one of the first navies or we were the first Navy to deploy for something which we called Op Sankalp, wherein we deployed two ships initially to reassure our merchant shipping that we are there.
As you know, initially there was the threat of limpet mines. So we had embarked afloat security teams in the initial stages and as things developed we adjusted our deployment accordingly. Our ships are still deployed there. And just to show and to reassure our merchantmen that we are there, should any eventuality happen.
Q: Right. Looking at the larger strategic construct in the Indian Ocean and the littorals that as you mentioned, there was this plan that India has had for some time having ports either, you know having joint ventures or joint projects with the host nations like Seychelles, Mauritius. You also have something in Oman for instance and now Reunion Island in the French territory. What is the progress on those projects?
A: See we had, because we are going to deploy in far reaches of the Indian Ocean Region, we require areas where we could turn around and if need be extend our reach, especially in the southern Indian Ocean Region. So, we had gotten to an OTR or Operational Turnaround agreement on the certain number of ports in this area and beyond, even in the South China Sea. The aim was that we could, as I mentioned to you, we could deploy at will, not be constrained or tethered to the region. So, we like you mentioned, we are looking at various places for development, co-development of infrastructure so that we can improve our reaction time and improve our ability to react to any situation that happens.
Q: So that’s on track? The co-development?
A: That’s right. That’s on track. It’s a whole of government-kind of approach, not the Navy alone. It’s a whole of government.
Q: So, one inevitable question that always crops up and I’m sure you get this question around the world, is that how are you looking at the Chinese navy’s increasing forays into the Indian Ocean and especially towards Africa and beyond? They go through what is considered traditionally India’s backyard. What is the challenge there and how do we, how does the Indian Navy face that challenge?
A: So, the PLA Navy, before 2008 you know their presence was very rare in this area. They started in 2008 when they got involved in the anti-piracy escort force. Since then their presence has been increasing. We’ve got at any given time seven to eight ships, PLA ships, in the area—anti-piracy or research vessels or intelligence gathering vessels. So, they have been operating. We are watching them and we also have, there’re about close to 300 fishing vessels, Chinese fishing vessels which operate in this area.
So we’re watching them and basically, if there’s anything that impacts our maritime security or our security interest, we see what will be the impact of that. And thereafter we will…
Q: So that analysis goes on it’s an ongoing thing. Let me move away from just the strategic issues but come to the brass tacks as far as the Navy is concerned. Because of your increased role, your enhanced role, you will require more and more assets I guess. And from what we know the surface ships, are, of course, may not know or may never be adequate but they’re at least in good number. But the submarine fleet has some issues, there’s some concern there. What are the steps that you are taking to enhance the submarine strength?
A: Presently we have about 13 submarines. So, it’s a combination of steps. The first step is that the older submarines, we are giving them life certification and medium refit-cum-life certification. Some are going to Russia and getting refitted, our SJW or SSK as we call them, they are also being put through medium refits and life extension, life certification. So that’ll keep them running for some time. You’re also aware that we’ve commissioned two of our Scorpene-class and the rest, the remaining four, will keep coming out at short intervals now.
So, we will have a submarine force. Meanwhile, the 75 India programme which is being done on the strategic partnership model, that is progressing. So our aim is the combination of medium refits life certification with the new Scorpenes coming in and the future 75 Indian we’ll try to make good the shortages.
Q: So 75 India, what is the status? What is the progress there?
A: So we’ve got the responses from, there are two parts. One is a strategic partner and the other is the OEL. So we’ve got responses from both. Our intention will be to evaluate all this and then go back to DAC and thereafter issue the RFP.
Q: So it’s on track basically.
But then talking about the aircraft carrier especially the ISC that is there in Cochin which is under construction, what is the progress on that? What is the timeline that you’re looking at?
A: The ISC which is being made in Cochin shipyard Ltd is on track now. So as of now, we’ve started the prime movers, that is the engines have been started to base the trials on. We expect that we’ll take delivery of the ISC in February 2021 and thereafter put her through the paces of aviation workup and have her going with the fleet as an operational unit in a year’s time after that.
Q: So 2022 is what you’re looking at. Also, I think the Indian Navy was looking at minesweepers perhaps and the helicopters. I think one of the major acquisition plans that have been there had been for naval utility helicopters, 112 or 111 of them. What is the status of that project?
A: So the NUH (Naval Utility Helicopters) also is being done through the strategic partnership model as you’re aware. And the same, we’ve got the responses for the strategic partner and the OEM. And I think we should be going to DAC very shortly to issue the RFP. We should have the NUH by my reckoning, the first NUH rolled out by 2025.
Q: I see. So, but you’re still facing some shortage obviously because those haven’t come. So how are you coping with that challenge?
A: We’re hoping to get the MRH earlier and the LOA which, it is through the FMS, so the LOA is likely to come through by about, maybe in a couple of months. So once the LOA contract is signed, we should have the MRH coming in. Though of course, they’re not utility helicopters but they can always do the utility role and otherwise we had taken eight Chetaks to supplement the old ones and the ALH, 16 ALH which are shore-based have also helped us in the interim.
Q: Right. Also, I had seen some other reports about the Navy looking at the UAVs and HALE for its own use. You have also commissioned a couple of squadrons for that. What is the utility of drones for the Navy in that sense?
A: See, the main thing is that drones help us out with endurance. And they are the future when you are going into the unmanned. We’ve been operating the MALE or the medium-range Herons and Searchers for some time now. So they are also going to get upgraded and the HALE program which is basically the American HALE, that is the next which is coming in line.
Q: So, what is the status of your helicopter fleet? Either the naval utility helicopter or the MRH?
A: As far as their MRH is concerned, we had sent out the LOR. We’ve got the LOA and should be signed very shortly. Well as far as the NUH is concerned, we’re pushing that through the strategic partnership model where again we’ve got the responses for the, from the strategic partners and the OEM. We will be putting them together and presenting it to DAC, maybe next month and we should have the NUH flying from the Navy by about 2025.
Q: So, about a six-year plan for that. But how are you making up the shortages in the interim?
A: In the interim we’ve got, we’ve ordered eight additional Chetaks to replenish our fleet. We’ve already started taking delivery of those aircraft and of course 16 ALH which we have contracted through the HAL which are mainly shore-based. So this is one way of mitigating the shortages until such time that the MRH and NUH come in.
Q: That’s right. You’ve also given a lot of emphasis on unmanned aerial vehicles now. Is that the future? And you’ve got some squadrons going. What is the plan for UAV squadrons?
A: To my mind UAVs are the future. We’ve already invested in earlier with the MALE UAVs, that’s the Herons which have given us good service. They are going in for a kind of an upgrade. Thereafter, we’ve also, we’re taking up a tri-service case for the HALE, the Predator “Guardian” UAVs which are going to come up shortly. So I think we will be going partially with manned and partially with unmanned for the next decade or two.
Q: That’s the future as you said. But you also have acquired more than a dozen P-8Is for anti-submarine reconnaissance and you’ve just done your AON for six more. So how have they fared so far?
A: P-8Is have been a real find for us. They’re a force multiplier as far as we’re concerned. They are equipped with all the sensors that are required and weapons, both ASW and anti-ship weapons. Their sensors are not only useful to the Navy; we’ve also provided help to the army and the air force. So they’ve been a real game-changer as far as we’re concerned and we’re very happy with them.
Q: Now talking about building partnerships in the neighbourhood. You’ve visited Bangladesh, you’re about to visit Sri Lanka. How do you see this kind of association or cooperation with the neighbours as well as in the extended neighbourhood? You have the IONS which India is a major member or important member. And also maybe you know the kind of bilateral exercises you do with so many navies around the world. How has that helped the Indian Navy?
A: You see all of us, the people, the nations that we are, the Navy that we are exercising with, we share a common vision of safe, secure open seas and which are supported by a rules-based behaviour. So that being the bottom line since we share the same vision. We also are governed by Prime Minister Modi’s vision of SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region), the neighbourhood first policy and the Act East policy. These are the guiding principles on which we are operating in the neighbourhood. Many cases we have countries in the neighbourhood, especially the island nations, that compared to their physical size have very large areas of responsibility like EZs.For example, Seychelles has an EZ which is nearly a thousand times its size. So they have some capacity shortfalls. So we are focusing on:
A) helping out with capacity B) with the soft power that is training and C) in getting the picture, the maritime domain awareness, shared maritime domain awareness in our Indian Ocean Region.
Q: IONS helps in that sense. And now you have the MILAN exercise coming up in March 2020 and you just shifted it from Andaman Nicobar, from Port Blair to Vizag. Is there a reason for it and how has it grown in size over the years?
A: MILAN started off in 1995. The first edition had about six navies. The last edition, it’s a biennial exercise, so the last edition had 17 navies. The plan in MILAN 2020 is to have 41 navies. So that kind of size becomes difficult to logistically and manage in the Andamans. So we’ve shifted to Vizag. We also want to increase the complexity of these exercises. So that is the basic…
Q: Do you mean it’ll not just be a kind of ceremonial thing that used to happen in MILAN. But there are more exercises planned.
A: That’s right. So we are looking at increasing the complexity of these exercises in terms of professional content.
Q: I see. Coming to tri-service issues and given the status of India’s defence budget, is there a way forward to pool resources for all the three services? And of course, look at acquisitions which are common for all the three services? How does a Navy view this?
A: Now, there’s definitely scope. I think the CDS, as and when he’s appointed, that will be one of his primary tasks and I feel there is the scope and it will help the overall budget management as well as the application of force on a particular challenge or an eventuality.
Q: So towards that, are there some special efforts being made by each of the services to create joint manship and what is the status of the command that you have, the tri-service command, or the agency that has been created, the cyber agency which is with the Navy.
A: The Defence Cyber Agency is just a fledgeling agency. They’ve started their work. And you can already see the benefits because we have a Defence Cyber Agency and service-specific cyber groups. So with their coordination and the Defence Cyber Agency’s coordination with the larger national cyber network, we are already seeing the results. And I think it has got a good future.
Q: So, about the technical aspects of your training. The Navy has been always ahead of the other two services. You have a separate training module in the INA. Are you getting enough qualified manpower to sort of augment your officer strength or even the JCO, I mean the NCOs and the JCOs.
A: We’re getting adequate people, aspirants to join, both as officers and sailors. But our constraint is in terms of the academies. We can take only these many at one time and it’s always good to space the induction. So the B.Tech. syllabus that we’re following for the officers is doing well. And I think we’ll have much more capable officers manning our ships and platforms in the future.
Q: One last question I can’t help but ask because the platform that we are interviewing you for believes in the way forward for India’s self-reliance and defence. And the Navy has been at the forefront of indigenisation, Make in India. How do you see the plans for Make in India indigenisation going forward? Because it hasn’t really taken off the way it should have but I’m sure the Navy has some plans for that.
A: What I can assure you is that the intent is there. I mean at every level, right from the Raksha Mantri downwards. The intent is very much there to get self-reliance going. My view is that we, as in the Navy, have to get ahead of the technology curve. We’ve got to have cutting-edge technology and for that, I feel that the DRDO, my view is that the DRDO, must focus on this cutting-edge technology. And I feel there’s sufficient headroom for the private industry to take on, you know, import substitution and things like that.
So I think with this kind of energy and emphasis and various schemes that have come out, I feel that this will succeed.
Q: You’ve done well actually. The Navy has done better than the other two services on indigenisation at least, so you feel there’s a bright future for this.
A: Yeah. I feel like my must sort of go doff my hat to all my predecessors because we started the Ship Design Directorate in 1964 so that was with the intent of designing and building our own ships and therefore it has been slow but a very satisfying journey. Today we can say that we’re about more than 90 per cent in the… we have three categories to float, to move, to fight. In the float component, with our indigenous steel design and structures, we are going 90 per cent in the float component, that is propulsion and other machinery in the move component, sorry we are close to 70 per cent and in the fight component we are moving ahead quite pretty fast and we must be around 50 to 60 per cent. So I think there is a great deal of satisfaction what we have achieved but there is a long way to go also.
On that note Admiral, thank you very much for your time. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you.