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December 27, 1997


The Rediff Interview/Vice-Admiral Arun Prakash

'You cannot have any kind of military planning unless you have political support'

Vice-Admiral Arun Prakash Check this man out. Young (as senior naval officers go, 53 is hardly any age!), brave (isn't the Vir Chakra proof enough?) and resourceful (too many plum postings to mention here!), Vice-Admiral Arun Prakash is a graduate thrice over -- from the Indian Air Force Test Pilots School, the Defence Services Staff College, and the US Naval War College.

Currently commandant of the National Defence Academy, Khadakvasla, he is probably the only naval officer who has won a gallantry award for fighter operations with an Indian Air Force squadron.

He joined the Indian navy on January 1, 1966 and specialised in aviation and aircraft carriers. During his career, he has commanded the naval air station INS Hansa, the missile boat,INS Chetak, frigates INS Beas and INS Vindhyagiri and the aircraft carrier INS Viraat. A Vishist Seva and Ati Vishisht Seva medals winner, he commanded the eastern fleet from April 1995 to November 1996, and served a brief term at naval headquarters.

With his varied exposure, Rediff On The NeT's Chindu Sreedharan felt, Vice-Admiral Prakash was an ideal man to talk about the Indian navy's policies and status.

The Indian navy, like the rest of the armed forces, is said to be experiencing a shortage of officers. How acute is this problem?

The shortage only pertains to the short service commission and the technical arm. The rest of the armed forces are well subscribed. For instance, the NDA has been oversubscribed for the past three years. Last year, we took in 50 per cent more cadets than our strength. The army is the biggest sufferer in this. I think they need around 4,000 more officers. The navy is a much smaller service and our shortage is smaller. But the percentage is same -- we too need around 8 to 9 per cent more officers.

How much will the advertisement campaign which the army headquarters took up recently help in the matter?

The campaign is radical. It is too soon to expect a response. But I have no doubt the youth will certainly be attracted by it. It is on the right lines and it will soon show an impact in the area which it is meant to.

You say the NDA has been oversubscribed. But is NDA attracting the best candidates as it used to? Many feel the cream of Indian youth opts for private sector companies, that over the past few years the NDA has been getting only second-rung candidates.

Indian Naval Ship That's a subjective view. It is true that those who want money will not come here. And I wouldn't advise them to do so. In the armed forces, there is just enough money to live decently.

But there are those who are looking for other things in life. Like adventure, challenge, comradeship. Those are the people whom we want. And the boys who are now coming to NDA are excellent material. They are highly motivated, achievers. In fact, I would say they are doing far more than we used to do in our time.

In an interview with Jane's Defence Weekly, Admiral V S Shekhawat, the then navy chief spoke despairingly about how 'declining force level threaten to erode the Indian navy's operational preparedness.' "At this rate," he said, "we can manage for five years." Do you agree with this?

Well, there has been a negative impact on the navy. The reasons are two. One is the funds for new acquisitions have not been adequate. The second is the turmoil in the erstwhile Soviet Union. A large proportion of our equipment was from the Soviet Union. Because of the unsettled conditions there the supply line was disrupted. There was a period when we were not getting adequate spare parts. But that is behind us. I think the worst is over.

Does the Indian navy have a game plan to meet the next 10 years? Or is the planning still ad hoc?

The navy has a game plan and strategy. But the government has not provided the funding for it. So you can say we are still living from year to year.

The government should have a long term defence policy. But the defence forces have not been made aware of any such plans. Naturally, we cannot look too far ahead. But that has always been the traditional way of planning in the forces.

So where do you see the Indian navy in the next 10 years?

We understand the importance of the sea in the next century. The navy will have a very important role to play by 2020. There will a lot of world trade and our underwater resources are going to achieve more importance. India would by then have a certain position in the region. To support this we would need a strong naval force. We would need a certain force level. We know we would need 'x' number of ships, aircraft carriers, guided missiles and so on. We keep planning continuously for it. But our job stops at planning.

You cannot have any kind of military planning unless you have political support. It is the government which has to fund it. We need money not when the war starts but well in advance. Only then can we be ready for it. Unfortunately, the government doesn't tend to look at it that way. So we have fallen behind on our plans.

What is the latest position on the aircraft carrier? Has the navy completely dropped its plans to buy the Admiral Gorshkov?

I think you are jumping to conclusions there. Gorshkov is still available for sale. The naval headquarters has had a look at it. The matter is still under consideration.

When we are looking for a ship of that nature we have to carefully examine whether it can be supported in India. We need to know whether the country of its origin would provide product service. We have had bad experience with some equipment of Soviet origin. If we buy a giant ship like this and they (Russians) say they will not support it, we would have bought a white elephant. All these have to be considered.

But reports say the plan has been dropped and the navy is planning to build an indigenous air defence ship?

The difference between buying and producing is this: if you buy, you are perpetuating your dependence on somebody else. Buy the Gorshkov and then all the maintenance and spare parts will have to come from Russia for the whole life of the ship. If you build one, you have not only got a ship but you are building up expertise to build more. And a ship which is built here is going to be supported by us. If we start building an aircraft carrier now, it will take us some 10 years. Which is all the more reason for the government to go in for indigenous ships as soon as possible.

True, if we go start building, we will have to make do without an aircraft carrier for the period. But that transient insecurity is a price worth paying. If eventually the government is going to allow us to build our own carrier, I think it would be quite appropriate to forego this foreign venture.

Coming to a very basic question, do we really need an aircraft carrier?

If we have any interest about our seas, which we have massively, then we do need one. We have to protect our trade, our offshore resources. The investment into Bombay High alone runs into some Rs 300 billion. Our trade is about 97 to 98 per cent seaborne. We need a strong navy to protect it. And if we have to have a strong navy, we should be able to operate beyond 300 to 400 miles from our coast. We need to put air power at sea. The only way to do that is to have an aircraft carrier. If you are thinking of having a reasonably capable navy, we cannot do without one.

In that case, how can we afford not to have an aircraft carrier till we finish building one?

Vice-Admiral Arun Prakash Well... This situation shouldn't have arisen. It would not have arisen if we had started building our own aircraft carrier in the mid-1980s as proposed. But the plan was somehow derailed by lack of funds and lack of vision in certain quarters.

Buying the Gorshkov or a similar ship from abroad might tide over the situation. But it is not the final answer. When the Gorshkov retires we would still be back at square one. The ideal answer would be to buy a carrier which would see us through the next 10 years, at the same time start building on our own. But I don't think we got money for both.

Since the main problem in buying the Gorshkov was that the Rs 1.8 billion they were asking for would have wiped out the navy's procurement budget for the next five years, can we not settle for a smaller carrier for the time being? Are we exploring the possibility with other countries?

I am sure that if we tried hard enough we could acquire an aircraft carrier from the UK, France or USA. But again there are problems. An aircraft carrier is just a ship. You also need aircraft to operate from it, which is an equally complicated issue. A British aircraft carrier, for instance, is quite small. They can only operate certain type of planes. If we buy an American carrier, then you need aircraft which are more expensive, more capable. These are additional complications.

The only permanent solution, as I said earlier, is to start building our own air defence ship and equip it with indigenous aircraft. Building an ADS is not a complicated affair. And it would be much cheaper than anything we can get from abroad. It wouldn't cost us much more than the INS Delhi. Although it would larger, it would not be as equipment intensive.

Has the government sanctioned the Rs 16.95 billion needed to build the ADS?

No, not as yet. The proposal is still pending with the government.

In the Jane's Weekly interview Admiral Shekhawat had said the main reason for our lagging in indigenous building of submarines and surface vessels was because of lack of orders at the dockyards. Why isn't there any demand for Indian vessels?

There are two reasons for this. One is that your technology should be high enough to make it attractive to a foreign buyer. Second, we should be able to support whatever we sell for its lifetime. I think we can supply reasonable technology to our clients. But as of now, the Indian dockyards are not capable of giving proper product support in, say, Malaysia or Indonesia. In India, we might be able to give acceptable support, but not abroad. Our industry has not reached that level. That's the reason why nobody is buying from us.

Were any foreign orders placed recently?

Not as far as I know.

What is the status of the navy's surface vessel programme? Why are the indigenously-built vessels so delayed? Is it, again, lack of funding?

INS Delhi The INS Delhi, as you know, has just been commissioned. Its sister ship is Mysore. Then there is Bombay and Bangalore. All are under production. The problem with all these is that their weapon systems is from Russia. And that's the reason for the delays. Delhi was late because there was trouble in getting the missile system and radar. But I think we have got over that. The systems for Mysore and Bombay are with us. I am sure the ships will be delivered on time.

Writing in Rediff On The NeT former navy chief Admiral J G Nadkarni holds that "Indian naval ships habitually carry at least 50 per cent sailors more than their western counterparts." What do you think?

It is possible that we are fat in certain areas. With the fund crunch, the thinking today is that we reduce this flab. The most expensive item in the forces is manpower. He is very cost intensive. The expenditure on him is more widespread and recurrent. We have to pay him and look after him from the day he joins the forces till he dies.

The navy has about 50,000 people in uniform. It has an equal number of civilians. I think the civilian strength can be trimmed down by around 20 per cent in the short term and 25 in the long term. But we have not been able to do it because of the national policies. We cannot suddenly cut down and create redundancy. I think we can reduce the uniformed men by around 10 per cent, if we had more automation and better communication facilities.

In fiscal 96-97, the navy got about $ 600 million which was just about enough to pay a minor part of your modernisation programmes and the acquisition of spare parts. Do you see any way out of the crisis?

Vice-Admiral Arun Prakash We will have to manage within the funding we get, which is less than ideal. You may have plans but if the money is not there you will have to prune down on it. We will have to try and induct as much indigenous equipment as possible. Instead of state of the art equipment, we will have to settle for something which is less advanced. There is no way the navy can raise money. If the government is not convinced at our plea for money then we will have to manage with what we get.

Are you satisfied with the effort, innovation and pace of our indigenous shipbuilding? It's quite ambitious -- with frigates, submarines, even an aircraft carrier...

No, I am not. At one time, we had plans to be a 200 ship navy. But the way things are going now we are decommissioning more ships than we are commissioning. So obviously, the planners will have to sit and review the policies. As I said, we will have to cut our coat according to the cloth available. If the money is small, that means we will have to have smaller needs. And, of course, that would possibly mean a less capable navy.

Vice-Admiral Prakash, INS Delhi photographs: Jewella C Miranda

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