December 4, 2000



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Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

'India's national interest had been made coterminus with maritime security'

Economic progress and security stability are two sides of the same coin. India's economic prosperity is linked directly to the maritime dimension of the country's international trade and energy security." Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sushil Kumar, who is also chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shared this formulation in an exclusive conversation with this writer on the eve of Navy Day on December 4.

No one has forgotten how the Indian Navy's Eastern and Western Fleets, concentrated in the northern Arabian Sea during the Kargil war, were able to deter Pakistan from escalating its foolhardy military adventure.

Earlier this year, for the first time, in a quiet show of strategic reach, a naval flotilla of six capital ships, one submarine and a tanker entered and operated in the South China Sea, visiting ports from Singapore to South Korea including China, Vietnam, Japan and Indonesia for over a month.

The Chinese media made some mild noises about this in the South China Sea but INS Delhi and Kora were warmly received in Shanghai. In fact China released a First Day Cover commemorating the arrival of the two ships. Joint training exercises were held with some of these countries though only at the level of coast guards in anti-piracy operations with Japan and Vietnam. In August, INS Mysore, the Navy's showpiece destroyer, took part in the US Millennium Fleet Review in New York presided by Bill Clinton.

Defence analysts have argued that the Indian Navy has not been able to influence the outcome of the wars India has fought. Given the growing reach and clout of navies, and the receding prospects of land wars, India's continental fixation may yield to accepting the sea arm as, in Admiral Kumar's words, "a potent instrument of maritime security that will deter forces of destabilisation in the Indian ocean region."

In his blueprint for the Indian Navy, the admiral has sketched two other themes: building bridges of friendship across the seas and self reliance through indigenisation. Multiple bridges will be launched in February, during India's first-ever international fleet review at Mumbai in which ships from 23 countries including a nuclear submarine from France will be reviewed by President K R Narayanan from the Gateway Of India.

China has tentatively agreed to participate in the fleet review, but a formal acceptance is awaited. The PLA Navy will, however, be represented at a seminar on Challenges to Maritime Power in the 21st Century to be held a day before the fleet review.

Admiral Kumar, who succeeded Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat on December 31, 1998, says he is satisfied with the state of funding, revival of projects and indigenisation programme in warship design and construction.

However, the past is bitter. After featuring on the cover of Time in 1988, the Navy reached the dumps in 1995. For ten years, while ships were being phased out there was not a single order for a new ship. Enraged by this operational decline, the then CNS, Admiral V S Shekhawat, went public and blamed the government for neglecting the Navy.

This had the desired effect, though says Admiral Kumar, "it is only this government that has correctly appreciated the role and requirement of maritime power in an age of globalisation," adding "India's national interest had been made coterminus with maritime security."

Had this decline of funds and drying up of order books not been arrested, the strength of the 134-ship Indian Navy would have dropped to 90 ships by 2005. Another anomaly in the Indian Navy is the imbalance between big quality ships and a larger fleet of smaller craft. Both these discrepancies are being addressed. The Navy will now have more frigates, destroyers and submarines.

In the past, the Navy's share of the defence budget used to hover between 11 and 13 per cent. This has increased to 14.04 per cent this year (Rs 8,228.02 crore). The most striking feature of the budget is its balanced utilisation: the ratio between revenue and capital expenditure is 50:50 which means a whopping Rs 4,100 crore for modernisation. In the case of the army, with nearly 82 per cent of its budget accounting for revenue, only 18 per cent is available for modernisation.

Of the three services, the Indian Navy excels in indigenisation. More than 20 ships are on order or under construction at Indian shipyards. These include an Indian-designed stealth frigate, an air defence ship (an aircraft carrier bigger than INS Viraat) submarines, missile vessels, fast attack craft, destroyers, survey ships and a nuclear powered submarine codenamed ATV.

In addition, three Talwar class frigates are being built by Russia. The fate of the decommissioned aircraft carrier, Gorshkov, is in the balance. The Russians are prepared to gift the hull ($ 6 million scrap value) provided India will agree to its modernisation by Russia; the package including the purchase of MiG-29 K aircraft and other accessories. The Russians are expected to give the cost proposal next year which will be followed by a cost agreement determined by the price negotiation committee.

India requires a minimum of three aircraft carriers: One under refit, and one for each sea board. This is no divine thought but the legacy of a 1964 emergency Cabinet committee decree which, for the first time, estimated the Indian Navy's force levels.

The other good news is that two key infrastructure projects held in animated suspension have also been revived -- the Naval Academy at Ezhimala in Kerala and the new naval harbour -- Operation Seabird -- at Karwar. Phase One of this project is likely to be completed by 2005. This will ensure decongestion and dispersal of the Bombay-based Western Naval Fleet.

While the Chinese are likely to join the three-day fleet review, snags have been detected in the contract for the dredging of Mumbai port. Although the China Harbour Engineering Company which had quoted the lowest rates against a global tender is the obvious choice, the Indian Navy has raised serious objections on grounds of security as its offices and installations are close by.

If the Chinese are going to be in Mumbai next year, can the Pakis, their allies, be far behind? From Pakistan, the Indian Navy sees only a minimal threat, one of sea denial, posed by its maritime reconnaissance aircraft and missile firing submarines. The Kargil standoff was greatly influenced by the deployment of the Indian Navy. Unlike India, Pakistan has no sea-control capability.

The Chinese Navy is six times the size of the Indian Navy. It has nuclear-powered and ballistic-missile submarines, is importing destroyers from Russia and building new frigates. It has no aircraft carrier, though, but is trying reverse engineering on some decommissioned Russian models. For the first time since 1958 two Chinese ships transited through the Indian Ocean on their way to Tanzania and South Africa. Their move was monitored by the Indian Navy.

A happy Admiral Kumar, confident the funding difficulties of the past are over, is hopeful this new trend will stick. As the operational environment remains unpredictable, the Indian Navy, he says, will have to maintain a visible robust presence in areas of interest to ward off a wide spectrum of threats.

And what does the naval chief feel about the nuclear environment? "All my ships can absorb a nuclear strike -- other than a direct hit -- and transit through areas of nuclear fallout and be able to operate under nuclear warfighting conditions." But he reminds me, "2001 is about building bridges of friendship across the high seas."

Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

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