Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Maritime Security Our Top Priority

Vice Admiral G Ashok Kumar Vice Chief of Naval Staff

To understand, how has the Indian Navy has been taking care of India’s strategic and economic  interests midst Covid  and China tensions, Kamal Shah spoke to the second highest authority in the Indian Navy, Vice Chief of the Naval Staff Vice Admiral G. Ashok Kumar.

India being a maritime country, the Indian Navy plays an extremely important role not only in the defence domain but also in strategic & economic domains.

To understand, how has the Indian Navy has been taking care of India’s interests in all these domains during the current challenging phase amidst Covid & China tensions, we spoke to the second highest authority in the Indian Navy, Vice Chief of the Naval Staff Vice Admiral G. Ashok Kumar.

Kamal Shah in this exclusive interview also explores the Indian Navy’s asset and procurements plans for the future. From Drones to Helicopters, from Submarines to Make in India how is the Indian Navy prepared for the future.

IADB: Has Covid impacted the Indian Navy in operational and  procurements domains? Your views/ review on Indian Navy’s plan and execution during first and second wave of Covid.

VCNS: The Navy of all nations have important peacetime roles that are as crucial to the nation as their wartime roles. Non-traditional threats are ever present in the maritime domain, and any breach in maritime security will have an adverse impact on day-to-day life of every citizen. With over 95% of our trade and over 80% of our energy requirements transiting through the seas, we cannot afford to put our guard down in so far as our peacetime deployments are concerned – be it anti-piracy deployments in the Gulf of Aden, Maritime Security deployments in the Strait of Hormuz and Malacca Strait, our Coastal Security patrols, our offshore security deployments, building up a comprehensive MDA of the entire region, etc. Hence, there has been no change in our tempo of operations towards ensuring maritime security of the nation – both in first wave and in the ongoing second wave. If at all, we only experienced an operational surge. During the first wave, despite the fact that there was no Covid 19 vaccine, enforcement of stringent SoPs ensured our crew onboard operational platforms always remained in a bubble resulting in nil adverse impact of Covid on operations. Our assets continued their Mission based deployments – for Op Sankalp for protection and reassuring our shipping transiting through Strait of Hormuz and also in Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy patrol. The Navy’s engagements with the friendly foreign countries continue with the same tempo. During the first wave, leading from the front, the Chief of Naval Staff, reached out to the Naval community and highlighted the criticality of our role and responsibility in helping our countrymen, and cautioned that – ‘being care-givers, we could not afford to become care-seekers’; thus, the tone was set early last. It was imperative for all personnel to be diligent and rise to the multitude of challenges presented due to Covid, as well as the security environment presented due to the Galwan crisis last year. Inspite of the second wave, there has been no effect of Covid in the pace of operations. All Mission based deployments are continuing and the ongoing Operation Samudra Setu II for ferrying Oxygen back home from countries spread over a vast expanse in the IOR – Kuwait to Ho Chi Minh City – is also continuing. While Op Samudra Setu II was underway, our Naval ships and aircraft were also involved in Search and Rescue mission off the Western coast of India due to Cyclone Tauktae and saved 188 precious lives at sea. The fact that Op Samudra Setu continued as per planned schedule, despite a large number of IN assets concurrently undertaking SAR operations off Mumbai, proves that naval operations are continuing at the same pace at which they would have been in normal non-Covid times.

The progress of procurement cases in various stages of processing have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, due to reduced manning of offices and response of vendors. Progress of shipbuilding has also been impacted due to reduced manpower at shipyards and paucity of oxygen for ship construction. But we do hope to catch up lost time soon.

IADB: How do you see the series/phases of ‘Samudra Setu’ & ‘SAGAR’ progressing and the maritime & geo-political achievements for the country through these?

VCNS: Operation Samudra Setu was undertaken by the Indian Navy in May- June 2020 when Indian Naval ships traversed 23,175 km over 58 days and successfully evacuated around 4000 Indian citizens from Maldives, Sri Lanka and Iran despite unprecedented challenges in terms of social distancing and enforcement of Covid-19 protocols onboard ships due to confined spaces. In line with Prime Minister’s vision of Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), the Indian Navy also reached out to our Friendly Foreign Countries in IOR through Mission SAGAR, wherein medical services, essential commodities and equipment were provided to countries in our maritime neighbourhood by Indian Naval ships and aircraft. Four such Missions were undertaken from May 2020 to March 2021 to render Covid related assistance to our partner countries in Southern Indian Ocean Region and the African continent. Mission SAGAR highlighted India’s position as a dependable partner in the Indian Ocean Region with Indian Navy as the principle maritime agency and first responder in the maritime domain. It also underscored the importance accorded by India to relations with her maritime neighbours and further strengthened the existing bonds of friendship. In a way, these bonds of friendship are being renewed through Op Samudra Setu II as our partner nations in the IOR region are helping us in our time of need during the ongoing second wave of Covid-19.

To augment the national efforts in sourcing Medical Oxygen from friendly foreign countries the Indian Navy is presently undertaking Operation Samudra Setu II. Till date, 910   MT of Liquid Medical oxygen, thousands of oxygen cylinders and critical medical supplies have been ferried to India from countries spread across IOR, from Persian Gulf to South East Asia, in the last three weeks. This operation will continue for as long as the requirement of ferrying liquid medical oxygen from friendly foreign countries exists for our fellow countrymen.

IADB: Do we have enough assets, qualitatively & quantitatively, available with Indian Navy to meet all its current operational requirements?

VCNS: Yes, over the years IN has strived towards creating and sustaining a combat ready, technology enabled and networked force, capable of safeguarding our maritime interests and projecting appropriate maritime power in our areas of interest.  The wide variety of missions and roles that the Navy is tasked with, in all three domains, a balanced force is the need of the hour. Today the Indian Navy is a balanced, modern, multi-dimensional force capable of progressing operations in the Indian Ocean Region and beyond. It includes more than 130 ships & submarines and over 230 aircraft. To augment the force levels, 41 ships & submarines are under construction at various shipyards, in addition to the AoNs that have been accorded for 49 ships & submarines. The force level of aircraft is also being enhanced by induction of aircraft ex-HAL (includes Dornier, ALH and Chetak), 24 Multirole Helicopters and four P8I in addition to AoNs for additional P8I aircraft, KM 31 helicopters and NUH through SP model. However, there are certain critical capability shortfalls pertaining to aircraft carriers, MCMVs, submarines, helicopters, RPAs, etc, which are being addressed expeditiously.

IADB: Indian navy has been the torch bearer for Make in India among all the services. What are the plans to further increase the Indigenisation content in Indian naval platforms and in which specific technologies?

VCNS:    Indian Navy has steadily increased the indigenised content especially in shipbuilding. With a clear vision and focused efforts of past generations of naval leaders, the Indian Navy can be proud of the fact that all our ships are designed by the Indian Navy and are built in Indian Shipyards. This helps the nation in many ways. The Navy’s capital budget getting ploughed back into the Indian economy, our support for small-scale industries and MSMEs, as well as the contribution to ‘skill-India’ are highly noteworthy. To further enhance indigenisation content, DMA has formulated positive indigenisation lists in coordination with all SHQs. The first positive indigenisation list was promulgated on 21 Aug 20, which included 37 items for Indian Navy. The second indigenisation list will be promulgated shortly. The specific technologies where indigenisation is being undertaken are in the field of armament, weapons and sensors, auxiliary machineries, power generation, software based management systems for controls onboard ships, unmanned solutions, etc.

IADB: Which are the areas where you would suggest the Indian PSUs, start-ups, PPPs & private companies working in Defence and maritime sectors to focus on for Indian navy?

VCNS:    Indian Navy is actively participating in the Defence India Start-up Challenge, and through iDEX and TDF, is encouraging Indian Defence Industries and Start-ups. Indian Navy is also working hand in hand with these industries to induct niche futuristic technologies, such as nanotechnology, Micro Electro Mechanical Systems, unmanned vehicles capable of operating in air, on surface and underwater, Quantum Communications, Stealth Systems, Weapon Guidance, Precision Guidance Ammunition, Underwater Surveillance and Weapon Systems, Marine and Air Propulsion System, Avionics, Directed Energy Weapons and artificial intelligence.

The Indian Navy has taken the lead by establishing the Naval Innovation and Indigenisation Organisation (NIIO) to establish linkages with the triad of Industry, Academia and Innovators to usher latest technology as per needs of the service in an expeditious fashion. This is in line with the Govt’s Atma Nirbhar Bharat, Vocal for Local and MSME promotion schemes. While we have entered into MoUs with academic institutions of repute and initiated programmes such as an internship called IN-STEP (Indian Navy-Student Technical Education Programme), we also plan to hold an annual seminar with academia and industry being fully involved. Covid situation permitting, we plan to hold the first one in July this year.  

IADB: Any progress on the much talked about a third aircraft carrier for IN and the desk based fighter jets? DRDO & ADA have been coordinating with Indian Navy on LCA Navy MK 1 & TEDBF fighter jets. How is the progress on these projects?

VCNS:    The Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) is being developed as a replacement for MiG 29Ks. The development is being carried out under a very tight time frame with the first flight planned for 2026 (based on the assurances of DRDO/ADA). Currently, Preliminary Service Qualitative Requirements (PSQRs) are being drafted by the IN, and design teams at ADA are working on various aspects of the airframe, avionics and sensors. At the same time, Navy is facilitating the testing of the LCA Navy Mk I as the aircraft will be used to gather vital inputs required for the TEDBF. The Navy is fully involved in the project.

As far as aircraft carriers for IN are concerned, IAC-1, India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier is at the final stages of delivery with basin trials being completed in November last year. In so far as the third aircraft career is concerned, it is a work in progress. We intend taking the case up at a suitable time soon.

IDAB By when do you see the first batch of MH-60 Romeo inducted in IN?  The current order of two dozen will suffice or IN may need more of those in future?

VCNS:The first Batch of three MH 60Rs will be inducted into the IN in Jul 21. These aircraft will be retained in the US towards training of IN aircrew and Technical personnel. The remaining aircraft will arrive in batches to India, commencing mid-2021, with the completion of deliveries in 2025.

The current order of 24 helicopters would mitigate the immediate ASW capability gap. The option to acquire more helicopters would be exercised based on the emerging threat perception in the AoR. Alternately, IN would partner with Indian manufacturers and exercise the option of indigenous development of ASW helicopters.

IADB: What’s the vision and future plans in the domain of unmanned aerial assets in Indian Navy? Also, what’s the plan to upgrade the existing UAVs in Indian Navy?

VCNS: Recent developments, capabilities and discussions indicate that the future, especially in aviation, is unmanned. Unmanned aerial systems have considerable applications in naval warfare and are Force Multipliers. The Navy seizes the opportunity and has recently drafted an ‘Unmanned Roadmap for IN’. A well charted course towards induction of small, medium and large UAS is also in the pipeline. The vision is to upgrade existing Heron UAVs in the immediate term and induct Shipborne UAS to provide the Commander at sea the required edge in surveillance and targeting. In the medium term, it includes procuring High Altitude Long Endurance UAS to bridge the capability gap of surveillance at large distances. In the longer term, the aim is to be able to indigenously manufacture all types of UAS to meet naval applications.

IADB: The leasing of Predator drones by IN has been in the news for the last few months. The Ministry has given the nod to acquire more such drones. Will leasing remain the option for remaining or buying those is being worked upon? What’s the status of it?

VCNS: Leasing of two MQ 9B UAS was undertaken under Emergency Powers post Galwan standoff to meet the immediate operational requirement for a period of one year. While leasing has provided IN with a critical capability in the existing security scenario, in the long term it is important for Navy to acquire these niche capability to ensure Surveillance, Reconnaissance and targeting in our AOI. The three Services are progressing a joint case for procurement of HALE RPAs.

IADB: To meet its submarine requirements, has the IN drawn a tentative timeline for the submarine project 75(I), from RFP to commissioning?

VCNS: The project 75(I) is presently at its penultimate stage with all actions with respect to preparations of RFP completed. The Strategic Partners have been shortlisted for issuing of RFP and foreign OEMs have also been shortlisted. We expect to issue the RFP in the near future. The timelines for the project will be based upon issuance of the RFP and contract conclusion is envisaged within 30-36 months thereafter. The first submarine is likely to be inducted 6 -7 years after the contract conclusion followed by other submarines at suitable intervals.

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