The biannual Naval Commanders' Conference concluded in Delhi on October 27 with Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman taking note of the ‘critical capability shortfalls that the Navy is facing in ship-borne multi-role helicopters, conventional submarines and mine counter measure vessels, which need urgent redress to maintain the combat edge of the Navy.’
Concurrently, Sitharaman also noted the high degree of operational readiness and the expansive foot-print of the Indian Navy (IN) over the last year. Flag showing and joint exercises saw IN ships and submarines deployed in the South China Sea and Sea of Japan in the East to the Persian Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean in the West. The IN was also deployed to the shores of Australia in the southern reaches and contributed to the anti-piracy off the Gulf of Aden.
Bilateral and multilateral naval exercises have added to the credibility of Indian diplomacy and the Malabar 2017 exercise with the US and the Japanese navies earlier this year was significant for its platform mix (aircraft carriers, submarines and maritime reconnaissance aircraft) and the complexity of the operational engagement.
While this is no doubt very encouraging as regards the professionalism of the IN, many gaps and institutional deficiencies that have accreted over the last decade are cause for concern and warrant institutional redress. These are issues where the buck stops at the desk of the defence minister and to her credit, Sitharaman has been able to convey a sense of resolve in both identifying the gaps and embarking on the appropriate policy corrective.
There are four major issues that need to be prioritised apropos the Navy. First, filling the critical inventory/platform gaps, and these include the strength of the submarine fleet, inducting ship-borne helicopters and modernising the minesweeper squadrons. All of them were flagged by the minister at the conference.
Second is the long-drawn out process of inducting new platforms and equipment either from domestic yards (eg. Mazagon Docks, Kochi shipyard etc.) or foreign suppliers. Cost and time overrun is endemic and the defence ministry must improve its decision-making and fiscal competence and correct its procedural malfeasance – which only a minister can demand and ensure compliance. Let it be added that her predecessors were unable to bell the cat !
The third is a related issue—the emphasis on 'Make in India' which has still not been realised in a significant manner. This cannot be addressed in a single-service silo manner and requires a systems engineering approach that involves a panoramic view of India and its holistic requirements.
Helicopters is a good example, where apart from the Navy, the other two services, as also the home ministry and civil aviation, agriculture, shipping etc. have their own requirements. Besides, other agencies such as ONGC and NDRA among many others have their own shopping list. Add state governments, and the Indian helicopter requirement over the next decade will be sizable.
However, a macro aggregation of the Indian requirement for rotary wing aircraft has not been pursued in an astute manner so as to enable 'Make in India' imperative. This to my mind represents poorly on India’s overall competence in harnessing scarce fiscal resources in an optimum manner. Hopefully Sitharaman, with inputs from NITI Aayog, will pick up the gauntlet.
The last aspect that merits cabinet review – perhaps at the CCS – is the need to accord a separate budgetary allocation in the defence allocation for military/naval diplomacy. By its very nature and the domain that it operates in, the Navy is the lead service for furthering India’s politic-strategic objectives through military diplomacy and some commendable progress has been made within the institutional and fiscal constraints.
Yet, the reality is that for all the emphasis that PM Modi has given to the Indian Ocean region and his personal advocacy of SAGAR (security and growth for all in the region) – this initiative is driven by the MEA. The defence ministry is not an active player and the naval apex has rarely been part of the policy deliberations. The existing template is inadequate and lazily outsources India’s external contour of maritime strategy and related policy formulation to the diplomat. This strand also needs institutional redress and one hopes that Sitharaman will review this issue on priority, though the time available to her is very limited
In short, there are as many challenges as there are opportunities for the Indian Navy—the Cinderella service—to realize its strategic potential.