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Towards Growing Might At Sea:TASK AHEAD OF NEW NAVY CHIEF, by B.K. Mathur,13 November 2006 Print E-mail

Defence Notes

New Delhi, 13 November 2006

Towards Growing Might At Sea


By B.K. Mathur

Indian Navy has now a new Chief in Suresh Mehta and, importantly, he will remain at the helm for nearly three years, till August 2009.  He is equal to the task, like any of his predecessors; otherwise he would not have got to the top of the ladder, to the Admiral’s rank. Name any of the challenging assignment in the sea force and he has held it satisfactorily after having been commissioned into the force in July 1967: Chief of Personnel at the headquarters, Director-General Coast Guards and Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief Western and Eastern Naval Commands. His task as the Chief is all the more challenging at the time when India’s Navy is no more a “silent force”.  It is moving towards India’s growing might at sea.

How well and fast the Navy grows under Mehta would depend upon the way the Admiral handles the system which has its limitations under the defence policy makers and babudom. The sea force, like the army and the air force, had its ups and downs.  It remained a small and silent force until December 1971. But its exploits in the war against Pakistan that year gave it a new dimension.  It thrilled the country with the Naval exploits and punch off Karachi and then Visakhapatnam where Pakistan’s lethal submarine was sunk.  That operation prompted the Navy to traditionally celebrate its day on December 4. The neglected service began to get the Government’s greater attention, and its modernization and upgradation plans began to be taken up in earnest.

Plans after plans have been made for updating and modernizing the Navy since 1971, raising two important questions: Has the Navy become a super-power? And, has the resource crunch all these years affected the force’s long-term development, keeping in view the fact that the gestation period in the sea force is quite long.  To the first question, the Navy Chief Jayant Nadkarni had reacted as the Chief of the Naval Staff some 16 years ago.  The Western media’s description of the Indian Navy as the “Super Navy” was nothing but a “crescendo of chorus” by vested interests”. What had actually happened was that the expansion was confined to replacement of fighting ships and systems earlier phased out.

Actually, the Navy has suffered all these years for lack of understanding of two realities.  One, the growth should be directly proportionate to the country’s maritime interests. India’s sea force is undoubtedly eighth largest in the world, but don’t forget that India has the fifth largest coastline in the world---7,650 kms and an area of over two million sq. km. of Exclusive Economic Zone.  Secondly, it needs to be understood that in a full-fledged sea warfare, the operation could spread to thousands of kilometers throughout the length and breadth of the sea where a battle might take place.  In the Indian Ocean and the seas around India, there are a number of powers operating with highly sophisticated machinery and lethal weapon systems.

For this kind of a challenging task at sea, “the Navy has not been doing enough open ocean work”, as Admiral Madhavendra Singh had stated as the CNS three years ago. The force has yet to be made a real blue-water Navy, which it really is not so, notwithstanding the implementation of several modernization plans. The Navy has to be built around three aircraft-carriers, at least 30 destroyers and frigates and replenishment ships.  But where do we stand now?  The strength of the naval force is not even what it used to be in the 1980s and 90s, where we had two aircraft-carriers and were preparing for a big underwater Navy and missile boats.  One of the carriers Vikrant has retired. The other one, Viraaat has, no doubt, been renovated at high cost but has a limited life. Another second-hand carrier has been negotiated with Russia, but God only knows when it will deck into the Indian coast, duly refitted and upgraded.

Successive Naval Chiefs have talked of big plans for the force’s development. But none had much to show when he relinquished his charge.  Admiral Arun Prakash, who handed the Navy to Mehta on October 31 last too was not very happy about the strength of the force. He had admitted in an interview to the Indian Defence Review that the Navy’s force level will keep on reducing till 2012. He had disclosed in 2004 that while the Government had approved maintenance of the, then, existing force levels, the de-commissioning of warship would outnumber new inductions. He had blamed the situation on inadequate augmentation of the force between 1985 and 1996.

Another very significant point he made repeatedly in that interview was that the Navy suffered a force imbalance because a large proportion of the Fleet comprises “brown water” or smaller ships.  This needs to be rectified with the addition of more “blue water” capability.  In this context, almost all Naval Chiefs in recent years have regretted that the Government was not willing to give the Navy a long-term assurance of funds.  Remember, the Naval planning requires at least a 15-year plan which the late Jagjiwan Ram and former President Venkataraman had envisaged as Defence Ministers.

But that has not happened so far, year after year, decade after decade.  It takes a lot of time to negotiate expensive purchases of military machines and systems from abroad. So also is the case with indigenous production.  This really is the reason why considerable amount of annual defence budget has lapsed during the last few years.  Plans are made at the budget time, but are not implemented during the budget year. More about this development another time.  At the moment, let us see what Admiral Mehta is required to pursue for the force development and what priorities of acquisitions are needed to be drawn up. His predecessor had done enough in this direction; now those plans need to be followed up faithfully.

Admiral Mehta’s priority is clear: Consolidation of the Navy’s rapidly transforming role from being just a silent service to a potent maritime power in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to further the country’s geostrategic objectives.  He will have to ensure that the force levels do not fall below the present 130 warships and 16 submarines. These levels are to be kept up, given the fact that over 70 existing warships would have to be gradually replaced in the next 10-15 years. The replacement process could start satisfactorily for the sea force only when the present plans for acquisition or indigenous production of warships get started right now. At present the Navy has under production or order as many as 33 warships from foreign or indigenous sources.  In addition to this, the requirement would be for another 30 ships in the next 10-15 years.

The spadework to meet the requirements 10-15 years later should start right now.  And for that handling of the file-pushers in the Defence Ministry would be required.  In addition to the need for keeping up the force level, Mehta’s Naval headquarters must also keep chasing the already kicked-off Rs.18,798 crore project to build Scorpine submarines at the Mazagon Docks between 2012 and 2017. The project for the indigenous production of the air defence ships is to be speeded up, since the two more of these would be required even after the induction of the refurbished Admiral Gorshkov carrier from Russia.  A challenging task indeed, Admiral.---INFA

 (Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)



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