NEW DELHI: Indian Navy Chief Karambir Singh on Thursday said the force was prepared to face dual challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and Chinese attempts to alter the Line of Actual Control (LAC), adding that the situation along the border with China has led to heightened complexities in the country’s security situation.

Amid the current standoff with China in eastern Ladakh, the Navy had on occasions deployed its P-8I long range reconnaissance aircraft, Singh told reporters addressing a press conference on the eve of Navy Day on 4 December.

“The P-8I is a potent platform that has certain equipment that can be used on the border. Based on the requirements of the Army and the IAF we have deployed the P-8I on several occasions. We have also deployed the Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) from one of the northern bases," he said.

Responding to questions on the possibility of India acquiring a third aircraft carrier, Singh said a vessel was “an absolute necessity" given India’s ambitions to become a $ 5 trillion economy. The Navy had not approached the government on this as it is awaiting information on the matter but would do so soon, he said.

The Indian Navy has one air craft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya, in operation, and a second, being built in India, will undergo advanced trials at the sea next year. Successive Navy chiefs have spoken of the need for a third carrier but a fund crunch has hobbled the process.

“As the Navy, we are absolutely clear of the utility of the carrier because air operations are integral to naval operations. Air power at sea is absolutely required here and now. The Navy is all about reach and sustenance," he said. “If you are a nation that is aspirational and you want to become a $5 trillion economy shortly…. and you want to do well, you will have to go outwards and seek the world. You have to move outward," Singh said.

The Navy chief also touched upon the resource crunch facing his service but added that the force was making up for it with increased indigenization, focusing on precision delivery of ordinance, and expanding networking with navies of other countries. India, Japan, Australia and the US last month conducted their first joint exercise together. And within days of that, the Indian Navy had teamed up with the navies of Singapore and Thailand for exercises. This year, the Navy had signed logistics support pacts with Japan and Australia. Two more such pacts with Russia and the UK were in the works.

On tensions with China, Singh said the navy was prepared with a standard operating procedure (SOP) to tackle the situation in case of Chinese ships making any attempts to enter Indian waters. When asked if there was any increased Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean region coinciding with the tensions along the northern border, the Navy chief said, “As of now, three Chinese warships are in the Indian Ocean region. The Chinese have been maintaining three ships since 2008 for anti-piracy patrols," he said. There was “no infringement" of Indian maritime boundaries, he said.

On surveillance activities by Chinese ships and research vessels, Singh said the two Predator drones taken on lease were aiding the Indian Navy to fill the capability gap. He added that the drones could be deployed to assist in operations undertaken by the Indian Army and the Air Force, if they so wished.

Earlier this year, the Indian Navy had inducted two Predator drones on lease for a short period, which the Navy chief described as platforms with endurance of over 33 hours. The American company, General Atomics, was in charge of maintenance but the control of operations and data collected by the drones would be with the Indian Navy, he said. The two India had taken on lease were pre-production models, with the 30 drones planned for procurement for the three services being much more capable, he said.

Singh also said the Navy was going ahead with plans for a 175-ship force, with 43 ships and submarines currently under construction, of which 41 were being built in Indian shipyards.

On maritime diplomacy, he said the Indian Navy had undertaken 13 bilateral exercises this year, delivered humanitarian assistance to many countries in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood and brought back some 4,000 Indian stranded in Iran, Maldives and Sri Lanka in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic. Since 2008, Indian navy ships were engaged in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and since last year they were present in the Straits of Hormuz escorting Indian merchant vessels, he said. India wanted to be known as the “preferred security partner" in the region, he added.