How prepared is the Indian Navy in the case of a military aggression from the west coast? Ten years to the month after Mumbai was attacked by 10 Pakistan-trained terrorists in a military-style operation, the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Naval Command, Vice-Admiral Girish Luthra, is not too sure.
“There are critical deficiencies in helicopters, submarines and minesweepers,” Luthra told HT in an interview. “We have to address them quickly.”
Luthra, a highly-decorated Indian Navy officer, has commanded three major Indian ships –INS Viraat, INS Khukri and INS Talwar–and was also part of an elite group of officers that created the Long Term Maritime Perspective Plan for the Indian Navy to be a 200-ship strong Navy by 2027.
Soon after the terror attack on November 26, 2008, in which 166 civilians and paramilitary personnel were killed across various targets in south Mumbai, the Indian Navy was put at the forefront of India’s maritime security.
The Cabinet Committee on Security decided that the Indian Navy would be the nodal agency to coordinate coastal security.
However, as Vice-Admiral Luthra elaborated, the last Indian Navy helicopter was inducted 30 years ago. “I have ships with helicopter pads, but we do not have helicopters,” he said. “We need 111 helicopters for naval utilities, in addition to 123 multi-role helicopters.”
That demand became reality in August this year when the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) cleared the 111 utility helicopters for the navy at a cost of ₹21,000 crore. They will be used in attack missions as well as search and rescue operations. Last year, the Indian Navy had issued a worldwide request for information (RFI) to procure 111 utility and 123 multi-role helicopters.
The Indian Navy protects a 7,500 km long coastline, in addition to 1,200 islands and 2.2 million sq km of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). When it comes to jurisdiction and protection against external aggression from the sea (as was the case with the 26/11 attackers), it is the country’s first line of defence. The jurisdiction of coastal police stations is restricted to 12 nautical miles from the shore, while Coast Guard personnel man the sea from 12 nautical miles to 22 nautical miles. The Indian Navy manages anything beyond this right up to international waters.
“We are operating at our maximum, and we do not have any scope to manoeuvre,” Luthra said. “We’d want to stay at sea for longer than our present capability, but we cannot do it.”
The outline plan for Indian Navy to be a blue water navy (a naval force that is capable of operating globally) was conceptualised within a week of India’s independence.
A key point was the acquisition of submarines at the rate of two per year from 1952 onwards.
The strategic plan was the result of several pre- and post-independence proposals, including the Godfrey Plan of 1944, Chief of Staff Committee Report of 1944, the Committee for Planning the Requirement of the Armed Forces 1945, the Wansborough Jones report of 1946, the Professor Blackett Report, and the post-Independence plan for the Reorganisation and Development of Indian Navy.
But the Indian Navy needs fresh infusion of strategic assets even now. The government had okayed a plan to construct 24 submarines in two phases – 12 between 2000 and 2012, and the rest between 2013 and 2030.
It is 2018, and the first phase is still not implemented in its entirety, senior navy sources told HT on condition of anonymity.
This deficit could be significant in the case of the two-pronged war with China and Pakistan. Unlike a land battle, a naval conflict on two coasts would be considered as a single theatre for strategic reasons.
“Today, we are in a position to address this. But whether we will able to maintain it in future… we have to wait and watch; especially because other countries are developing fast, too.”