“WE CAN MATCH CHINA IN THE INDIAN OCEAN REGION”
CHINA has begun one of the largest naval expansions by any country since the end of the Second World War. In this exclusive interview, ADMIRAL SUNIL LANBA, Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, and Chief of Naval Staff, tells Executive Editor SANDEEP UNNITHAN that the Indian navy is fully prepared to meet the Chinese threat
Q. How have the foundational agreements, Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), signed by India benefitted the forces? LEMOA is a foundational agreement between India and the US, which facilitates exchange of logistics between militaries of the two nations. The agreement reduces procedures, permissions and paperwork involved during port call of ships, joint operations, refuelling, peacekeeping operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), etc. It allows the three services to utilise the bases for rest, repair and refuelling, thereby enhancing efficiency. The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) facilitates India’s utilisation of the US-based encryption technology for communication, instead of using vulnerable commercial communication. In addition, sensors and equipment onboard can be upgraded and would be on par with those operated by the US. Both agreements facilitate greater synergy and interoperability between the Indian and the US navies. The navy has been fuelling with US tankers in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. It enhances our range and reach and is also a cost-effective means of deployment because you don’t need to do an operational turnaround in ports.
Q. What is the status of the third foundational agreement, Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation (BECA), which is yet to be signed?
The agreement provides for ‘no cost’ exchange of controlled geospatial products, data and services. The Indian military will have access to the US military standards navigation and mission planning systems that will benefit airborne surveillance. The agreement is under examination by stakeholders.
Q. What is the scope of the upcoming tri-services exercise with the US?
It is starting with an HADR exercise, where the navy is the lead service. We will hold the exercise either on the east or the west coast in the second half of 2019.
Q. What progress has been made on appointing a naval representative at the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT)?
The earlier proposal was to have a liaison officer. On September 18, the government cleared the setting up of a new defence wing at the Indian embassy in Bahrain where the defence attache, a naval captain, will double up as our representative in the NAVCENT.
Q. Last year, you began mission-based deployments—forward deploying ships in your areas of interest in the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean region (IOR). What have you learnt from it?
It has demonstrated the reach and sustainability of the navy. We have deployed warships in our areas of interest and responsibility. The world has sat up and acknowledged the capability of the Indian navy. We have a better awareness of the maritime domain. It has been a year now. We will examine it in detail on whether or not there is a need to modify it or cover certain other areas.
Q. As the chairman, chiefs of staff committee, do you see the post of the chief of defence staff coming soon?
The three services have agreed on the role and responsibilities of a permanent chairman, chiefs of staff. This proposal was forwarded to the government earlier this year. Now the government has to take a decision.
Q. Since 2014, China has launched more warships than the total number of ships in the navies of Germany, India, Spain, Taiwan and the UK. How does it alter the maritime power balance?
They are commissioning between 12 and 18 ships a year. In the past four-five years, they have commissioned 80 new ships and submarines. No navy has grown at this pace for more than a hundred years, not counting the two world wars. China’s economy is more than six times that of ours and their defence budget is more than five times that of ours; they are investing large sums in developing maritime capability. We can match what forces China can bring to bear in the IOR. But in the South China Sea, the dice is loaded in their favour.
Q. Does the South China Sea remain an area of concern for us? Of course, it is. The government has been talking of the Indo-Pacific arena, the international rules-based order, the Freedom of Navigation of the Seas; an international rules-based order needs to be followed by all countries.
Q. China recently deployed a submarine on patrol in the IOR, its eighth in 10 years. Are you now better placed to track them?
Yes. We tracked the submarine as it was entering the IOR. The Boeing P8-I (long range maritime patrol aircraft) is a great force multiplier. We are getting four more of them. There is requirement for 12 more (P8Is), but that is in the future.
Q. What is the navy’s most urgent operational requirement today?
The biggest capability void is of the helicopters. We have got an acceptance of necessity for both the multi-role helicopter (MRH) and 111 utility helicopters and a defence acquisition council approval for 24 MRH as a foreign military sales case (direct import from the US). We will take the contract signing forward so that we start getting these platforms in the next two-three years. The process has started for the 24 MRHs.
Q. This month is also the 10th anniversary of the 26/11 attacks, where there were accusations that the navy was lax in letting the hijacked trawler come through. Can you say that you are better placed to tackle a threat like that now?
We are much better placed now than 10 years ago. The Coast Guard has seen a great deal of accretion in terms of systems and platforms. We have put in a radar and AIS chains along the coast. We are regularly carrying out exercises with the coastal states.
Q. It took the Arihant nine years to go from launch to its first deterrent patrol. How long will it take for the next submarine, the Arighaat, to its first deterrent patrol?
It will not take as long as the Arihant.
Q. At what stage is the plan to build indigenous nuclear-powered attack submarines? We are looking at six SSNs (NuclearPowered Attack Submarines). It is part of the 30-year submarine building plan (to build 24 submarines, 18 conventional and 6 nuclear). It is at a design stage. The launch of the first SSN is over 10 years away.
THE BIGGEST CAPABILITY VOID IS OF HELICOPTERS... WE ARE ALSO LOOKING AT SIX SSN (NUCLEARPOWERED ATTACK SUBMARINES)