Vice Admiral Karambir Singh’s challenge will be two-fold. First, to keep up the operational tempo that the Navy has built, and to show the flag abroad despite limited shore support; and second, to convince the government to increase the Navy’s ORBAT with platforms with concrete time-bound plans.

ON May 31, after a full three-year term, the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sunil Lanba, an experienced navigator and son of a former Navy commander, will hand over an operational Navy with around 120 ships, including lone aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, 15 submarines, including two nuclear boats, and 200 aerial platforms to Vice Admiral Karambir Singh, son of a former Air Force officer. Known as the Navy’s ‘Grey Eagle’ (Senior most serving naval aviator), Karambir Singh has commanded three major ships and flown Alloutte and Ka-28 helicopters from decks of ships as a young officer hunting submarines, and directing missiles from the air. He has served as the Fleet Operations Officer of the Western Fleet. Karambir Singh is currently commanding the Eastern Naval Command headquartered at Visakhapatnam that has gained importance in India’s Act East policy as it faces China, which has an expanding PLA (Navy) commissioning over eight ships and submarines a year, and has a maritime truck with Pakistan with ambitions to enter and dominate the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and set up bases.

Visakhapatnam is India’s largest and most congested commercial port with inner and outer berths with a narrow channel leading to the inner naval harbour. When plans were made to set up a Naval Dockyard and submarine base at Vizag in the 1960s, Admirals Sergie Gorshkov and Daya Shankar had cautioned that it was not ideal for a naval base as the channel could be blocked, but funds precluded making a green field port at Bimilipatnam, where the Navy has now set up a small base for Marcos training. Vizag is where the Navy also builds SSBN nuclear submarines at the Submarine Building Centre (SBC) for the nuclear underwater deterrent in the Triad, and Navy’s home built INS Arihant and Russian leased Chakra are based there. The Navy’s nuclear tipped B-05/K-15 missiles for Arihant and its successor are stored ashore in the Naval Armament Depot. A new nuclear submarine base, Varsha, is coming up 100 km south at Rombilli, to relieve the load and congestion at Vizag, as the port handled over 65.30 million tons of cargo including coal and iron ore in 2017-18.

Karambir Singh was earlier the Director General of the Sea Bird project in New Delhi which steers the expansion of the sprawling naval base and a dockyard and airfield at Karwar for INS Vikramaditya and other Western Fleet ships. He was also the Vice Chief of Naval Staff and handled acquisitions. 

Hence, Karambir Singh is well poised to take over as the 24th Chief of Naval Staff at a time when the Navy’s stock in the world has risen with many commitments to international and national exercises and as the net security provider in the IOR and a member of the QUAD, which aims to deter China.

When Karambir Singh takes stock, he will appreciate for reasons beyond the Navy’s control that the Navy is slowly shrinking in numbers and the new ships urgently need newer multi-role helicopters as the Alouttes he flew years ago are still in service and have passed their time. A Kashin Rajput-class ship, INS Ranjit, was decommissioned on May 6 and four BrahMos missile firing sister Rajputs are aging over 30 years and unless replaced in time by newer large equivalent platforms, the Navy’s Order of Battle (ORBAT) with frontline ships will shrink. 

Karambir Singh’s challenge will be two-fold. First, to keep up the operational tempo that the Navy has built, and to show the flag abroad despite limited shore support with fewer ships; and second, more importantly, convince the government to increase the Navy’s ORBAT with platforms with concrete time-bound plans which despite Defence Acquisition Committee sanctions, have been delayed.

The Navy’s malaise has accentuated as five catamaran Survey craft with Kongsberg-1000 underwater drones ordered on Alcock and Ashdown Shipyard at Bhavnagar has closed down. Four Survey ships at Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) and 16 small inshore ASW craft have only been recently signed. The three modern training ships ordered on ABG at Surat went into bankruptcy. New ones have not been ordered as the Navy is fighting to recoup its advances. The five Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) ordered on Reliance Defence a decade ago, are languishing at Pipavav. Other large make-in-India building programmes in PSUs have slipped with cost overruns. The 40,000-ton aircraft carrier Vikrant at Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL) is delayed to 2021-22 and the third aircraft carrier design is on hold. The four 7,200-ton Type 15B destroyers to replace the Kashins and four Type 17A Shivaliks are building at Mazagon Docks and Shipyard Ltd (MDSL) and three Type-17A Shivaliks at GRSE are behind schedule, so no major ship, except the ASW Corvette Kavaratti, will commission this year at the GRSE and so will just one submarine, Khanderi, at the MSDL. Goa Shipyard Ltd (GSL) is building two Krivacks with kits supplied by Yantar in Kaliningrad and gas turbines from Ukraine.

The reasons for delays in public sector yards, be it funding as costs have escalated, or deficiencies in sub systems or lack of supervision need to be attended to by the Ministry of Defence on a war footing. The Navy should not be allowed to fall into the trap like the Indian Air Force fell into, with shortage of squadrons. The emergency 36 Rafale off-the-shelf order from France for over $8 billion has eaten into the meagre defence budget, which is just 1.4 per cent of the GDP.

India's strategic planners have to assess the maritime politico-military balance in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) and near Indo-Pacific which requires the India Navy to have the ability to police swaths of the seas with sea denial and sea control, and to maintain freedom of navigation (FON). A decade ago, the balance of maritime power in the East began to tilt in China’s favour and the Indian Navy scripted an ambitious Maritime Capability Perceptive Plan (MCPP) which targeted 194 warships with 170 capital ships and 459 aircraft Navy by 2027 to grapple with the rapid expansion of the PLA Navy, but now the Indian Navy talks of a capability-based Navy without numbers, well knowing numbers count in this Maritime Century.

In simple terms, which is a Chinese hallmark, China’s Military Commission (CMC) under President Xi Jinping has recently pronounced the PLA Navy’s offensive role to be three-fold. First is to have adequate offensive forces to operate on exterior lines and defend China’s ‘Belt and Road’ project. Second, to mix up the first role with the adversary’s Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces and gain intelligence and study their doctrine. Third is that the PLA (Navy) has to be China’s Assassin’s Mace for far seas operations.

Assassin’s Mace is a Chinese term composed of three Chinese characters for ‘kill, hand, and mace’. It is rooted in Chinese folklore, from days when China's hero overcame a far more powerful adversary Shashou Jian with a club which he secretly employed to incapacitate his enemy, suddenly and totally, instead of fighting him according to the rules. It was made famous by Evan Pedone, whose novel of the same name, discusses the use of the Assassin’s Mace as a weapon which brings the world into World War III, almost annihilating the US’ dominance. The nearest equivalent in the West is the magical Silver Bullet to take on a more powerful adversary. The Indian Navy has many silver bullets, including ‘8 plus 4 to come’ P8i Maritime Reconnaissance and attack planes and well-trained manpower, but it needs platforms for them too.