The maritime domain has no physical boundaries. From those engaged in fishing to those extracting crude oil all share the same common space. Overlapping requirements lead to conflict of interest and disputes. It is therefore imperative that everyone understands the maritime domain and the challenges faced by those who operate in it. It requires significant capability, skill and ample experience to put to sea and sustain presence there. The Western Naval Command is faced with a unique set of challenges due to the geography and the geopolitical situation in the region. The primary task of our combatant units, whether ship, submarine or aircraft is to remain combat ready, maintain peace and deter any misadventure against our maritime interests.
From anti-piracy actions to checking out unidentified vessels and illegal activity and mounting Search and Rescue (SAR) units of the command are also deployed on specialised missions like survey, underwater search, submarine rescue.
Officer Commanding-in-Chief Western Naval Command, Vice Admiral R. Hari Kumar takes Kamal Shah , Editorial Director on a voyage of discovery.
Q1. After a successful tenure in the HQIDS and being instrumental in the setting up the office of the CDS and DMA, you have taken over as the Flag Officer Commanding–in-Chief of the Western Naval Command. The Indian Navy through its Command Headquarters undertakes operations in maritime domain. This domain is large and is not fully understood by many. Being the Commander of an Operational Command of the Navy, can you tell us more about the maritime domain and the challenges it is faced with?
High seas are one of the ‘Global Commons’ along with Air Space, Outer Space and the Cyber Space. The word ‘Maritime’ encompasses everything that is linked to the sea. The dependence of nations on the seas for resources and trade is well known but those not directly associated with it less understand the maritime domain.
The navies of the world both military and merchant marine are among many of the stakeholders in this domain. In fact, every aspect of human endeavour and livelihood is linked to the sea. It is therefore imperative that everyone understands the maritime domain and the challenges faced by those who operate in it. It requires significant capability, skill and ample experience to put to sea and sustain there. Seafaring although centuries old remains a challenge even today albeit advancement in shipbuilding and related technologies.
Foremost of these challenges are the very conditions at sea, which takes a toll on the ship, submarine, oil rig or any other platform and the crew operating it. Although largely predictable these days, weather at sea is seldom benign and can test capacity and endurance to the limits. Recent cyclones in the IOR amply demonstrated this aspect. The effects of Cyclone Tauktae that hit the west coast is a reminder of the perils faced by the seafarer.
Seagoing platforms are therefore expensive to build and maintain. Warships, submarines and embarked aircraft/ helicopters are among the most expensive military hardware any nation may possess. In addition to the initial cost, marine conditions demand a very high level of maintenance, which invariably adds on to the life cycle costs.
The maritime domain has no physical boundaries. From those engaged in fishing to those extracting crude oil all share the same common space. Overlapping requirements lead to conflict of interest and disputes. Internationally accepted norms demarcate sea areas into various zones and mutually accepted boundary lines. These international norms, though widely accepted by most countries are still challenged by some others in favour of their interests. Disputes over maritime claims in the South China Sea is a typical example of this.
The oceans are vast. The farther one moves away from the shore, the lines of support are stretched and eventually severed. Adequate shore support facilities are required across the Area of Responsibility to enable reliable operations. Its military base in Djibouti facilitates China’s operations in IOR. This is also relevant in a Search and Rescue (SAR) scenario. The SAR of Malaysian Airliner, which was lost in South Indian Ocean, led to a massive effort, combing 40, 00,000 sq. kms of sea area by more than 19 ships and 22 aircraft for more than a year without conclusive results.
Although collaborative efforts are underway to achieve transparency in the maritime domain through international reporting and sharing of information, large number of activities at sea, remain unreported and opaque to government law enforcement agencies and the Navies. Piracy, human trafficking, smuggling of contraband, unauthorised survey/ research, illegal fishing are few such activities. In addition, identification at sea has been a challenge and will continue to remain so due to the presence of a large number of neutral shipping.
Q2. The Western Naval Command is the premier Command of the Indian Navy, comprising major assets such as Aircraft carrier Vikramaditya and Kolkata class destroyers. What are the tasks the WNC undertakes?
The Western Naval Command faces a unique set of challenges due to the geography and the geopolitical situation in the region. WNC has a large Area of Responsibility (AoR), which spans from east coast of African continent, Arabian coast and Makaran coast including Persian Gulf and Gulf of Aden, to the west coast of India, further stretching south well below the equator.
The primary task of our combatant units, whether ship, submarine or aircraft is to remain combat ready, maintain peace and deter any misadventure against our maritime interests. This is achieved through operational training tasks including drills, weapon firings and deployments. Units have to mandatorily complete these prior being operationally deployed for other tasks. We categorise assets to be in either of stages of Maintenance, Training, Operations and Drawdown (MTOD) phases.
WNC units are mission deployed in designated areas of interest on a near constant basis enabling Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) in the region. MDA is vital to remain ahead of the curve in operations, to have sufficient warning of a situation or incident at sea. Additionally the presence of these units are a deterrence to inimical elements, whose activities may go unchecked otherwise.
The units are tasked for Anti-piracy patrols off the Gulf of Aden, escorting merchant ships of various nationalities in the piracy prone region. The ships/ aircraft are deployed on receipt of specific inputs regarding presence of unidentified vessels / illegal activity within AoR or for Search and Rescue (SAR) missions within the reach of our units. Units with unique capabilities are deployed on specialised missions such as survey, underwater search, submarine rescue, etc.
Further units are also deployed to achieve interoperability and to hone their skills by exercising with friendly foreign navies, during their visit to our AoR or during Overseas Deployment (OSD) of our units to other nations. Our units also meet other national tasking as and when directed by the Government through Naval Headquarters.
Q3. As you mentioned earlier, Search and Rescue is also a task the Navy is called upon to undertake as and when situation arises. Western Naval Command recently had spearheaded a massive SAR operation in adverse weather conditions during Cyclone Tauktae. This effort was highly appreciated and covered extensively by the media within the country as well as by foreign media. As the FOC-in-C, you were in the helm of the operation; Can you please share your experience?
During the last few years the west coast has faced the wrath of severe weather phenomenon probably an outcome of climate change happening all over. Western Naval Command has instituted SOPs for safeguarding our ships against any damages from cyclone as well to render assistance to areas of the western seaboard, which suffer the wrath of a cyclone and are in need of immediate assistance. The recent Cyclone Tauktae unfortunately led to multiple distress situations in the Offshore Development Area (ODA) off Mumbai. A mariner is trained always to keep out of the way of cyclones but in this case, a few could not do so. An accommodation barge P305 with 261 personnel foundered after a collision with an oil rig, forcing the crew to abandon the barge subsequently. Tug boat Varaprada attending to the barge P305 had capsized and was abandoned by her crew of 13. Accommodation barge Gal constructor, Support Station III and Rig Sagar Bhushan were also rendered adrift due to the cyclone. Whilst Support Station III and Sagar Bhushan were rescued on the subsequent day, Gal Constructor ran aground off Mumbai.
As the information seeking assistance for P305 was received at the Maritime Operations centre (MOC) of the WNC in the morning of 17 May 21, INS Kochi and INS Kolkata were ordered to sail immediately. This was soon followed by INS Talwar. The eye of the cyclone was now closest to coast and this meant the ships were heading directly into the storm. The ships sailed out under severe weather conditions with winds in excess of 110 Kmph, low visibility and squally conditions. At sea, the ships encountered waves in excess of 9 metres, strong surface drift, torrential rain and almost nil visibility in the area of operations. Apart from the mariners in distress at sea, we were also concerned about safety of our ships and our personnel operating them.
At 1600 hrs, INS Kochi arrived in vicinity of P305, which at that time was taking in water and established communication. They were witness to the horror, which unfolded as the vessel went down leaving the crew drifting away in all directions in the impending darkness of nightfall. INS Kochi advised crew to remain in groups while abandoning ship by holding/ tying ropes to each other. At around 1750 hrs, INS Kochi reported P305 had sunk and rescue of survivors had commenced. Based on this input and crew members having abandoned the vessel, INS Kolkata, which was in the vicinity assisting GAL Constructor, was also diverted towards P305 to rescue survivors. The sea conditions especially swell and visibility, made it extremely difficult for ships to locate survivors. Ship handling in heavy weather was equally challenging as each approach to recover survivors had to be successful and meant the difference between life and death. The ships encountered heavy roll and pitch, which further complicated the attempts to recover survivors. Kochi and Kolkata moved cautiously in the darkness of the night looking for survivors and deployed their life raft on sighting them. A slow and most difficult process of picking up survivors got underway.
Based on developing situation, Talwar was directed to proceed in vicinity of vessels Support Station 3 (SS3) and Sagar Bhushan to render assistance, as required. Both these vessels were drifting northwards towards Pipavav. SS3 crew proposed to abandon the ship as the vessel was heading for shallow waters but was advised not to abandon ship, as the vessel did not have any other emergency. Talwar’s presence boosted confidence and the crew continued to remain on board. Food and drinking water was provided to the crew of SS3 utilising helos of Talwar and Shikra, which were launched under marginal weather conditions.
In the following days, WNC ships Teg, Betwa, Beas, Subhadra, Tarasa and ISVs were all deployed for Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. Over the next six days, out of 274 crew on board of P305 and Varaprada, 188 personnel were rescued by IN ships, helos and other merchant vessels in vicinity, 70 dead bodies were recovered from sea and 16 were washed ashore. The vessels Station Support 3 and Sagar Bhushan were towed back safely and entered Mumbai anchorage by 1200 h on 20 May 21. This was the largest ever SAR operation undertaken during a cyclone of this scale. The operations were terminated only after all 274 crew members were accounted for.
Q4. Navy has been at the forefront of indigenisation over the past five decades and have built state of the art warships indigenously. How do you see them in comparison to foreign combatants and in performance of their task to meet IN’S expectation?
The Indian Navy can rightfully claim to be the pioneer in major military indigenisation as we have been designing and building potent combat ships since the 70s. In the 1960s, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) acquired a number of shipyards and took the milestone decision of constructing the Leander-class frigates, (with INS Nilgiri as the first) at the newly acquired Mazagaon Dock Ltd (MDL). Over the years, India’s warship production endeavour has made steady progress, contributing significantly towards filling the navy’s shipbuilding needs. The IN’s in-house designing capability has also improved, with the Directorate of Naval Design producing blueprints for 19 ship classes to which over 90 warships have been built. As a result of the navy’s indigenisation efforts, 40 out of a total of 42 ships and submarines on order are being constructed in Indian shipyards. Thus, with confidence we can say the capability of Indigenous ship design and building is one of the best.
As far as meeting the expectations of the IN was concerned, our indigenously built ships have come a long way in both capability and design. They have proved themselves repeatedly at sea at par with foreign combatants. However, there is a need to become fully self-reliant in the shipboard equipment and weapon fit as well, which is a work in progress.
Q5. We have been designing our own ships with in-house design since the 70s and built by DPSU yards. Do you think, this has resulted in warship building capability being minimal in the private sector, despite India being a maritime nation and having adequate resources to be a leading ship builder?
Historically, India had been on the forefront of shipbuilding, especially during the wooden hull era. The oldest warship afloat as on date was built in India. Missing the bus of industrial revolution and lagging behind in the steel hull based shipbuilding has resulted in the loss of the edge we had in ship construction. I think, considering this, Indian Navy has done its best to make the capital investments required to design our ships in house and build it in Indian shipyards. Having them built in PSU, yards have been a government policy and actually, there have been very few private yards with the requisite infrastructure, as it requires huge capital investment. Another related aspect is the much faster and cheaper shipbuilding capability held by industry majors in other countries. Therefore, as far as merchant shipbuilding is concerned, they always look for cost effectiveness than capability build up. I think we should be looking at having the capability in either private or public sector to ensure that as a country we have the necessary wherewithal to build warships as well as merchant vessels required by us. Modernisation of existing shipyards with faster shipbuilding processes, increasing the efficiency and thereby reducing the build time of ships should be our focus area. While we have achieved more than 90% indigenous content in float category and more than 70% in move category, the fight category needs significant indigenisation.
Q6. While we supposedly have more than 90% indigenous content in the Float component of ships, what are the plans for increasing indigenous content in the Move and Fight component?
The Indian Navy has been making efforts to consistently increase the indigenous content and towards this, we have a multi-pronged approach. In the past, it was mostly through DRDO, with the Navy’s requirement projected to the Lab clusters for development of equipment or systems or even technology. Subsequently, we have also developed specific systems through private firms; especially machinery controls and platform monitoring systems, which have civil applications, such as IPMS, APMS, etc. With the aim of integrating indigenous equipment with the platform backbone and foreign origin systems, we have also established an in-house scientific organisation called WESEE, which has done outstanding work in the areas of platform level system integration and Fleet level platform integration to be a potent networked force at sea. Combat management systems through in-house naval development with the involvement of WESEE and DPSU BEL has been another major indigenisation in the fight category.
Another bold step by the Government towards giving adequate thrust to the ‘Atmanirbhar’ initiative is the listing of 101-defence equipment for indigenisation, in Aug 2020, most of which are weapons and sensors. This has made it mandatory for the defence forces, DRDO and Indian industry to find indigenous solutions for these equipment. With the renewed thrust on indigenisation, we should target 100% for float, 90% in move and in excess of 75% in fight category by cost and content.
Q7. Though we have made major strides in indigenisation, why is it that we still have a sizeable import bill?
While all nations strive to be self-sufficient in all aspects of defence requirements, certain imperatives need to be considered. The technology used in weapons and sensors are the most modern and latest; you may well know that many of the advanced technologies used in other strata of life are offshoots of the research in the military domain. Therefore, it is a catch up always if you want to have the latest in the world and that is ongoing. We have made good progress in all segments but by the time, we have the equipment developed and deployed, it may be overtaken by newer technology. So if we have to maintain the edge we always have to seek the best and the latest. However, there are some areas where availability of requisite functionalities would still serve the purpose, through indigenous systems. Another related issue, especially for Navy is the number or quantity involved. We have six or at the most ten platforms of a particular class and so most of the sensors or weapons are limited in numbers to single digit. It does not make economic sense to develop such limited numbers and considering the fact that most of the high technology equipment have a service life of 10-12 years, through life support also becomes challenging in this case. Therefore, if you do a global scan, you will find only a handful of players in the field of advanced weapons and sensors, just because of the volumes involved. In order to avoid depending on imports in niche areas, we may need to go for modular systems, accept limitations of the initial indigenous systems and improve the subsequent versions to achieve the necessary edge.
Q8. What are the areas where IN sees scope for strategic partnership?
One of the biggest challenges for Navy is the numbers or volume to develop sustainable industry partnership whether to develop systems or for providing through life support for platforms and systems. The strategic partnership model is expected to address the issue wherein the private partner is assured of a long-term business – of course with associated stable and rational financial terms. The risk of putting all eggs in one or few baskets leads to monopolies that should be avoided. So the terms of the strategic partnership should be favourable to both IN and the partner. Once this aspect is clear, there is ample scope for strategic partnership, be it development and supply of equipment, platform or system maintenance including refits. In fact, any areas necessitating long-term continuity for developing and maintaining expertise is an area suitable for strategic partnership. Training, aspects of maintenance management and even inventory management would benefit from strategic partnership models. Related aspect is that, lack of domain knowledge and appreciation is a constraint in dealing with and managing work or products with private or civil industries. Therefore, it is essential that the industry concerned absorb qualified and experienced ex-service personnel to provide that crucial domain specific competence.
Q9. Biggest challenge for any private player in defence industry, in addition to the requirement of huge initial capital investments, is the sustained flow of orders. In which way could the Navy help address the issue?
Due to the inherently limited inventory and low volume of business, Indian Navy has always been creating and maintaining an eco-system where the industry has much better access and assistance always. As I have mentioned earlier, strategic partnership could help ensure long-term agreements and sustained flow of orders. Further, private players developing capability for obsolescence management through form fit and function sub system development would help ensure the systems perform optimally and adequate activity for sustaining the industry is available.
Q10. Ab-initio designs – especially weapons and sensors require a large number of developmental tests etc. that is another area of challenge for private industries. How can the IN support the industry in this area?
This is certainly an area, which required full support and commitment.
There are two specific aspects of testing and trials. The first being various developmental tests for which special facilities and fixtures are required, which are expensive to build. We have almost all required facilities either as part of our QA organisation, or in the Navy like the Naval EMC Centre or Underwater Ranges. Even some of the facilities of the DRDO could be made available with Government approval. This could all form a part of the strategic partnership agreement. Another aspect is capturing the exact user requirements. It is not easy to put everything on paper and our latest initiative is to position user representatives even in DRDO labs to help them capture and refine user requirements. The next level is the sea trials or user evaluation trials. Any equipment or sensor to be installed on an afloat platform would have to be tried out at sea a number of times during different phases of development. DRDO has a dedicated ship for this. While some of the trials could be done on any afloat platform, warship specific trials may have to be done on board IN or DRDO ship, which should be facilitated in order to develop quality products. We could facilitate this, as private industry is not expected to have such platforms to undertake trials.
Q11. Lack of sustained policy and clear way ahead on part of the services with regard to indigenisation is often cited by industry as an area of concern. In addition, the industry is not always aware of what exactly is the requirement of services. In which way can this aspect be addressed?
To address the issue of Industry not knowing the requirements of the Navy, the 15 years Indian Navy Indigenisation Plan (INIP) for 2015-30 was published and made available to all, clearly indicating the systems, equipment and technology required. This is expected to synergise the IN relationship with Industry and encourage all sectors to come forward and participate in indigenous development of weapons, sensors and other high-end equipment.
Another initiative in high technology area is the buy and build model or complete technology partnership model wherein a leading Indian industry collaborates with the manufacturer of a proven technology or equipment for outright purchase of few systems from the foreign OEM followed by indigenised manufacture of balance systems fully or partially by the Indian partner with guarantee of the foreign OEM. This model was expected to strengthen the capability of Indian industry and mature their experience and confidence.
Q12. What organizational initiatives has IN taken to ensure that the best value is obtained from the prevailing industrial milieu in the country, especially with the major thrust from the Govt of India towards `Atmanirbharta.’
Defence Acquisition Procedure – 2020 envisages creation of ‘Innovation and Indigenisation Organisation’ (IIO) within SHQs. Indian Navy was the first amongst the three Services to engage both defence public and private sector with encouraging results. The Navy has a well established and dynamic Directorate of Indigenisation (DoI), Directorate of Armament Production and Indigenisation (DAPI) and Directorate of Aircraft Projects & Plans (DAPP). These have been entrusted with charter of Indigenisation within their respective fields.
The existing structure has made tangible gains in import substitution of the ‘Float’ and ‘Move’ segments however; we continue to import almost 55% of ‘Fight’ component. A new innovation organization has now been created to focus specifically into the ‘Fight’ component. To accelerate the induction of disruptive combat technology and identify niche fields/ technologies to design, develop and enhance fighting capabilities of Navy, a three tier organizational structure has been constituted. They are, Naval Technology Acceleration Council (NTAC) at the Apex level, Naval Innovation and Indigenisation Organization (NIIO) at the Working level, and the Technology Development and Acceleration Cell (TDAC) – as enabler and coordinator.
NTAC is chaired by VCNS to ensure highest level of focus and push. It consists of ex-officio members as well as nominated members of proven technical expertise and standing, both from within the Navy and civilian/scientists/industry. Reps from Army, Air Force and HQIDS are invited to participate in the meetings. NTAC will address the overlap between indigenization and innovation components, to avoid duplication of efforts. It will deliberate mainly on technology induction of ‘Fight’ component. This will lead to the ultimate goal of ‘Atma Nirbharta’.