Vice Admiral G. Ashok Kumar, Vice Chief of Naval Staff, exclusively spoke to The Daily Guardian at the launch of ‘Defence Guardian’ website about Project 75 India, various naval operations, the progress of ‘aatmanirbharta’ in the Indian Navy and more. Excerpts:
Q. What are your thoughts on the defenceguardian.com launch?
A. The Indian Navy is known as the silence service and it is forums like these that help us to reach out to our countrymen and explain to them what we do day and night towards protecting maritime interests of the nation. I hope that defenceguardian.com achieves glory and huge success in the times to come. I am aware that a lot of the Indian Naval officers write for your forum and I’m sure that will continue too.
Q. With the latest decision taken by the Defence Ministry in the maritime domain, Project 75 India has just been approved by the Defence Acquisition Council. It’s a huge project. How do you see this changing India’s maritime defence preparedness in the immediate future?
A. A couple of days back, the DAC approved the strategic partnership model of Project 75 India which is a long-awaited approval for us. This is the first strategic partnership (SP) model approval that we have received and it’s a huge step. With the SP model being new, the whole process has been through many fits and starts. But finally, the big plus is that this is not the first time India would be constructing submarines. We have had the SSKs constructed in the late 1980s and the early 1990s and now as you are aware, the Kalvari class, the Project 75 India with NG and the MDL is being built, and three MDL submarines have been commissioned already. But the big difference here is that this is not something like a licence production, this is more of a technology transfer. So what it enables us is that in the future we will be able to design our submarines as well as construct, refit, repair, and maintain them forever. Strategically speaking, our dependence on some international original equipment manufacturer (OEM) will come to an end with this. This whole facility will be available in the country in the future.
Q. Talking about the SP model, when we look at the next projects, what, in your opinion, could be the next project of the Indian Navy that could be approved by the MoD and DAC under the SP model?
A. As I see, the Indian Navy took up two cases under the SP model, the other one is the Naval Utility Helicopters (NUH). As you are aware, we have come down a long way in progressing that case too. We are just waiting for the acceptance by the DAC of the list of strategic partners and the OEMs that have been shortlisted with the new process. Once that happens, it will follow the same procedure as we are following with Project 75 India. I hope that the next SP model project for the Indian Navy would be NUH.
Q. We have been hearing a lot about the ‘aatmanirbharta’ and Make in India aspects of defence. What is the actual on-ground situation? How is the Atmanirbharta in defence progressing on-ground, specifically for the Indian Navy?
A. In a big way, let me assure you that I think this is the right call for each of us to take forward ‘aatmanirbhata’ and not depend upon external sources, this can always be a strategic strength for the country. The Indian Navy has been at this for many decades now. With the current policies in place, it’s only got a much-needed fillip. The positive indigenisation list, the first one was announced in August last year with 101 items in it and just recently, we had the promulgation of the second list as well. For these, we will not be going abroad to procure from any OEM here and after as the country has developed the capability. Also, our shipbuilding is almost entirely Indian. The Indian Navy currently has about 41 ships in order, with just two of them being built somewhere else. Rest all of them including an aircraft carrier which is at Cochin Shipyard limited with excellent destroyers is being constructed in the Mazagon Dock limited, Frigettes (Project 17 Alphas) is being constructed both at GRC and MDL and many different types of ships are being constructed all over the country. We have achieved a sense of self-reliance when it comes to shipbuilding within the country.
The Defence Minister launched the Naval Indigenisation Innovation Organisation (NIIO) last year and that has given us a huge amount of fillip. The Indian Navy is building a relationship with industry and academia. On the launch day with the Defence Minister and the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in attendance, we signed MOUs with the Society for Indian Defence Manufacturers (SIDM). We also ended up signing MOUs with Raksha Shakti University (RSU) Gujarat and the makers at Cochin. We have gone on to set up Chairs of Excellence in leading universities in the country including a couple of IITs, the SRM University, Chennai and the RSU, Gujarat. Also, we intend to host annual seminars with industry and academia. We have also started an initiative Indian Naval Student Technical Education Programme (INSTEP). It is an internship programme for children who are doing engineering in various universities with whom we have signed MoUs. So this internship will help us provide them with a certain amount of projects for the benefit of the nation. I think indigenisation is the way ahead and the Navy is fully invested in the process.
Q. The country has just started coming out of the second wave but the Indian Navy’s role can’t be forgotten. It includes the mammoth operation of launching Oxygen Express and the efforts that were put in by the Indian Navy to help our state governments and the Centre. Also, through the coordination between multiple other Navies and the countries where the Indian Navy ships were deployed and several oxygen cylinders and concentrators were brought and oxygen supplies were ensured. How big was this operation in terms of the number of ships and how was it coordinated and executed? Did it require just the intra-country coordination with the MEA or the inter-country coordination? Did you speak to foreign Navies?
A. Our contribution to the problem of the lack of oxygen and the requirement of medical equipment for our countrymen in these tough times of the second wave of Covid-19 was heartening. We did a lot through the Samudra Setu 2 operation, deployed 11 ships in the length and breadth of our entire region starting to the west whether it was Qatar, Kuwait, UAE or to the east we went up to Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore. A considerable amount of effort was put into getting Liquid Medical Oxygen. We carried back over 1000 metric tonnes of LMO. We also carried over 5000 oxygen cylinders, the list is huge. It was an intergovernmental initiative. The MEA did a lot of tying up for various requirements that needed to be met for our countrymen and we promptly acted in response to that to ferry whatever was required for our countrymen.
Q. During the first wave, the Indian Navy did another major operation wherein the Indian citizens, who were stuck abroad due to the lockdown and actions of other countries to contain the pandemic, were evacuated by the Indian Naval ships. How difficult and big was this operation and how the coordination was done?
A. Samudra Setu 1 operation was conducted during the first wave where our countrymen had to be brought back to India. There were eight sorties conducted and we brought back nearly 4,000 Indian citizens from various countries like Maldives, Sri Lanka and Iran. Those were challenging times, to deploy a ship with the threat of Covid-19 affecting the crew and bringing back people when you are not too sure whether there is an infected person in the group of people being brought back to the country. It was a huge challenge and was done extremely well by the three commands, west, east, and south. Ships that were mainly used were the LSTs and the LPD Jalashwa.
Q. Since you mentioned Samudra Setu 1 and Samudra Setu 2, there is another project Sagar that I feel is the pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as far as the maritime domain is concerned. How is Sagar progressing on-ground, and what have its achievements been so far for the country?
A. Our Prime Minister’s vision of security and growth for all in the region or what is called Sagar is a great initiative. The Navy is fully involved in ensuring security and growth for all in the region as by and large the threats are maritime when it comes to trade and whatever we are getting over the seas. So there is a considerable amount of interaction that the Indian Navy undertakes with our friendly nations in the maritime neighbourhood. There are lots of initiatives in fighting sub-conventional threats. The IFC-IOR was a great initiative that has helped us interact with almost all the countries in this region and develop comprehensive maritime domain awareness as firstly knowing what is out there enables you to intervene in some threat that may build up. Also, many countries may not adequately have the capacity to undertake patrols and so on. The Indian Navy coordinates patrol for such countries. We carry out along the international maritime boundary line or the coordinated patrol with those countries with all our maritime neighbours.
When the Covid crisis happened we took it on as a responsibility to be of assistance to our maritime neighbours. It is not only in good times that you are friendly with your neighbours but the actual test is when the crisis hits. When the Covid situation was upon us we codenamed that as Sagar and initiated several missions. Four sorties were undertaken. We not only provided medical help but also Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) as a lot of countries required essentials for day to day living, all that was catered for on behalf of our Ministry of External Affairs and the government. The Indian Navy did a lot of running around between our neighbouring countries to cater for them. Sagar 1 catered to the island territories of Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros, and Madagascar. Sagar 2 catered to several African countries, and during Sagar 3, we went east to Vietnam and Cambodia. Sagar 4 was undertaken by Jalashwa back to Comoros and Madagascar with medical teams and 1000 tonnes of rice to each of these countries. Now we are also planning Sagar 5 and Sagar 6 that will happen soon at the request of the MEA. I think when it comes to security and growth for all in the region, the first requirement is a friendly attitude towards each other and the Indian Navy has done a lot in ensuring that the maritime domain remains safe and secure and we have maritime friendliness across the region.
Q. A question that is troubling many pandemic affected countries is the economy. Talking about the Indian economy, what has been the Navy’s plan, vision, and how has the execution been done as far as the Indian Navy’s efforts for Blue Economy is concerned?
A. A total of 4% of our GDP is expected out of the Blue Economy and this will be a significant contributor for us to rise to a $5 trillion economy in due course. The National Maritime policy drafted by Niti Aayog and the framework for Blue Economy policy drafted by the Economic Advisory council are articulations of an overall policy on how to handle this. The Indian Navy has a huge role in it as well because, at the end of the day, I dare say nobody else would have as much knowledge of the domain as the Navy would have as we are continuously operating in the domain. The threats are all transnational so how we react has got to be multinational in character. That’s one of the reasons why the Navy does so many interactions with the neighbouring countries whether it is bilateral exercises, the CORPATs and the patrols, so on and so forth. We also have the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in which all of us get together. Similarly, be it the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), or the newly promulgated Indo Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), the Indian Navy plays a major role in these. When it comes to the Blue Economy, marine special planning is the starting point. When it comes to marine special planning, having the requisite data is crucial. The Navy collects a whole lot of data but several agencies in the country collate other special data. The Indian Navy has entered into MoUs with all these agencies and we now have a collation of data collected with any agency in the country. So I think we are in a position to create what I call a digital economic map of India in the maritime domain. That will help us plan better which I feel will be a contribution where the Navy will be very useful. The Navy’s sole charter is overall maritime security including offshore and coastal security. And the Navy’s fundamental task is the protection of our maritime interests. The moment we start investing in Blue Economic initiatives, the maritime interest will gallop and thus, the responsibility entrusted to the Navy in protecting them is bound to increase. So the consciousness of security when planning such maritime Blue Economy projects will be immensely helpful. That is where I feel the Navy will be fully involved.
Our contribution to the problem of the lack of oxygen and the requirement of medical equipment for our countrymen in these tough times of the second wave of Covid-19 was heartening. We did a lot through the Samudra Setu 2 operation, deployed 11 ships in the length and breadth of our entire region starting to the west whether it was Qatar, Kuwait, UAE or to the east we went up to Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore. A considerable amount of effort was put into getting Liquid Medical Oxygen. We carried back over 1000 metric tonnes of LMO. We also carried over 5000 oxygen cylinders, the list is huge. It was an intergovernmental initiative. The MEA did a lot of tying up for various requirements that needed to be met for our countrymen and we promptly acted in response to that to ferry whatever was required for our countrymen.