Monitoring Chinese assets in Indian Ocean Region: Navy chief

There is a need to differentiate between Malabar exercise and Quad, says Admiral Karambir Singh

Updated - November 09, 2021 09:44 pm IST

Published - November 09, 2021 06:04 pm IST - Dona Paula (Goa)

Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Karambir Singh.

Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Karambir Singh.

Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Karambir Singh said the Navy was monitoring the Chinese naval and maritime assets deployed in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for any activities “inimical to our interests”.

In an exclusive conversation with The Hindu on the sidelines of the Goa Maritime Conclave (GMC), Admiral Singh spoke on issues across the maritime domain covering increasing cooperation in the IOR to tackle non-traditional threats, efforts for information exchange and capacity-building, Malabar exercise , Quad grouping, China’s growing presence in the IOR, naval modernisation among others.

The third edition of GMC 2021, being hosted by the Indian Navy, has the participation of Navy Chiefs and heads of maritime forces from 12 Indian Ocean nations.

Full text of the interview:

‘Goa Maritime Conclave for looking at common challenges and forging tangible solutions to key issues’

The GMC has grown as a platform. In the backdrop of developments in the region what is the focus of this edition? What are the outcomes you are looking at going forward?

The aim of the conclave is to bring together a smaller group of navies in the immediate neighbourhood, look at the common challenges that we face, and forge tangible solutions to key issues. We bring together practitioners and scholars to discuss these challenges. Thereafter, we have an exclusive session wherein the naval heads will discuss one-on-one the way forward to these challenges. This year, the theme is ‘Maritime Security and Emerging Non Traditional Threats: The Case for Proactive Role for Indian Ocean Region Navies’. We will examine information sharing, hydrographic cooperation, maritime law enforcement, training, opportunities in disaster response, crisis management etc. Each GMC is followed by a Goa Maritime Symposium (GMS). During the GMS, we follow up discussions that have happened during the GMC and work to bring them to fruition through an action plan that will be presented back again to the heads of navies. And since we are a smaller grouping, it will be easier for us to do that.

So in the four years so far, what have been the outcomes?

Some of the outcomes feed into certain other constructs such as the Colombo Security Conclave. Focused Operations is another outcome we are looking at. So, there have been outcomes which have come through. It has also given us greater visibility on some issues like Information Fusion Centre for Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), wherein we have now got better participation from the countries around us.

How do you see the Indo-Pacific architecture shaping up in the backdrop of recent developments and how do you see the GMC plugging into it?

The general idea, whether it is Indo-Pacific or the GMC, is that we have to keep our seas open. Seas permit free flow of commerce and ideas. Ideas, because 99% of our communications are running through undersea cables, and commerce, because 90% of our trade is through the seas, is 70% by value and 90% by volume. If you look at the Indo-Pacific, it’s basically a maritime orientation and that’s why we hear words like free, open, inclusive, because seas connect, they don’t divide. The constructs of Indo-Pacific or the GMC are all meant to handle the challenges together, so that we keep the seas free, open and inclusive, for free flow of commerce and ideas, and finally leading to the prosperity of the citizens of our countries.

As far as Indo-Pacific is concerned, there are several articulations by various countries, but I quite like the articulation by India. Initially, it was based on what the Prime Minister said during the Shangri La dialogue . Thereafter, we actually brought it to a much more firm footing by articulating the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), which is based on seven pillars - Maritime Security, Ecology, Maritime Resources, Capacity Building, Disaster Risk Reduction, Trade and Connectivity. Thus all issues that are linked to the prosperity of the region, and they are all being put together under this construct.

Addressing GMC 2019, National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval had offered India’s facilities to littoral states for information sharing as well as offered assistance in capacity-building. How has that progressed?

What the NSA has mentioned has been a very important line of effort that the Navy has adopted, and we are working hard on both these fronts, information exchange and capacity-building. As far as information sharing is concerned, building a comprehensive Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is a focus area for us. Because information leads to awareness and awareness leads to understanding. It’s very important considering the expanse of the IOR and the limited resources that we have. In this endeavour, the IFC-IOR was launched in December 2018. The aim was to pool information and promote maritime security and safety in the region. We already have nine International Liaison Officers who have joined since the last edition of the GMC and three more would be joining very shortly. We also got the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) mandate for white shipping agreements with 36 countries, of which 22 have been already concluded. Aim is to progress the white shipping information exchange with remaining countries, and as we build more trust, to get into exchange of information on Vessels of Interest and Dark Shipping etc. That is as far as information sharing is concerned. As far as capacity enhancement is concerned, India has been firmly engaged with its neighbours and we’ve been forward leaning as a country. You are aware that we work with several countries in terms of capacity-building. The advantage we have of geographic location is used to offer capacities to neighbours to take on repair and refit of these platforms. We also send mobile training teams in order to keep these platforms operational.

And the whole aim is to not only to have capacity, but something we call ‘Collective Maritime Competence’. Each country around us has expertise in something that they can bring to the table, whether it is their geographic location or expertise in a particular area. Our aim is to work together and build this collective maritime competence so that we can handle all the challenges in our region together.

Of late you had referred to joint development of capacities with neighbouring countries. What is the status and what is interest to it from the littoral states, who are part of the GMC?

We’ve been working towards it and it is being discussed within the Government of India and we hope to find an answer to this. We have the Navy’s design Directorate since 1964 and have good competence in designing ships of various tonnages and requirements and we are keen to share the expertise. There have been teams which have visited the Directorate of Naval Design. We’ve got an MoU for instance, between the GRSE and Khulna shipyard (Bangladesh) for joint development and production of ships.

What were the top challenges during your tenure at the helm? Since the developments in Afghanistan, there have been apprehensions of possible smuggling of weapons via the sea route in addition to narcotics. What is your assessment?

Narco-terrorism is a real threat that we envisage. There is a connection between drug trafficking and arms trafficking. Organisations like ISIS Khorasan depend a fair amount on the money that they make out of drugs. We have intelligence that indicates that there is a flow of drugs from the Makran coast, down to the East coast of Africa from where it moves to the island nations, which are tourism dependent economies, and then to Sri Lanka and India and also across the world. This is a threat that we are aware of, and we have initiatives such as the Colombo Security Conclave, wherein we want to do certain Focused Operations with countries that are affected by challenges such as drug trafficking to put an end to this scourge.

Is there any assessment on arms flowing out of Afghanistan?

There isn’t any specific intelligence but there is a known linkage between drug trafficking and arms trafficking.

What is your assessment of the concept of Mission Based Deployments (MBD) that began five years back?

Mission Based Deployments, which started in 2017, have been of significant utility to us. First, when ships are on regular deployment in key areas in the IOR, they increase their familiarity with the area of operation. We are also available for response in any situation. For instance when cyclone Idai hit Mozambique, our ships were at hand. They all carry Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) bricks, and were immediately deployed to provide assistance and succour. Next year, in Madagascar, we had a similar situation, our ships on MBD were available. So, that establishes our credibility and assures friendly nations that we are ready to assist anytime.

Also, when we talk of our endeavour to be a Preferred Security Partner, we have to be around to come to assistance, or to understand the area. MBD has actually transformed the Navy from a deployment-ready Navy to a deployed Navy. The intention is to continue with this particular method of deployment.

Any changes you are looking at in MBDs?

We are constantly analysing the gains that we make in various areas and what are the challenges being faced. For example, when we realise that there is a problem or danger to our shipping in the Straits of Hormuz… 60% of our crude comes from the Gulf, 50% of our oil comes from the Gulf, we have a diaspora of approximately 8 million people, we have remittances up to $40 bn coming from there, a large amount of shipping is passing through, carrying resources. If the problems get worse and our shipping gets effected, there is an associated problem of insurance. A $1 increase in per barrel cost of crude insurance drains our Exchequer by about ₹10,000 crore . We realised that and promptly deployed our ships on Op Sankalp which is also a mission based deployment to provide some kind of assurance to our ships coming through that area. That’s how we constantly re-evaluate based on the threats and based on our understanding of the area. MBDs are not static in one place, they are constantly analysed and reviewed.

What is the way forward for Quad as well the Malabar exercise, given the growing interest in the region?

I think we need to differentiate Malabar and Quad. Malabar precedes Quad. It was in 1992 that we started Malabar with the U.S. Navy and thereafter, it has grown over a period of time to include Japan and Australia. What we are achieving in Malabar is that we are continuously increasing the scope and complexity of the exercise so that we are able to seamlessly operate with each other. And if required, for any contingency or any challenge. we can easily come in a plug and play format and operate.

As for Quad, it is basically a Ministry of External Affairs’ (MEA) construct. It has again grown organically based on the challenges. It started with secretary-level talks then ministerial level talks, then moved to videoconferencing between heads of state and recently we had all the heads of state meeting face to face. So they are engaged in a construct, which is responding to challenges like climate change, critical infrastructure and supply chain resilience. So these two, I think. need to be envisioned at different levels.

Do you see Malabar expanding in the near future, given the interest from so many countries?

It’s a decision of the government.

India has signed all the foundational agreements with the U.S. and logistics support agreements with several countries, including Australia and Japan. How has the Navy benefited from these agreements?

These are all important agreements that we’ve signed. When we sign these agreements, say LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement), and our ships are deployed off Guam, we are able to take fuel from their tankers. Or when we are operating off Australia we will be able to take fuel from their tanker. The main thing that navies require is ‘Reach and Sustenance’. These are two very important principles on which any Navy operates. The agreements that we have, including foundational agreements, have helped us in being able to achieve this ‘Reach and Sustenance’, which is very important for us.

There is huge interest in trilaterals and minilaterals with the Indian Navy. How are you prioritising it and what are the major ones that are in the pipeline?

We would like to engage with more like-minded navies who agree with us on the requirement for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. When I say inclusive, it means everybody is in it and it’s not a prohibitive or elitist. There will be different kinds of formats -bilateral, trilateral or multilateral. We are doing trilateral now with Singapore and Thailand and a trilateral construct with Australia and Indonesia is being worked upon. So we are open to different formats as long as the intent is to reach the common vision of being a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific.

In addition to increased forays into the IOR, PLA Navy now has a base in Djibouti and are building ships faster than anyone else. In this backdrop, how are you prioritising your modernisation as well as operational philosophy?

As a Navy, we are monitoring the Chinese Navy and Chinese maritime assets that are deployed in the IOR, including Chinese research vessels to watch out for any activities inimical to our interests. It is true that the Chinese have a presence in the IOR. And whatever you said, bases and presence is a fact.

And how are you prioritising your force modernisation, given the rapid force accretion by PLA Navy?

We have the Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP). We are focusing on acquisition of capability to protect our national interests in the maritime domain. That is balanced against the budget and other issues such as indigenous production. We have to intelligently use our money, so that we are able to have effective capability to protect our national interests. Here, we are focusing a lot on issues like unmanned systems, force multipliers, networking and all technologies that sort of enable these particular force multipliers. That is the way to go, given the budgetary constraints that we have and the realities that we face.

Is there any revision of your current plan given recent developments?

There has been some change now in the MCPP with the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) coming in, who are looking into the joint aspects. There is now the Integrated Capability Development Plan (ICDP). They are doing a proper assessment of the security scenario, where we want to head in the future and the capabilities required by the three Services. Based on it the MCPP will flow from the ICDP. The process is underway. It should be done in 3-5 months.

The submarine arm of the Navy is a matter of concern with series of delays in modernisation. What are the immediate steps the Navy is looking at to address the dwindling fleet?

We have the 30-year submarine programme and in that the Project-75 is now moving on track. We will commission the fourth Scorpene submarine Vela by month-end. And thereafter, in short succession, the fifth and sixth Scorpenes will join. They bring with them quite a good capability, a modern submarine with good armament. Meanwhile, the SSKs - 209s (German HDWs) and EKMs (Russian Kilo) are being put through the Medium Refit Life Certification (MRLC) process which will give them an additional life of 10 to 15 years. For Project-75I, we have issued the Request For Proposal (RFP) and not in a decade and a half, but well before that, we will start constructing very modern submarines. This is going to be maybe the last time that we will take any outside assistance; henceforth we will design and build our own submarines.

There was a plan for a Project-76 to build an indigenous conventional submarine based on the learning from Project 75 and 75I. Is that still on board?

Yes, that should be the next logical step.

The Navy recently unveiled the unmanned road map. Can you give the salient features of it and how it fits in your long-term planning?

Unmanned is definitely the future. Of course, there will be a transition phase where we will first shift from manned to optimally manned, then a manned-unmanned hybrid kind of concept and then in certain disciplines, we will move to fully unmanned. The road map is actually talking about that - how the phased transition is going to be, both in size and the degree of autonomy. This unmanned is very intimately wedded to the Indian Navy’s concept of operations and most importantly, we have looked at how we balance this fleet of manned and unmanned, including manned unmanned teaming. Thereafter, we also looked at what are the Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) because it’s not just the platform, but unmanned systems will have to be part of the entire philosophy of operations. So they require a certain enabling system. The road map has also looked at the present TRL levels in the country, see if we require technology infusion from abroad and where do we get the technology which is already resident. Timelines are mentioned for each activity, and a plan of action has been mentioned.

I want to tell you that the road map is already underway. We are very heartened to note that a lot of start-ups in the country have a tremendous amount of capability. And as we move around and interact with more of them, it gives us a lot of hope that we’ll be able to transition in fairly quick time, which is much cheaper, inexpensive, and it is capable of doing the four Ds. - Dirty, Dull, Dear and Dangerous.

Has the Navy finalised the contours of the second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-II)? When do you expect to approach the government for a formal sanction?

Our thinking caps are constantly on as to how we want the configuration, because in the Navy, planning is long term. There are several options, like a 65,000 tonne electric propelled IAC, which would have a combination of manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft. So there are various combinations on the table, which we are discussing before we go in for Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) of IAC-II. The heartening part is that Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) built the Vikrant and has performed exceedingly well. So, we now have the capability to build carriers up to 65,000 tonnes within the country. Once we firm up on this, we will go to the government. So, there is constant thinking on how we can get the best value for money and future proof our platforms.

Any road map for developing the islands especially the Andaman and Nicobar chain?

Islands like the Andaman and Nicobar give us much strategic reach. And they are capable of acting as a springboard for operations when required and, therefore, infrastructure development in these islands is a prime focus. We have been working at it for sometime and we’ve got plans to develop these islands for air operations and for operational turnaround facilities of our ships and submarines.

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