Vice-Admiral Girish Luthra, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Naval Command, on the various challenges the Navy faces amid the evolving geo-strategic conditions in the region

There are suggestions that the Navy should move out of Mumbai. What are your thoughts on this?

Navy’s presence pre-dates this city becoming commercial. The naval dockyard is more than 250 years old. Navy today facilitates development, including commercial development. There has been a lot of investment in this area. On both east and west coast of India, the selection of bases has been done after a lot of consideration. Mumbai has a strategic location if we consider the level of threat perception. We have started decongesting the Mumbai base by developing a base at Karwar, near Goa. While phase I is completed and phase II, called Project Sea Bird, under way with a sanction of Rs 19,600 crore, we will be able to berth about 23 ships and 32 yard-craft there. A full-fledged naval dockyard will come up there. This base will ease the load off Mumbai.

How do you view the statement by China that the Indian Ocean is not India’s?

We are increasingly using the term Indo-Pacific because of our interests. Indo-Pacific is a coherent strategic space because despite the dissimilarities in the region, the biggest similarity is its interconnectedness. Seventy to 80 per cent of global trade share was in Asia – 16 trillion dollars. As it is an area of competition and rivalry it is getting manifested in sea areas.

Within Indo-Pacific, there are a number of challenges – traditional challenges in the Western Pacific zone and non-traditional challenges, including drug and illegal trafficking. Many countries are increasingly showing their presence in this area. Many initiatives are being driven in this region, including China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is partnered by 65 countries. CPEC, with an investment of over 40 billion dollars, and increasingly ships and submarines of other navies are present here. This creates challenges for us also for surveillance but we are monitoring both primary and secondary areas of interests.

There are concerns relating to the fleet itself. How critical is that at this time?

Our submarines are old, ageing and so maintaining, operating them is a challenge. Unfortunately, our own programmes for submarine construction got delayed. In the ongoing Project Scorpene, the first submarine Kalvari got commissioned few months back. The second submarine Khanderi is undergoing trials now and we should be commissioning that shortly. The first submarine was to be delivered in 2012 but it happened five-six years later. The next project for submarines, which is called Project 75 India, has also got to really take shape. In between, we are undertaking medium refit and life certification of the existing submarines. We are certifying them to extend their lives and to continue to operate them.

We have been projecting two very critical requirements, from the point of view of the field. One is the requirement of helicopters and second is the requirement of submarines. We have been commissioning a number of ships for the last many years. In parallel to the ship construction and commissioning of the ships, we have not been able to keep pace with the induction of helicopters. A helicopter on a ship significantly enhances the capability of a warship because it can keep a larger area under surveillance, carry out various attacks and look for submarines. So multirole helicopters are a very critical requirement of the navy. We require around 123 MRH and around 112 naval utility helicopters. Our ship-build periods are much longer than what they ought to be by global averages. So typically, a frigate should be built in two to two and a half years. And we have been averaging 8-9 years.

We saw DRDO tie up with the IITs for research. How can we have a better R&D ecosystem?

In defence it is not important to only focus on manufacturing, it is also important to focus on R&D and to make R&D integral to the industry is even more challenging, because R&D requires that kind of investment and with uncertainty in the demand side, investments in R&D tend to be low in the beginning when you are starting out. So, we need to have an enabling environment. Under the procurement policy there is a Make II Procedure to involve people in R&D to develop prototypes etc. When we look at defence manufacturing, we must also concurrently look at defence R&D because over the years we have had transfer of technology, various models of transfer of technology, we have had various models of joint development. Many models are there, from that now we need to cull out what has worked and what has not worked and see that we give a major boost to defence R&D.

When Vikramaditya goes for a refit it goes out for six months. It’s the only aircraft carrier presently, does this affect your operations?

In the absence of the aircraft carrier we have to work our plans differently. The navy has always said that we need three aircraft carriers – one on either coast and one to allow for refits. Apart from IAC 1, which is under construction, the navy has a proposal for IAC 2, another aircraft carrier to be built in India. But that proposal at present is under discussion.

Given the economic influence, are we pursuing to be a blue water navy?

We are a blue water navy and we have been that for some time but the area that we are operating in and the area that is under our primary and secondary area of interest are at present regional. As I mentioned we are looking at the Indo-Pacific. We are constantly focused on the entire Arabian sea, the Gulf region, we also deploy regularly for anti-piracy missions, we operate on the Mediterranean going from the east coast of Africa going south right up to the equator, this area we are looking at regularly. We also once in a while visit the west coast of Africa and, similarly, on the other side we are visiting western Pacific. Secondary interest areas are where we do not have at present the capacity to keep monitoring or surveillance all the time, we go there once in a while, so that becomes a secondary area of interest.

A report says that China has 57 submarines while India has only 13. Similarly, they have 11 nuclear submarines while we have just one. Is there a deficit?

The numbers are correct, the numbers projected are correct and there has been substantial focus on China on the maritime side. China has focused a lot on naval growth and substantial investments have gone in. We know China’s economy is six times our economy and in terms of ships, aircraft, submarines, their investments are significant and production rate has also been passed. But Indian Navy’s capability in blue water is not in doubt, we are a blue water navy but in terms of size another navy and yet another navy may be bigger in size.

What do you think can be done to encourage more women officers in all the armed forces in operational postings?

Currently we have a little over 600 women in the Indian Navy among over 7,000 officers. Women started entering the navy some time back through the short service commissions. The leadership in three services, and now that we have a woman defence minister, everybody is very keen to see it happen sooner rather than later. But everybody also wants to get the environment right, get everything right so that the experiment is successful. All of us are very keen that this should happen. We need to sensitise and prepare our own community (personnel) to be ready for this. Because, this requires a mindset change. So we need to work on this. It is part of larger social change in India.

What do you think of the statements made by Union minister Nitin Gadkari about the navy. Did you protest at that time and has it been addressed?

The issues related to no objection certificates – within the rules, within the guidelines given to us from the central government, we try to do things as much as we can. Therefore, we have been giving large number of NOCs, particularly in Mumbai, for several cases, for some jetties like at Radio Club, etc. In some cases, like floating hotels or floatels, we have said that we give an advisory as to how the entire thing is to be seen. And I think as a professional agency, when a request for NOC comes to us we even advise them because everybody may not be aware of things involved.

How significant is Malacca vis-a-vis China?

Malacca is a very significant entry point; in the naval parlance, these entry points are called choke points where ships go through. Malacca has huge traffic that passes through in that area. And as you know from China’s perspective, they import 60 per cent of their oil flows through this area and goes through Malacca. There are other straits as well but primarily the shipping traffic flows through the Malacca area. So, trade routes are dependent on such choke points and through Malacca a lot of critical cargo including oil and gas flow to different countries. So it is important for all countries and it is important for us as well. Everybody believes in the freedom of navigation, but the trouble is that the interpretation of the international maritime law or what is implied by freedom of navigation, there is a different interpretation by different countries. And I think there is a need for bringing about a consensus or developing a common understanding on the subject of freedom of navigation.

We have seven maritime neighbours and out of these, we have resolved our maritime boundary by following the international maritime law with everyone except one.

When you deal with a country like China, that has dominance in south china sea and also now in the Indian subcontinent if you compare that to India our relationship with Maldives have severed, treaty with Seychelles happened amidst a lot of uncertainty, What does this say about our foreign policies?

We are working very closely with Ministry of external affairs on our foreign cooperation initiatives and we integrate everything with the foreign policy of the country and we have a number of initiatives navy to navy for defense cooperation and naval cooperation with different countries. It is both from capacity building and capability development of all the navies, the government of India has gifted ships to some other navy and we maintain them, sometimes we support them. We carry out refits of those ships in India. The ships are brought to India. Training provided by Indian navy is very popular.

Similarly, other countries also provide some assistance and coordination with them. The countries that you referred to, we have Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, navy to navy we have very strong, very good relation and I am sure whenever something comes up on political level, that is examined in Delhi in detail but from the naval point of view, we have some coordination with all these agencies.