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'China has stolen a march over us in naval capability'

February 03, 2016 08:30 IST

'We have been found seriously wanting in addressing our undersea warfare capability and China's emergence is a cause for concern.'

India, on December 8, observed Submarine Day which commemorates the commissioning of the first Indian submarine -- the Foxtrot Class INS Kalvari -- in 1967 in the erstwhile Soviet Union. The commissioning marked the Indian Navy's debut in an exclusive club of countries operating submarines.

Since then, till the early 1990s, India built a strong submarine fleet comprising 20 conventional diesel-electric submarines.

Today, the fleet readiness rate is abysmal -- at under 40 percent.

The fleet is down to just 13 old diesel-electric submarines (nine Russian Kilo and four German HDW-origin vessels) and one nuclear-powered submarine (the INS Chakra) on lease from Russia for 'training' purposes.

India's first indigenously-built nuclear-powered SSBN, the INS Arihant, is currently undergoing sea trials.

Compare this to our neighbours, China currently has 5 nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN), 4 nuclear-armed submarines (SSBN) and 53 conventional submarines (SSK). Pakistan is acquiring 8 submarines from China.

Vipin Vijayan/Rediff.com asked Commodore Anil Jai Singh (retd) what has gone wrong with India's submarine dreams. The commodore served the Indian Navy for nearly three decades in a cross-section of roles and appointments afloat and ashore, which included commanding four submarines and a fleet ship.

He also served in the Directorates of Naval Plans and Submarine Acquisition at Naval Headquarters and was involved in drafting the navy's 30-year submarine construction plan and 15-year ship building plan.

His last appointment was as Deputy Assistant Chief (Maritime) in the Perspective Planning and Force Development branch of the Integrated Defence Staff at the defence ministry.

How important is a submarine fleet for a nation like India?

Submarines provide the offensive cutting-edge to a navy. The large number of submarines being procured by small, medium and large navies to meet a variety of roles from the strategic to the tactical underlines their importance in any nation's maritime security construct.

India is an aspiring big power with a distinct maritime orientation. Our dependence on the sea and our area of responsibility as the pre-eminent power in the Indian Ocean and increasingly the Asia-Pacific necessitates a robust naval defence capability.

As a blue water navy, submarines are integral to our roles and missions.

In recent times, India has fallen way behind China in terms of submarine fleet strength. Pakistan seems to be catching up. Why has this imbalance emerged?

We have been found seriously wanting in addressing our undersea warfare capability and China's emergence is a cause for concern.

A phased submarine construction programme is contained in a Cabinet Committee on Security-approved plan, but the tardy decision making in the MoD (ministry of defence) has made a mockery of that plan. Today we are seriously short of desired numbers and capability.

The recent news that Pakistan will get 8 submarines from China is disconcerting and we need to address this widening capability deficit not only in our submarine force but across the entire spectrum of undersea warfare.

The Scorpene submarine project has been dragging on for many years with delays and cost over-runs. What is the status of the project? Would they still be relevant when the last of these submarines joins the fleet towards the end of the next decade?

The delays in the Scorpene programme has left us with a deficient submarine capability.

However, with the first of the Scorpenes (the INS Kalvari) now in water and undergoing trials and also with Mazgaon Dock Shipbuilders Limited promising the remaining five within four years of its commissioning, hopefully we have turned the corner.

The last of these six should join the navy latest by 2022 and would be a welcome addition to the fleet.

In an interaction recently with Rediff.com, Admiral R K Dhowan said the force preferred to operate more diesel electric submarines than nuclear. This, he said, was keeping in view the country's requirements. As someone who spent many years commanding submarines, do you favour this approach?

I think we are going in for a very balanced approach in line with the developing regional security dynamic in the Indo-Pacific region.

The latest that I know is that we will build five SSBNs for strategic deterrence, six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) and 18 conventional submarines in three tranches of six each.

However, in a rapidly evolving scenario, there would be need for some flexibility in numbers and types.

The Navy is set to buy 24 Seahawk S-70B shipboard multi-role helicopters and P-8i reconnaissance-anti submarine warfare aircraft... all of which are non-Russian platforms. How will this gradual shift affect Indo-Russian ties?

That is something we definitely need to factor in -- I am sure adequate attention must have been paid to the possible implications of this pro-US shift.

However, we would have to calibrate this shift very carefully lest we end up between the devil and the deep sea.

In 1981, David Howarth (a honorary Fellow of Politics & International Relations at the University of Edinburgh) wrote in his book Famous Sea Battles that 'the only practical value of aircraft carriers in the future will be in simply existing, not in fighting.' To use them in anger would be to trigger a nuclear war, he argued.

The Indian Navy is currently executing a three aircraft carrier policy. What role does an aircraft carrier fleet play in a real world scenario?

Aircraft carriers are integral to sea control, power projection and reach as they provide a capability far away from one's shores.

Yes, they can be provocative, but in the current scenario this capability acts as more of a deterrent against adventurism by a foe, much like what David Howarth has said.

For the India of the future -- a global power with UNSC (a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council) aspirations, and a likely competitive and maybe even confrontational regional scenario -- a Carrier Battle Group-centric navy is the way forward.

China has been steadily carving out a string of pearls in the vicinity of the Indian Ocean. What has been the MoD's approach towards this? Is it in sync with what you think ought to be done?

To a certain extent yes.

China has stolen a march over us in naval capability and her huge economic muscle gives her the leverage to implement initiatives like the One Belt One Road and control the economic purse strings with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and such institutions.

We are nowhere as powerful economically or otherwise to compete with these initiatives.

However, our Act East policy can be a good counter to China's March West approach.

We need to engage countries in the Asia-Pacific as best as we can with the resources at our disposal while simultaneously not conceding our strategic space in the Indian Ocean.

Perhaps, the development of a trilateral and quadrilateral with the United States, Japan and Australia may send the right message.

This is not something for the defence ministry in isolation, but more of a reflection of our comprehensive national capability.

The scope of maritime terror has evolved since the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. Last year's attack on the PNS Zulfiqar in Karachi highlighted that threat. What safeguards does the Indian Navy have to insulate itself from such terror attacks?

The nature of the maritime threat is constantly evolving.

Hybrid warfare is gaining currency even as a State-backed instrument and we have to constantly guard against this.

The development of our coastal security framework is a work in progress and will have to respond with agility and flexibility to the increasing audaciousness of the perpetrators.

There are areas still which may be a weak link, but every effort is being made to address these and the magnitude of the threat is not being underestimated.

The current administration has been pushing for indigenisation, which is great if executed in the right manner. How do you think should a roadmap to realise the full potential of indigenisation be like?

This is one area which needs to be addressed urgently and systematically.

Unfortunately, while much is spoken and written about this even in the ministry of defence, the results on the ground have been far from encouraging.

Import dependence remains our most critical strategic vulnerability and being one of the largest importers of military hardware in the world does us no credit as a nation.

Recent initiatives like Make in India may help, but only if practical and workable solutions can be found.

The recent Dhirendra Singh Committee report has offered some recommendations, but we still have a long way to go.

The main reason for this dismal state of affairs is the lack of accountability of those in authority (the MoD bureaucracy) and the lack of decision making powers with the Service headquarters.

This is a subject on which books can be written.

According to government data, the Navy is short of nearly 1,500 officers. Why is this the case?

A shortage of officers is not a new phenomenon. While a very large number of students appear for the exam, very few get selected and lack of adequate numbers notwithstanding, there is no compromise in the calibre and quality of the intake. Hence the shortage.

There are many ways of addressing this, but the immediate thought that comes to mind is to make the profession more attractive to the youth.

Do you forsee women officers taking up submarine duties in the future?

Who knows -- perhaps one day, but definitely not in India in the near future.

It is not because they are not capable, but because of cultural and social aspects and the confines of a submarine being particularly unsuited for the purpose.

You have spent a considerable amount of time in submarines. Could you reflect on your experiences?

Life on board is not easy -- cramped conditions, shortage of water, exacting work, a very high degree of selfless commitment and thorough professionalism are some of the hallmarks of life on board.

This is more than amply compensated by the great bond and camaraderie amongst the crew, great interpersnal relations and mutual trust -- one man's mistake can take a whole boat down.

It's difficult to single out any specific incident -- on board, we always treated it as just another day's work.

Vipin Vijayan / Rediff.com