On the sidelines of the recently-concluded Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) summit in Kochi, I caught up with Admiral Sunil Lanba, Chief of Naval Staff, Indian Navy and Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC).
It was a wide-ranging conversation which began with the tenth anniversary of the Mumbai attacks followed by the issue of the PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean to South China Sea and the cooperation with the US navy, Australian Navy and Japanese or the so-called QUAD. We also spoke on India’s plans for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, follow on to the leased INS Chakra, plans for the construction of nuclear powered submarines and the shrinking military budget.
Q: Last week we’d seen the Indian PM congratulating the Indian Navy for the first deterrent patrol of (nuclear propelled nuclear weapons carrying submarine) INS Arihant however there are many commentators including a former chief of naval staff who has warned against ‘excessive jubilation at this stage could erode the credibility of the third leg (India’s nuclear triad)’. He has effectively called the navy and its planners to ensure a larger fleet of SSBNs and SSNs (both nuclear submarines). Would you like to tell us if you concur with this assessment?
A: I won’t entirely agree with that. We are conscious of the sea leg of our deterrence. The PM has said what needs to be said. There is a plan in place which is being executed as far as the sea vector of our nuclear deterrence is concerned and I will leave it at that. We have a thirty year building programme in place which also has six nuclear attack submarines as a part of that programme. We have started work on that programme and we are quite confident that we will get approvals from the government soon.
Q: With regards to international cooperation, what is the message that India is sending to the other (regional) navies. Am asking this because at this particular point in time, especially over the last ten years China has an unprecedented role in the Indian Ocean. They are deploying more ships, more submarines under the guise of anti-piracy patrol missions and of course with its economic heft it is trying to secure as many partnerships as possible in the Indian Ocean. So what is our message to all the navies?
A: As far as the Indian Ocean, India and the Indian Navy is concerned we have a foreign cooperation roadmap in place which has whole of government support. We have been working on that with other departments for capability enhancement and capability building in which we have built ships for a number of littoral countries in the Indian Ocean Region, we provide a large lot of training assistance and also hydrography where we have carried our surveys of waters of a number of littoral countries of the IOR. As far as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) goes, we have come a long way in the ten years that the IONS has been. We were the founder nation on IONS. In the ten years that IONS has been we have achieved a lot. We have a charter of business rules in place approved by all member states. We have three working groups on HADR (humanitarian assistance and disaster relief), maritime operability and information sharing which has done some work especially the HADR group which headed by India. We are the largest navy of a littoral country in the Indian Ocean Region we bring a great deal of capability to bear. You talked about the Chinese navy and deployment. They have been here since 2008. At any given time you have 6-8 Chinese ships in the IOR. They have a permanent deployment of an anti piracy escort force in the form of two frigates or destroyers along with a tanker. We keep a close eye and monitor. We have changed our deployment philosophy to mission based where we have a ship on permanent deployment in the Gulf of Aden and the Andaman Sea in the mouth of the Malacca straits, also as part of the Bay of Bengal in the northern Arabian sea and the gulf, southern Indian ocean and central Indian ocean. We keep a close eye. We monitor. We are much better informed about the maritime domain on the ingress and entry of all ships into the region. We work in close coordination with like minded countries and are quite confident of delivering maritime security to others.
Q: Do you get a sense that there are many countries that would like to play India versus China and secure benefits for themselves?
A: Every nation has its own priorities and interests including in the maritime domain and they would like to do what is best for their own country. We have been conscious of this. We work with like-minded nations, countries and our partners. We follow a very different model from what China follows where we look at intrinsic capability enhancement and development and we have been working and have made great deal of success and movement forward and we have been conscious on not falling into this trap of India versus China in any of our partner countries.
Q: You’ve earlier said that China has managed to change the status quo in South China Sea. Would you say China is attempting to change the status quo in the Indian Ocean as well?
A: The situation in South China Sea and the Indian Ocean are entirely different. I stand by my statement that China has changed the status quo in SCS. In my opinion, I do not think that the Chinese will be able to change the status quo in the Indian Ocean region. They have their interests in the sea lines of communication and the IOR carries a large percentage of their trade. They have invested in infrastructure projects in a number of Indian Ocean countries in the form of development of ports, some of them have not done too well financially and we have been working along with government departments, the whole of government to safeguard our maritime interests. And I am quite confident that the status quo in the Indian Ocean will remain in our favour.
Q: My question was about their intent. Do you see a Chinese intent to change the status quo in the IOR?
A: There is no stated intent to change the status quo. I do not think so, the Indian Ocean is our backyard. We are conscious of it and we work towatds it so that we have a favourable situation in our favour.
Q: Last year, we saw a Chinese submarine docked in Karachi. Before that one had docked in Colombo. Since the Indian Navy maintains a close watch on the Chinese in the IOR, have any other submarines show up in the IOR?
A: They have been deploying to the IOR since 2013. There was a gap where there was no deployment since the end of last year where for a year there was no Chinese submarine deployed in the IOR. Just last month there was a re-deployment last month of one submarine which we monitored and were able to detect when she entered the IOR. We have been keeping an eye on the IOR. And am confident that we have the capability of doing it.
BBC HINDI FULL INTERVIEW:
Q: In August this year, the Maldivian High Commissioner to India said it was time that the Maldives became self-relief and wanted Indian personnel and equipment can now be sent back? To many observers it was a huge blow to the ties of India and Maldives. Do you concur with that view?
A: I do not. Our personnel and asset continue to be deployed in the Maldives. We have worked with them to provide capability and capacity. We will continue to do so.
Q: It’s been ten years since the November 2008 attacks. The government has put in efforts to prevent a repeat. However my question is about the source. Since the government believes that it was in Pakistan. The infrastructure that spawned the terrorist attack remains or has been dismantled?
A: We will look at it in two ways. First is our own capability post the attacks. We have come a long way in beefing up our coastal security construct. A number of agencies have worked together. The navy was made overall responsible. WE have worked in close coordination with the Indian coast guard and coastal states and a number of agencies involved in coastal security. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) have been put in place, capabilities have been enhanced of the coast guard and the navy. We have a coastal surveillance chain in the form of radars and Automatic Identification System (AIS) in place. We exercise with all coastal states and marine police departments so we have a robust mechanism in place and we are prepared to handle this challenge. The second part of your question about the infrastructure in our neighbourhod in Pakistan – that infrastructure ecists. They still use it as a means of policy of terrorism so we are well prepared to thwart any infringement which may take place.
Q: Last year India initiated its engagement with the so-called revived QUAD (Quadrilateral involving India, US, Japan and Australia) at the level of the foreign ministry level but we don’t do that in terms of navies or in terms of exercise. Would it hurt or help the navy if there were to be a military dimension to this so-called QUAD?
A: At the moment, the QUAD is restricted to dialogues between the departments (foreign ministry) at the joint secretary levels where we have looked at foreign cooperation, freedom of navigation and economic activities in the Indo Pacific region. There is no military dimension to the QUAD at the moment. As and when the decision will be taken to move the QUAD forward or expand the ambit, we will take it.
Q: Will it help you?
A: In the IOR, it will not any difference because we are well prepared to handle things on our own.
Q: India has access to the Duqm port in Oman. India was also building a joint naval facility at the Assumption Island in Seychelles. Where has India reached in exploiting those facilities?
A: As for the Duqm port, there has been a proposal that was exchanged and negotiations with Oman are going on ansd when they we will have access to facilities in Duqm. As far as Assumption Island goes, there is still dialogue between the government of India and Seychelles.
Q: On one hand the government celebrated the anniversary of the surgical strikes and on the other hand the budgets for defence services have gone down drastically. Reforms haven’t happened. Many observers have made the allegation that military has been starved for resources and made ready to be played politics with.
A: We have a capability development plan drawn out by the forces. As a percentage of the GDP has fallen but in real terms our budgets continue to grow and we have been promised that budget will be made available for capability enhancement and development and I am quite confident that the government will provide.
Q: But the parliament reports are saying something rather alarming.
A: Yes, as percentage of the GDP defence has gone down but since GDP has been growing so in real terms there is marginal growth in the budget. We would have liked it to grow at a faster pace but there are competing demands and we are conscious of that and accordingly we have drawn up our capability enhancement. There is a priority plan. There is a priority plan being developed by all three services and we are following that.
Q: You did not respond to whether you think there is politicization of the armed forces taking place
A: I am not going down that road.
BBC PASHTO BROADCASTED THE CNS INTERVIEW:
Q: Induction of INS Arihant – many commentators including a former navy chief has said that just one nuclear submarine (i.e INS ARIHANT) is not enough. India needs a fleet of nuclear submarines and that excessive jubilation over one submarine can hurt not help
A: PM has spoken about the deterrence patrol and I have nothing more to add. What you are talking about, i.e more number of submarines as part of the sea-based deterrence (ability to fire nuclear weapons using a submarine), we are working on that of having adequate number of submarines and that is all I want to say.
Q: In December last year, you said work has commenced on building more nuclear submarines.
A: There are two types of nuclear submarines. First is SSN which is a nuclear powered submarine, an attack submarine and the other is the SSBN (INS ARIHANT type). The last time when I said something about it was about SSNs. We have secured the approval for the construction of six SSNs. Currently the navy is working on the design and we will get approval to take this ahead for construction of six SSNs.
Q: Is India considering a nuclear-propelled aircraft carrier too and do you believe this is likely to materialize anytime soon?
A: We have initiated discussions with the defence ministry over our second indigenously-made aircraft carrier. We had examined the propulsion plant. The speed required for the size of the proposed carrier, we initially were keen for nuclear propulsion. But now, there are electrical propulsion plants that are available and we have decided that the next aircraft carrier will be conventionally powered aircraft carrier.
Q: India has (on lease from Russia) a nuclear-propelled submarine, INS Chakra and that lease is expiring soon. We have been hearing that talks have been on for a while on this lease with Russia. What is the progress?
A: We are talking to Russia for leasing a second nuclear-propelled submarine.
Q: Has there been a breakthrough?
A: That’s all I would like to say. Meanwhile the INS Chakra is with us, on patrol and we are discussing with the Russians, a proposal to extend its lease.
Q: It has been ten years since the November 2008 attacks. I am aware that the government and the Indian Navy has initiated several measures to secure the coastline. Since the government holds Pakistan as the place where the terrorists were trained and sent from, do you believe that the infrastructure that spawned this attack has still exists or it doesn’t?
A: There are two sides to my response. First is our own preparedness to deal with this issue. In the last ten years we have progressed a lot when it comes to coastal security. Better prepared. Coordination between multiple agencies on this issue are better integrated. Our Standard Operating Procedure between navy and the coast guard has been set up. Coastal security exercises happen and in January next year an exercise called SEA VIGIL when the entire mechanism of coastal security and states will participate. So we are better prepared. The second point about infrastructure of training in our neighboring country, that exists.
Q: The source is existing now, you mean to say
A: Yes it is.
Q: There was a recent report that said that despite all your efforts, there still are 2.2 lakh fishing boats which are less than 20 metres in size and are untraceable when it comes to our radars. Why are we here after 10 years?
A: In the last decade, all fishing boats have now been registered. Biometric ID cards have now been made and issued to all fishermen. You spoke about AIS transponders. We have done a pilot project with ISRO in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu where a small, low cost AIS transponder has been fitted on 1000 fishing boats and which can be tracked through satellite by us. We have also operationalized a radar chain along the entire Indian coast, phase one is operational and phase two is being worked upon. So even if these small boats are not showing up on one radar (AIS), we have means to track them in other ways. There is better monitoring at landing points, harbours and we are better informed.
Q: By when do you see these 2.2 lakh fishing boats also coming in line with others and monitoring them becomes easier?
A: Once this pilot project succeeds we will be able to launch a pan-India effort to replicate it.
BBC URDU’S TV SHOW ‘SAIRBEEN’ CARRIED CNS ADM LANBA’S INTERVIEW:
Q: In March 2018 you said that Gwadar port in Pakistan had not yet seen the Chinese navy operating out of there. Have you seen any military activity thereafter?
A: Till date, we are yet to observe any military activity there at Gwadar by the Chinese navy. China has said it is a commercial port. So we are yet to witness any naval activity from the Chinese there.
Q: China is an observer here as we witness the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). You recently said that China changed the status quo in the South China Sea. Do you acknowledge that by various ways and means China is attempting a change in status quo in the Indian Ocean region as well through bases, partnerships, deploying ships and submarines?
A: Since 2008, the Chinese navy has been permanently deployed in the Indian Ocean Region and at any time 6-8 of their warships are here. Like what you are referring to in the South China Sea, they have not been able to change the status quo in the form of permanent military facilities in the Indian Ocean. Yes, their first overseas base has been made in Djibouti but I will not say that the status quo in the Indian Ocean has been changed. The South China Sea situation is very different from the Indian Ocean and I do not think they will be able to change matters here like they did in the South China Sea.
Q: You are the seniormost military commander among the three services today and the government talks about India being the world’s fastest growing major economy yet your budgets are going doing. Yet the Parliament reports say that your budgets are shrinking year on year. This is happening in the face of an aggressive China. Is the government not able to appreciate your needs or is there a communication issue which explains why the divergence?
A: India is growing. We are a part of the economy. What our requirements are known to the government and we remain hopeful.
Q: But your budgets are not increasing.
A: Our budgets have increased but the share of defence budget to the GDP has fallen. Needs of the three services are known and I am quite confident that the requirements will be addressed.
Q: There is a festering issue about litigation of the defence ministry with their own veterans and retired soldiers. Matters have reached Supreme Court often. Even former defence ministers have stressed on the need for litigation against soldiers to be resolved. Why?
A: A dialogue on this issue has happened with the ministry of defence. The main issue of litigation is about pension and disability pension. Ministry also decided last year to not challenge disability pension cases. This matter has been resolved at a major level.
*The interview was translated and first carried by:
- BBC HINDI
- BBC TAMIL
- BBC MARATHI
- BBC GUJARATI
- BBC PUNJABI
- BBC TELUGU