Chief of the Naval staff Admiral Sunil Lanba in conversation with Nitin A Gokhale

Indian Navy Chief, Adm. Sunil Lanba, in an exclusive interview with, has dispelled fears about India’s primacy in the Indian Ocean being challenged. India continues to be the largest navy in the IOR and in association with other like-minded nations it ensures freedom of navigation and will remain the net security provider in the area, he told our Editor-in-Chief Nitin A. Gokhale. He answered a variety of questions during the candid 30-minute long conversation.

The full text of the Interview:

NITIN A GOKHALE (NG): Indian Navy with its new mission based deployment model and increasing responsibilities in the neighbourhood is in the news of late because of the patrolling and overseas deployment it has been doing apart from the normal duties and exercises that it carries out around the Indian coastline.

It is been known for a long time that the Indian Navy has been the service which has taken a lead in indigenisation for a long time among the three services. What are its plans going into the future and how is it planning to actually do the acquisition and get a big bang for the buck that it gets from the government.

To answer all those questions we were fortunate to have with us Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Lanba, who  answered some of the questions that Nitin Gokhale had, and give us an idea about what the Indian Navy is doing at the moment and in the near future.


NG: Admiral Lanba – thank you very much for your time. We have just had the Indian Navy conduct exercise Milan in Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Of course, it has been carrying out similar exercises for some time and several editions have taken place, but was there some new takeaway in exercise Milan this time?

Admiral Sunil Lanba, Chief of Naval Staff (CNS): The Milan series of interaction started of way back in 1994 with only four overseas participants in it. It has grown over the years and this year in the Milan we had 16 participants and there was also something unique about Milan ‘18, where we for the first time had a multilateral exercise at sea in which 11 foreign warships participated from eight countries. So there were a total of 20 ships at sea who exercised for over three days and did typical Naval operations of Maritime interdiction, search and rescue, HADR. Also in Milan 18 during the harbour phase we had a seminar and a tabletop exercise. The seminar was on good order and Naval discipline at sea – how to improve that (along) with information sharing. And we also had a tabletop exercise. So these were the two uniques. We had larger number of ships and it was spread over a total of six days.

NG: Which is bigger than the earlier editions in any case!

CNS: The biggest takeaway was that for the first time we have done multilateral exercises where we had so many participants at sea, otherwise most of the times we’ve only been doing only bilateral exercises. The only other multilateral exercise is Exercise Malabar.

NG: That’s right, and so you’ve moved away from just the shore based activities in Milan.

CNS: Yes.

NG: You’ve also started a new kind of a concept for the Indian Navy since I think June last year; the mission based deployment. What was the idea behind it and how is it going for the last seven or eight months that one has seen?

CNS: Long range and long duration deployments are not new to the Navy. We carried out an analysis in the early part of last year, and we reached a conclusion that we need to be present in our areas of maritime interests, and that is where came in the mission based deployment.

Since October 2008 we’ve been deployed continuously without a break in the Gulf of Aden for the anti-piracy patrol. So, taking into account our maritime areas of interests, we have identified areas in the Andaman Sea and into the approaches to the Malacca Straits in the northern parts of the Bay of Bengal, Northern Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf, and in the central Indian Ocean regions. So, we have been maintaining near continuous presence. The fallout of this has been greater maritime domain awareness, our ability to react to any developing situation, where during the first deployment to the Malacca Straits there was a cyclone that hit Bangladesh and Myanmar and the ship which starts from MALDEP was there and she rescued 34 Bangladeshis who had drifted out to the sea at over a 100 nautical miles and also provided support in Myanmar.

NG: Right, so those kind of deployments are bearing fruit?  

CNS: Yes. Along with the deployments of the P8 type Boeings and the ship, we have greater transparency of what is happening in the Indian Ocean.

NG: So that also brings me to the question that, such a high operational tempo, I mean with so many assets deployed continuously, does that put some kind of a strain or are you managing with the current assets?

CNS: We are managing with the current operational availability of ships; we’ve also looked at our maintenance and logistics, infrastructures and change. We have now also followed a new methodology of taking ships out of repair-and-refit period to operational-and-deployment period, so there is a transaction where safety checks, audits and training and workup by the flag officers, sea training is carried out and only once this is, is when the ship is mission deployed. She carries her full outfit of ammunition so then she is ready for combat and she is ready for deployment and there is a draw-down phase when she is finishing off her operational cycles, when all the trials and testing is done of the ships so that we know exactly what needs to be done in the repair-and-refit period as well.

NG: So, in a way, you are sort of giving your ships an ‘on the job’ kind of experience. Do you have more OTR’s (Operational Turnaround) now around Andamans or elsewhere?

CNS: We have a series of ports which have been identified and approved by the Ministry of Defence, where we can carry out Operational Turnaround and we’ve been utilising these ports to operationally turnaround our ships so that their on-station time increases. We’ve had historic ties with a lot of nations in the Indian Ocean. We have a very rich maritime heritage. People know that the first dock or dockyard was built in India in Lothal. We are also the first to publish a paper navigation chart and Indian seafarers sailed all across the Indian Ocean.

We’ve worked with our partners and we’ve also now, along with t enhanced their capability and capacity. We’re helping them set up infrastructure as per their requirement which will be of dual use where we can also use it. So this will extend our reach and staying capacity in the far reaches of the Indian Ocean.

NG: So for our readers/viewers if you can just tell us which are these main bases that you are looking at? One knows that recently Duqm has been talked about in Oman, but what are the other ones that are there?

CNS: We are looking at facilities in Duqm, which you’ve just mentioned, then the island nations of Seychelles and Mauritius and we are working with like-minded nations and partners to use their facilities which are also available.

NG: Does this then take care of the new challenge that is emerging and that is the PLAN, ie. the PLA Navy coming increasingly into the Indian Ocean? PLA or the PLA Navy people keep saying that the Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean. Does that still apply that India has the primacy in the Indian Ocean, despite their increasing forays into Indian Ocean?

CNS: If you analyse the PLA Chinese Navy deployment, it started off in end 2008 and there has been near continuous presence since then. On an average six to eight PLA Navy ships are deployed in the northern Indian Ocean. You have the Anti-Piracy Escort Force which consists of three ships, a tanker with a Frigate and a Destroyer and the 28th group is here. The Indian Ocean is a bridge which connects the East and the West. It has very important sea lines of communications which criss-cross the Indian Ocean. A very large segment, almost 67% of the world’s oil flows across the Indian Ocean, including 32% of bulk cargo and 50% of container shipment. The Indian Navy has been providing freedom of navigation and safety in the Indian Ocean which we continue to do. It’s a large space, there is availability of space for deployment and these days at any given time there are over a 120 warships of over 20 multinational Navies deployed in the Indian Ocean. We are the largest Navy in the Indian Ocean region. We are also the net security provider and we will continue to ensure freedom of navigation and safety at sea.

NG: So there’s nothing to worry about, with the kind of doomsday scenarios that people predict in many cases, in write ups and analysis, that India is losing its primacy in the Indian Ocean!

CNS: I don’t think that is the case. We are working with our partners and like-minded nations. We train a very large number of personnel in our training facilities, of nations that border the Indian Ocean region. We also assist them in their capability and capacity assessment. We have built ships for island nations and transferred them for Sri Lanka and Mauritius. We have made this offer to a number of other nations, they’ve also bid for some contracts, and we’ll continue to do this.

NG: That brings me to Maldives, which is again in the news recently. Do we continue to have the same deployment of one ship and one dornier one helicopter continuously going into their EEZ and joint patrolling kind of a thing?

CNS: We are continuing to work with them. At the moment there are 2 helicopters that are deployed in the Maldives – one of the Coast Guard and one of the Indian Navy, they continue to be there. They are continuing to train with us. We’ve just had a group of our special forces going down to workup with their personnel in Maldives. There are officers from Maldives who are training in the training institutions. So interaction and contact is being maintained and continues.

NG: Despite whatever one’s hearing elsewhere! But that brings me to one other factor. Given this kind of high operational tempo and increasing responsibilities and the widening of the responsibilities of the Indian Navy, are you looking at more assets to be acquired both for surveillance and also increasing maritime domain awareness, both surveillance and maybe more P8i’s and some ships also?

CNS: We are continuing with our capability enhancement as per our long term perspective plan and as per our maritime strategy which we published in 2015. You mentioned P8i – we already have eight of them, we’ve also already signed the contract for four more. They should start coming in by 2020, so by end of 2021 or early 2022 we’ll have 12 P8i Boeings. We are also making out a case for additional P8i’s, also new RPAs. And as far as ship construction goes we are following our LTIPP. I agree there have been some delays in certain projects and some slippages have taken place, but we are pursuing.

NG: What about submarines sir? Because that is one of the things that has been a weak point as far as the Indian Navy is concerned. Acquisition of submarines has been much behind time.

CNS: We have 14 submarines at the moment. There has been a delay in the delivery of the P75 program or the Scorpène. Fortunately, that program is on line now. The first of the P75 submarine, Kalvari, has been commissioned in December by the honorable Prime Minister. The second one is now undergoing her sea trials and we are hopeful that we should commission her sometime in the latter half of the year. The third one has been launched and has started her harbour trials and this program is on schedule and I’m quite sure that all six submarines would be delivered by 2020.

Coming to the follow-on project of the 75-India, that is part of the Strategic Partnership model. Amongst the Strategic Partnership model, the 75 India program is the first program which is being taken forward. We are working along with the Ministry to take this project forward. We have identified the OEMs with which we will partner. We are now working on a formulation along with the Ministry on how to select the strategic partner.

NG: So just to clarify, OEMs are there, but one of the concerns that was expressed was about local partners…

CNS: So that is the strategic partner.

NG: OK, so you are working on that right now.

CNS: Yes.

NG: And do you think the same model that has been promulgated or some policy that was promulgated, will that continue or will there be some changes in that?

CNS: The strategic partnership model that was promulgated in the beginning has been tweaked and the new strategic partnership model document is being issued by the Ministry and we will follow that. What they have included in that – is that in certain cases DPSU’s and PSU’s will be able to also take part.

NG: Also compete, not be selective…?

NS: Also compete.

NG: So now let me shift gears and talk about your being the Chairman Chief of Staff’s Committee. Submarines is one program in the Strategic Partnership model, what are the other programs in the other two services that offhand you remember?

CNS: The other programs which are part of the strategic partnership model are helicopters, the Navy’s case is there for both utility and multirole helicopters, then there is also aircraft and infantry fighting vehicles.

NG: Ok, so those three or four remain from what was included in the beginning itself. Coming back to the Navy itself, what about aircraft carriers? Because your indigenous aircraft carrier is still being built in Cochin. So after that, is there a plan for acquiring one more aircraft carrier?

CNS: As far as Maritime strategy, we had said we need 3 Carrier Battle Groups so that at any given time we have 2 operationally available. We’ve been operating aircraft carriers now for six decades. We are one of the few nations that have the expertise of operating aircraft carriers.

As per our Maritime strategy, the main strategy at sea is based on sea control and a Carrier Battle Group is the most effective group to provide sea control in a limited area as far as areas of influence goes. I know people have cast aspersion on the vulnerability of the aircraft carrier, but the aircraft carrier with its escorts brings interesting capability to bear in all the dimensions, i.e., underwater, surface and in the air. And any platform – whether it’s on land, air or at sea has its degree of vulnerability. So to say that the aircraft carrier is particularly vulnerable is hogwash. The Carrier Battle Group brings huge capability to bear, provides sea control in its areas of influence which can be to a radius of 600 nautical miles and it is an intrinsic part of a maritime strategy.

NG: I’m glad you said that because I think this kills the debate. Or the aspersions that were cast on the debate between having more submarines and aircraft carriers or having exclusively only submarines and no aircraft carriers – that doesn’t make sense.

CNS: Each platform has its role to play and its utility. The aircraft carrier and the Carrier Battle Group bring some capability, the submarines bring capability especially in sea denial role and they have a role to play there. But neither can a submarine replace the aircraft carrier nor can the aircraft carrier replace the submarine.

NG: I’m glad you said that. Coming back to the international treaties, like India has signed the LEMOA with the US, is there a progress in COMCASA or BECA with the US?

CNS: Post signing of LEMOA with the US, there are a number of countries who have now come forward and also want to sign similar logistics arrangements, so we are progressing there. As for the specific issue of COMCASA and BECA, we are working along with the Ministry to take these forward. There is a dialogue, and discussions are going on between the two departments, technical groups are exchanging views and viewpoints, and we’ll see what happens.

NG: Sure. Now again I’ll take you back to your role as Chairman Chiefs of Staff committee. You’ve seen what went on in the Parliamentary Standing committee and its comments and conclusions in its report. The concern is about allotment or meager allotment for capital acquisition. How are you going to overcome that?

CNS: See we have got a 7.7% increase in this financial year’s allotment, which is less than what we had anticipated to get. We have to take cognizance of the fact that there are multiple challenges in our country. There are huge demands on different projects of the Government, whether it is poverty alleviation, the education sector, or the agricultural sector. We have got a certain quantum of budget. It doesn’t cover the entire modernisation acquisition plan. So we will have to re-prioritise and work on different timelines to get different capabilities within all the three services, and we’ll work along with the Ministry and the Government to take our projects and modernisation plan forward.

NG: Are you also looking at optimizing revenue budgets and making savings there, or increasing efficiency in what you spend on revenue budgets?

CNS: This is an ongoing process which goes on year on year. Like in the Navy’s case if you look at our fuel bill, the endeavour is to run ships at economical speeds so thathe same budget takes it forward and the same is done and processed by the other two services also. So, there is optimisation of expenditure on the revenue side also.

NG: What about jointmanship and integration? I mean that’s been talked about, like some movement has happened as far as two agencies are concerned, Cyber and Space. So what is the movement there?

CNS: See, as far as tri services, the three agencies – cyber, space and Special Forces, they’ve all moved forward. In two of them, space and cyber, the CCS note has been prepared, is now under examination by the ministry. Similarly, this case of the Special Forces agency has also now been forwarded to the ministry. As far as other avenues of jointmanship, we have worked closely in the Chiefs of Staff Committee and IDS headquarters, where we are now looking at joint logistics node. We are now looking at cross-staffing of officers in different organisations and headquarters. We are also looking at joint training, where training institutes of the three services have been designated as the nodal training center and we are going to train from the other two services also there. So a lot of headway has been made in the integration and jointmanship.

NG: So these training institutes that you are talking about, they could be sort of merged together, for instance Military Intelligence could be one…?

CNS: Like you talked about Military Intelligence, we examined the issue of intelligence training. We’ve identified the Army’s Intelligence school to be the nodal point where the three services will train together. Similarly, like catering, the Navy has a head start in this and we have a catering school in Mumbai, where we will train the trainers of the other two services. Keeping into account the availability of budget we have decided that we are not going to make any new joint training centers because you’ll need new land, new budget to set up new infrastructure. So whatever we have in the present infrastructure, how to augment capability and capacity there and best utilise it, is what we are doing.

NG: So you’ll tweak them and see where they join together.

CNS: Yes

NG: One final question, with regard to the Defence Expo as it’s just round the corner next week. The Indian Navy, as I said in the beginning, has been the leading service as far as indigenisation is concerned. How do you see the role of medium size Indian companies and MSMEs, particularly small companies, coming in to help the Navy and the other two services in indigenising content as well as Make In India programs?

CNS: You are absolutely right. My predecessors took a call long time back in the early 60s that we need to be a builder’s Navy and not a buyer’s Navy. So a team of Naval designers were sent to United Kingdom for training and they came back. We started off with the Leander class program in the early 70s and the first Leander class was built by Mazagon Dock and commissioned in 1977 the INS Nilgiri. We’ve come a long way since then. We’ve built over 200 ships in India till date. The entire steel required for ship construction is now made in India. And as far as indigenous content go, in the last year’s ASW Corvette – the Kamorta class is almost 92% indigenous. We’ve been working under the Make project. We’ve issued the first contract for the Make project, the Navy. Along with DRDO, we’ve also now tasked MSMEs with the first development project for a composite pump. So, this is the first of the Make 1 and Make 2 projects which is being made along with the Navy. So, we are working closely along with DRDO and ourselves to develop Indian industry both in the SME and MSME sector, and we’re quite hopeful that we will make progress in this.

NG: So the ultimate plan is to sort of reduce the imports, I guess?

CNS: Ultimate plan is to have an availability of the platform at the most effective cost. My take on indigenisation is if the numbers are large, we need to indigenise. If the numbers of acquisitions are small, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, it’ll be a much cheaper option to import. We need to have a right balance and mix and to get the maximum bang for the buck. So accordingly we are looking at indigenisation. Like indigenisation of all the marine grade steel was an important thing and now you have this and it is available for all ships. Like we take the case of gas turbines, there is a project to make a marine grade gas turbine. At the moment we are importing gas turbines from Ukraine and from the United States, from GE. Their numbers are always going to remain small. Whether we need to have an indigenous marine gas turbine program, the answer is yes, but then you should be able to make them not only for ourselves but also export them to the market, only then will it be a cost effective venture.

NG: One more question, this reminds of your statement about the LCA Navy not being acceptable in the current form. Has there been any discussion after that with HAL or ADA on how to improve that product or what they were offering you that time?

CNS: The LCA Navy Mk-1 didn’t meet our qualitative requirements of being – and I’m now using my words carefully – of a deck base fighter. We’ve been in dialogue with DRDO and ADA to have a deck base fighter. We are now looking at the next version of the aircraft, the AMCA, also have a Naval version of it.

NG: That’s good news for the ADA and the DRDO and if meets the requirement there’s no reason why you’ll not take it I guess?

CNS: Hundred percent. We’ve always worked with DRDO and our Naval labs and we’ve inducted all equipment which have been developed. For instance you take the Sonars. The entire Sonar suites of all our ships and submarines are now made in India through development by NPOL and they’re been manufactured by BEL. Similarly, is the case in Anti-Submarine Warfare weapons. We’re now inducting the first of the torpedos, all the torpedo tubes and the rocket launchers are all made within the country including the ammunition. So, we are going to go down the indigenous route without a doubt.

NG: That’s right, and Navy as I said at the beginning has always taken the lead. Admiral Lanba, thank you very much for your time and very candid and very frank answers that you gave us. So I’m sure our viewers on both our Bharat Shakti YouTube channel and our website will benefit from the frank and candid answers that Admiral Lanba, the Indian Navy Chief, has given us. On that note, I’m Nitin Gokhale signing off.

Produced By: Neelanjana Banerjee & Rohit Pandita