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Updated: August 18, 2009 01:06 IST

"I hope she'll last 30 years and more"

S. Anandan
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ADMIRAL SUREESH MEHTA: The goal has already been set for the long-drawn process of transformation.
The Hindu ADMIRAL SUREESH MEHTA: The goal has already been set for the long-drawn process of transformation.

A transformational wave buoyed by blue-water capability and cutting-edge technology is sweeping the Indian Navy. The force has embarked on a plan for all-round asset-building and indigenisation. Admiral Sureesh Mehta, the Chief of the Naval Staff, in a conversation with The Hindu in Kochi on August 3, puts in perspective the tasks ahead. Excerpts:

With you at the helm, the Navy has attained many milestones: leading the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), dedicating the Naval Academy in Ezhimala to the nation, laying the keel of the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier, launching Indias first nuclear submarine…

True, but individuals are transient themselves. The goal has already been set for the long-drawn process of transformation. The ball has started rolling and will continue in the next watch, as we call it. We've been carrying it forward because there is just so much that is going to happen in the armed forces and, therefore, we need to change the way in which we work. There is a need to adapt ourselves to different practices which will allow us to ride this wave. That was the roadmap we had set for ourselves.

Foreign collaboration has been a tremendous success story. A few months after taking over as the Navy chief, it struck me that we could do something novel to bring all our neighbours closer to one another, and we floated the IONS. It didn't take long to stabilise. So in its first conclave in Delhi, of the 32 littoral countries in the Indian Ocean, 28 were represented 23 by their Navy chiefs and five by the deputies. There was demand from other Navies that we continue to organise it. But as per its constitution, the chairmanship rotates every two years. The UAE has volunteered to host the next IONS.

Indigenisation is the Navy's mantra and it's in this context that we're building the IAC. The project was conceived many years ago, but in the mid-1990s a new concept, that of the air defence ship (ADS), came about as an alternative proposition to massive, expensive carriers. Thus, the carrier we had already designed was put on the chopping block with the cost factor in mind.

However, as soon as we realised that it wouldn't suffice, we reverted to the actual plan to have huge carriers 40,000 tonne and above with adequate capabilities. The keel-laying of the IAC was a significant step. We've been reviewing the project continuously. We've a good, competent partner in Cochin Shipyard, which has been doing the refits of our carriers.

The acquisition of Admiral Gorshkov, rechristened INS Vikramaditya, from Russia has been mired in controversy thanks to the time lag, scepticism over the quality of refurbishment, cost escalation and so on. What is the status?

We're quite happy with the quality and pace of work on the Vikramaditya. We've changed tonnes of steel in the ship. A large amount of work that was not foreseen earlier has been done. Hence the issue of whether or not this should be paid for by us. I have conveyed to Russia our view [when it demanded an addition $1.2 billion for the refit]. A contract is a contract. You win some, you lose some. We have been your major defence partner for some time now and so we can't have this kind of ad hoc increase in price put into effect, I said.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence realised that so much work has been done on the ship and maybe there's a case to give some more money. The engines have been changed. Right now we're at the stage where a very large amount of cabling, about 3,000 km, has to be redone. Initially the plan was to re-cable wherever it was necessary. Then they thought it would be best to change it entirely. So what we're going to get at the end of it, as far as I'm concerned, is a nice, brand-new ship which will doubtless remain operational for 25 to 30 years. That's the stipulated period, but I hope she'll last 30 years and more. The Vikramaditya will have some wonderful capabilities and with a versatile aircraft [the MiG 29K], which is integral to its fleet, it would be an ideal platform for us to cover all of the Indian Ocean.

We've done an in-depth study to ascertain the genuineness of the price issue. Both countries will now sit across and renegotiate the price. There could be some give and take, but what well arrive at would be a justifiable price.

The current refit of INS Viraat is expected to extend its operational life for a few more years, by which time hopefully the IAC and the Vikramaditya would be inducted. Do we have a carrier-building programme to cater for long-term requirements?

We'll be paying out the Viraat in eight to 10 years time, and by when we'll have two carriers [the IAC and the Vikramaditya]. We are already working on the design of a second indigenous carrier, slightly bigger maybe, to cater for the aircraft we will have in future.

That calls for a question on the progress of the LCA (Navy) project. Isnt it a tad behind schedule?

We're very hopeful that if not at the beginning of the IAC, it should come through a couple of years later. Obviously, it'll not be ready at the start of the IAC, which we hope will embark the MiG-29 K. In fact, we've planned a mix of both the aircraft for the IAC as each has a definitive role to play. As for the LCA programme, the Navy has thrown its weight behind it from the beginning. I was personally responsible for the programme not being dumped midway. I had stated on file that the Navy would like to have this kind of an aircraft. What had initially begun as a naval project turned out to be an Air Force affair along the course.

The naval variant would be quite different from the land variant, with a strong undercarriage, more thrust, an arrester hook, and the like. There would be a droop in the cockpit for enhanced visibility during landing on carrier deck. The Air Force trainer version [two-seater] will take off from the naval version, as both will have lots in common.

The sole carrier-borne fighter aircraft, the Sea Harrier, has recently undergone a limited upgrade. How long will it last now?

Well, we expect them to be in service for 10 years. Its add-on capabilities such as [Derby] Beyond Visual Range Air to Air Missile have been enhanced. The LUSH [Limited Upgrade Sea Harrier] programme is an absolute success on that count, and we've got a brand new aircraft electronically within the same airframe. The new radar and new missile will bring about a complete change in the aircraft's performance.

INS Arihant marked a watershed, with India accomplishing a crucial second-strike capability. What are the other dividends?

It was a necessity that had to be brought about. Every country works for a nuclear triad and it is imperative that we have the capability of underwater launch of nuclear weapons. In fact, most countries have given up the land and air variants, and just stuck to the underwater platform because of its major advantage in terms of stealth and endurance. An indigenous project, Arihant has given as a submarine of sorts, which will have this capability. Hopefully, we'll have more of these [Arihant-class submarines] in due course which will give us the full-fledged capability to carry out the tasks we are expected to do.

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