‘We back indigenisation, but Tejas didn’t fit the bill’ – Navy Chief
The Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Sunil Lanba, in a wide-ranging interview with The Hindu, clarifies that the Navy has only taken a purely technical decision in turning down the naval version of the light combat aircraft developed by the DRDO despite its strong commitment to indigenisation. He highlights the need to step up training facilities to meet personnel shortage and the Navy’s strong ‘Act East’ focus.
All along, the Navy had placed thrust on indigenisation of assets, but is now facing flak for turning down the home-grown fighter LCA Navy, which is being read as a retreat from the earlier commitment.
We are the pioneers of indigenisation, which we started in the 1960s and have worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the DRDO, whose naval labs also have naval personnel. As for the LCA (light combat aircraft Tejas) programme, the Navy was the first service to support the ADA (the Aeronautical Development Agency) in its development and the Air Force came on board at a later date. What the Navy wants is a deck-based fighter, but the LCA Navy Mk1 doesn’t meet that requirement. Its power-to-weight ratio, the thrust the engine generates [are insufficient] and it’s underpowered for the airframe. Unfortunately, even the Mk2 variant doesn’t qualify. That’s why we took this case up to the Defence Ministry.
A good 25% of the financial support for the project comes from the Navy. As and when the ADA produces a fighter that can operate from the deck of an aircraft carrier, we will be more than willing to acquire it and fly it. The LCA Navy was supposed to be flying off from [the aircraft carrier] Vikramaditya. The second carrier, Vikrant, should be sailing in 2019. So we want a deck-based fighter today. The timelines that the ADA promised to generate one was over a decade ago. We are looking at a period of at least a decade for the ADA to produce a deck-based fighter. In the meantime, the Ministry has allowed us to go ahead and look for a fighter that meets our requirements following which we issued an RFI.
Timelines have slipped for the under-construction, maiden indigenous carrier Vikrant thanks in part also to delay in delivery of aviation equipment from Russia. Also, what is the latest on the third carrier?
There have been some delays in the delivery of equipment for the aviation complex from Russia. We are hopeful that Vikrant will start going to trials in 2019.
As for the IAC-II [second indigenous aircraft carrier], we are taking up the case with the Ministry for which we will get an approval sooner than later. We are looking at a CATOBAR aircraft carrier above 65,000 tonnes and with EMALS and an advanced air strip.
What will be the fate of the decommissioned carrier INS Viraat?
The Navy will like the Viraat to be converted into a museum, but it is not the Navy’s job to do that. We made an offer through the Ministry to all the coastal States, but only Andhra Pradesh responded. The offer was that we will give the ship to you and you will convert it into a maritime museum at your cost, without any funding from the Ministry. The proposal that we got from Andhra Pradesh was for a 50:50 partnership. The Ministry is very clear that they are not going to do that. So, at the moment, we have no proposal to convert her into a museum. If we don’t have a concrete proposal, we propose that the ship be scrapped. Off the cuff, what I thought was we could take her out to sea and make her a maritime museum by sinking her in 30-40 metres of water not far from the coast, thereby turning her into a diving site. Interested people will dive to have a sight of the ship.
We don’t want to go through the Vikrant experience in which we gifted the ship to the State of Maharashtra for ₹1 and got stuck with her for 17 years, occupying valuable berthing space. And, then there was this hullabaloo when she was to be scrapped. It’s a costly affair to convert a carrier into a floating maritime museum and given the cost of construction of a jetty, it costs you roughly about ₹1,000 crore.
How do you plan to address shortage of personnel and also attain gender parity by inducting women officers in combat roles?
There is a steady growth in the number of sailors and officers being integrated, and overall shortages as per percentage have come down. But we are constrained by our capacity to train. We have to get the right kind of people and have to compete with other avenues that are open to youngsters to get the kind of people we need. The shortages are gradually being bridged, with the Indian Naval Academy working in full capacity at 1,300 cadets. We induct about 800 officers each year, but 500 retire annually. So the net gain is 300. With increase in training capacity and the government sanctioning more numbers, we will be able to liquidate the shortage in five to six years.
The other issue is of inducting women to serve on board ships. We have about 570 women officers in branches such as education, logistics, ATC, as observers on maritime reconnaissance aircraft and the law, and not counting the doctors. We have identified ships on which [billeting] facilities are available for women officers and are working on the modalities of their induction on board ships. We need some minimum numbers [of women] on each ship. We are also going to do a survey and ask them if they want to serve on board ships. And then we will take a call and take this proposal forward.
A string of accidents had dented the image of the Navy a couple of years ago. It seemed to be a thing of the past when the frigate INS Betwa collapsed on its side in the drydock late last year.
To be honest, I cannot give an assurance that there will be zero accidents. But SOPs have been put in place and a culture of safety is being enforced. The number of accidents has come down drastically lately. Some of those past incidents have been blown out of proportion by the media.INS Betwa’s was an accident that shouldn’t have happened. A Board of Inquiry is looking into it. Basically, there was a mistake in calculating the stability [on the blocks].
Of late, the Navy has been focussing strongly on the eastern side, strengthening the security apparatus along the island chains.
In Andaman and Nicobar, newer and more capable assets are in place in the form of Kora-class ships [corvettes] and there is a long-term infrastructure plan where airfields in the northern group of islands are being strengthened and lengthened for heavier aircraft to operate. A similar project is taking place in the south. Infrastructure plans of making OTR (operational turnaround) facilities in the southern group of islands have started to move. The Boeing P8I [long range maritime reconnaissance aircraft] is being deployed from Port Blair.
At the same time, our cooperation with our neighbours in the east has grown. We have resolved our maritime boundary issues with Bangladesh and there is much greater interaction with Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. It’s no just ‘Look East’, we are also ‘Acting East’ in accordance with the government’s policy.
We are assisting island nations in the IOR (Indian Ocean Region) and neighbours in the East in capability enhancement and are doing coordinated patrols with Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia.