Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Nirmal Verma on Saturday lambasted the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) for frequent time overruns in the development of the Naval version of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA).

“They [ADA] focused largely on the Air Force programme and the LCA [Navy] did fall behind…. There have been many promises made by the ADA but they failed us,” he told The Hindu on Saturday on the sidelines of the ongoing multi-naval Milan initiative hosted by the Navy.

Terming the carrier-borne aircraft development programme ‘crucial' for the Navy, he said the naval version of the aircraft was considerably different from the Air Force version, given the type of forces it would undergo while making arrested landings on a carrier deck. This called for a reinforced undercarriage. “It is often said that there is only 15 per cent difference between both versions. The Navy has always maintained that it may be 15 per cent in terms of material and systems, but it is a substantial part. And they [ADA] underestimated it.”

Asked about the geo-strategic interests of the Navy in the Indian Ocean region, he said India was a ‘benign friend' of the Indian Ocean littorals. Affirming that forums such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and Milan went a long way in addressing mutual concerns and forging working-level partnerships, he said the Navy would continue to do what it had been doing. However, major western powers would like to see a far greater engagement of India in global affairs, he said in response to a query on the country's interests in the Indo-Pacific region.

On India providing Exclusive Economic Zone surveillance assistance to neighbouring countries, he said the help being sought was ‘extensive' and India would be able to do it in a ‘much better way' in the next few years when there would be a substantial infusion of platforms such as offshore patrol vessels “which are particularly made for the type of requirements that the smaller nations have.”

The Admiral said China had extensive trade interests, which resulted in its ‘commercial presence' in the region. “But, for a nation of our size, stature, growth rate and the role that is expected of us in global affairs, we must have certain capabilities and we are building them. So you must have a sense of confidence that our maritime interests would be fully met… If you look at defence allocations in terms of percentage of the GDP, ours is a modest figure, but when a nation is growing, that modest figure allows you to build certain capabilities,” he said.

The Admiral said that though the Navy preferred indigenous acquisition of assets, it was also procuring ships from abroad to plug certain gaps. “After the lost decade [the cash-strapped 1990s], we are now able to place orders, and acquisitions are happening; only that our yards are unable to deliver at globally competitive rates. But notwithstanding that, in the next five years, we would be commissioning on an average five ships or submarines in a year.”

He said that while Indian shipyards saw substantial improvements in capability, their speed of construction of platforms left a lot to be desired. “Their infrastructure has been modernised. We need to now concentrate on the modernisation of processes.”

The Admiral said India, as a matter of policy, would not have forward operating bases. But that was not a constraint as the two fleet tankers acquired last year allowed the Navy to operate two task groups far and wide for individual functions. As for the controversial logistic support agreement, which would have provided it berthing and refuelling on the co-signatory's shores, he said it was felt the Navy did not need it at this stage.

“Carrier-building is very expensive, but it is certainly there in our long-term plans,” the Admiral said about the Navy's wish to have a third carrier besides the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (which is under construction at Cochin Shipyard) and the Vikramaditya (slated for induction by this year-end). “It will help you ensure two carriers are operational at the same time. However, it all depends on how the Navy is supported by funding because along with the carrier, we want to do other things, too.”

INS Viraat would not outlive the commissioning of the IAC as the Sea Harrier aircraft would be unserviceable by then, he remarked.

The Navy was firming up a concept on the future carrier, taking into consideration the future of aviation and the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). “There would be far more capable aircraft and far more expected of an aircraft carrier in the late 2020s. So it [the future carrier] got to be different. Already, there is so much of research going on on UAVs because their capabilities have been demonstrated in ample measure in land battles.” The Admiral also hinted at deploying UAVs on platforms such as the Vikramaditya at a later date.

The Admiral said the Coast Guard-steered project to set up a coastal radar chain would fructify by the middle of next year.

Initially, the Navy had some reservations about the quality of certain equipment such as infrared devices and cameras, which would come with the radar, but Bharat Electronics had been proactive and had placed orders for subsystems, he said.

Admiral Verma said coastal security exercises, now held at the State-level, would soon have a larger envelope, expanding across States along the entire coastline. He added the Navy was doing all it could to encourage States to do more on coastal security and emulate Tamil Nadu in carving out a dedicated cadre for coastal police.

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