Indian Navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba speaks to THE WEEK

by R Prasannan

As chairman of the chiefs of staff committee, Admiral Sunil Lanba's purview is not confined to the waters. Recently, he was spotted on the Arunachal Pradesh mountains, getting briefed by the Army on the deterrence posture across the northern frontier.

And having recently operationalised India's first nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarine, Lanba is now looking forward to the Indian Navy getting a follow-on boat to this submarine and also one more home-built aircraft carrier. In an interview on the eve of the Navy Day, Lanba spoke to THE WEEK on these and other issues concerning India's maritime posturing. Excerpts:

The Indian Navy recently operationalised the nuclear submarine INS Arihant. What does it signify?

I don't have anything more to say than what the prime minister said. We have successfully completed the first deterrence patrol of INS Arihant this year. With this, we have operationalised the third and the most survivable segment of the country’s nuclear triad. And that is a quantum jump in our deterrence capability.

China is beginning the sea trials of its first home-built aircraft carrier. We have had a lead of several decades over them in carrier operations and carrier construction. Are we beginning to lose the edge that we had? Can you update us on the status of India's Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC)?

Let me assure you that as long as our capability induction plans fructify, we will continue to have an advantage in carrier capability. Yes, it is true that China is making rapid strides in their aircraft carrier projects. As per the current reports, the PLA Navy aspires to have four carriers by 2024. In the same time frame, we would have two operational aircraft carriers. With synergy of efforts between the Indian Navy, shipyard and industry, we have embarked on the ambitious project of building and delivering an indigenous aircraft carrier, IAC-1.

When is IAC-1 going to be ready?

It is being built at Kochi and has entered the trials phase. The hull has been completed and the ship is in advanced stage of outfitting. Ship construction has entered into the trial phase with commencement of machinery trials from mid-2018. During the machinery trials, the equipment, machinery and ship systems would be evaluated in harbour, followed by sea trials. The sea trials are expected to commence by early 2020.

And the next aircraft carrier?

Capability assessment for building IAC-2, a CATOBAR carrier of 65,000 tonnes, has been undertaken. India can design and build it. The matter is under deliberation at the ministry for accord of acceptance of necessity (AoN).
Our maritime footprint has grown significantly. It spans the expanse of the Indo-Pacific at present. As we further realise our maritime economic potential through initiatives such as Project Sagarmala and the Blue Economy, this trend is likely to intensify
Can you share your vision about our carrier force in the next 10 to 20 years?

The Maritime Capability Perspective Plan envisages a force level of three carriers to ensure that at least two carrier battle groups are available for operations at any given time. With INS Vikramaditya already inducted, the planned induction of IAC-1 in 2021 would ensure that we have the minimum force levels required. Further, the case for IAC-2 is being progressed to meet future requirements.

What is your vision about the Indian Navy's strategic role in the Indo-Pacific?

The Indian Navy’s role in the Indo-Pacific is complementary to the national idea of this region. Our prime minister has stated that India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific is that “it stands for a free, open, inclusive region, which embraces all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity”. Accordingly, the Navy works in close coordination with friendly naval forces in the region to realise this goal.

But do we have the capability to actually operate in the extended oceanic perimeter from Malacca to Aden and the African coast? Aren't we biting off more than what we can chew?

Look, our maritime footprint has grown significantly in recent times. It spans the expanse of the Indo-Pacific at present. As we further realise our maritime economic potential through initiatives such as Project Sagarmala and the Blue Economy, this trend is likely to intensify.

Also, we have adopted the mantra of SAGAR or Security And Growth for All in the Region. Accordingly, we work in close coordination with our maritime neighbours to provide the assistance in terms of deployments as well as capability- and capacity-enhancement initiatives. So, it is necessary for us to maintain presence in the our areas of maritime interest. Since last year, we have increased the deployment of mission-ready ships and aircraft in critical sea lanes of communication and choke points in the region.

We also undertake regular interactions with friendly navies and maritime security forces to develop a high level of trust, understanding and interoperability. This serves to enable efficient and effective coordination of responses to any shared challenge to security. I assure you the Indian Navy has the capability to undertake the missions it has embraced. And, as our capability development plans fructify, our ability to sustain and expand these deployments will also increase.

India has recently signed logistics arrangements with several countries. How are these arrangements going to help in the Indian Navy’s operations? How far has it impacted the Indian Navy's mission-based deployment?

To begin with, our mission-based deployment philosophy involves deploying ships and aircraft in our areas of maritime interest on a near-continuous basis. In order to sustain operations at enhanced ranges, there is a requirement to provide operational logistics support to ships and aircraft in their respective areas of operations. Towards this, fuelling of Indian Navy ships by US Navy tankers is being regularly undertaken in the Gulf of Aden. This has reduced the number of operational turnarounds at ports, thereby facilitating more operational time at sea while also reducing the overall cost of deployment. In the near future, we would also undertake such logistic exchanges—fuel exchange, stores, equipment repairs etc—with other navies through inter-governmental agreements.

Submarines was another area we had a march over most Asian navies. However, with our submarine fleet getting depleted and replacements being delayed, how long do you think we can maintain the lead? Can you give a timeline for the Project-75 India submarine program?

We have a strength of 15 submarines, which includes the nuclear-powered submarine INS Chakra (SSN), the 1st Kalvari class Scorpene submarine, nine Sindhughosh class submarines and four Shishumar class vessels. The second and third Kalvari class submarines are undergoing sea trials. They are likely to be commissioned by end-2019. Yes, there have been delays in procurement of new-generation P-75(I) submarines, but we have maintained the force levels through life extension of in-service platforms. Our current submarine strength provides formidable combat potential.

What is the status of the P-75(I) project?

It is being progressed under the strategic partnership model (SPM) as promulgated by the government in the Defence Procurement Procedure, 2016. The expression of interest documents for shortlisting of strategic partners and foreign manufacturers are likely to be issued by end of this year, followed by the request for proposal (RFP) by mid-2019. We will continue to retain significant underwater capability subject to our acquisitions remaining on track.

Where have we reached on the procurement of deep submergence and rescue vessels?

The first DSRV system was delivered to the Indian Navy in mid-this year, and the second is scheduled for December. Both will attain initial operational status next year, after completion of their sea-acceptance checks. Full operational capability, post build-up of experience and expertise on this complex system, is being targeted for early-2021. It is not only a valuable Indian Navy capability but is also an important national and regional asset. It provides the Indian Navy with the ability to undertake submarine rescue up to a depth of 650m.

How has 'Make in India' helped the Indian Navy? Can you tell us about some of the specific Make-in-India programs that are fructifying for the Navy? And how are our own indigenous development programs, such as the LCA Navy, faring? We would like to have from you an overview of the Navy-specific development and manufacturing scene.

The Indian Navy has been at the forefront of the ‘Make in India’ campaign. The Navy’s indigenous drive over the last few years has resulted in achieving a substantial quantum of indigenisation. We have been constantly interacting with the DRDO, the public sector undertakings and private industry to promote and nurture the indigenisation drive. Over the past 10 years, a number of important systems and equipment, spares and sub-assemblies have been developed.

Any specific example?

A specific navy program has been the development of marine-grade steel to build ships and submarines. We now build all our ships with steel made in India.

The sustained impetus of indigenisation has resulted in a continuous increase in indigenous content in our ships from 42 per cent in the 90s to about 90 per cent now. The ship-building material, equipment and systems on board a warship are classified into three categories—'float' comprising material, design and systems required to keep the ship afloat; 'move', which includes systems required to propel the ship, and 'fight' component consisting of weapons and sensors. We have achieved self-reliance and indigenisation of 90, 60 and 50 per cent, respectively, in these three categories.

And Make in India?

We are progressing ‘make’ projects through DPP2016, as well as projects through DRDO’s Technology Development Fund and Defence Procurement Manual, 2009. We also have a road map for indigenisation called ‘Indian Naval Indigenisation Plan 2015-30’.

Based on the inputs from industry and industry bodies like CII and FICCI, we constantly refine our plans to enable enhanced industry participation. As a long-term plan, we have taken up a case for establishing a full-fledged indigenisation establishment called Centre for Indigenisation and Self Reliance (CISR) in Delhi. This centre will evolve as a professional hub for steering all indigenisation activities of the Navy.

We accord high priority to developing indigenous shipbuilding capability. Currently, 34 ships and submarines are under construction, of which 32 are being built in various Indian shipyards. Further, acceptance of necessity has been accorded for 53 ships and six submarines. Almost all of these will be constructed in India.

But you have said no to the LCA Navy variant of the Tejas fighter.

No. We have always supported the LCA program since its inception and provided financial support, specialised manpower and other important resources. However, there have been some delays in respect of carrier-compatibility tests of these aircraft. As the LCA cannot fructify in time to meet the requirements of IAC-1, alternate acquisition options are being pursued.

LCA Navy Mark 1 has been designated as a technological demonstrator and, during its developmental journey, it will achieve and prove niche technologies such as the arrestor hook system, lightweight strengthened undercarriage and carrier-compatibility testing. These technologies will be incorporated in the Mark 2 version, which is currently in design phase. The Mark 2 would thus form the stepping stone for a credible indigenous deck-based fighter in the coming years.