As the Balakot strike was happening, the Indian Navy was sending Pakistan a strategic message by deploying its forces in forward areas of the Northern Arabian Sea. Outgoing Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Sunil Lanba hands over command on May 31, 2019. Speaking before that to SNI’s Editor-in-Chief Nitin Gokhale, Admiral Lanba outlines how surveillance showed the Pakistan Navy was hugging its coastline post the air strike on a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorist camp in Pakistan. After handing over his post of Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) to Air Chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, Admiral Lanba also talks about the tri-services agencies (Cyber, Space, Special Forces) that have been set up. Admiral Lanba also talks about his legacy, key naval projects, having three carrier battle groups, progress on submarine building and acquisition and manpower shortages. The outgoing chief outlines the plans for a 200-ship and 500 aircraft navy and how bilateral logistical agreements are already having an effect, with Indian navy ships refueling from U.S. tankers.
Intro: After a 3-year tenure, Admiral Sunil Lanba will be superannuating end of May. It’s been a tenure marked with several highs for the Indian Navy. It’s become a Navy with operational tempo that has been kept high throughout this 3-year tenure. They’re several achievements to the Navy’s credit and he’s leaving the Navy-which is extremely competent- one of the most professional navies in the world and of course with many more challenges in coming years and decades because the geopolitical flux is already upon us in this part of the world and therefore the navy’s role is going to increase. To know what the Navy has done over the last 3 years and what he thinks what the Navy should do or what the Navy’s role should be going forward, we are joined by Admiral Sunil Lanba. Admiral, it’s always a pleasure. We spoke last time about a year ago and that time you had spoken about the many plans the Navy has. When you look back at your tenure of 3 years. What do you feel? What are the high point of your tenure?
A: Thank You, very much. It’s always a pleasure interacting with you. (Thank You) When I took over in June 2016, we carried out an analysis of the geo-strategic situation and also internally-within the Navy. I came out with a vision for the Navy, which was to be a combat ready force. And, we worked out the ways, means, ends to achieve this. The focus has been to be mission deployed in our areas of maritime interest, have fully ready combat ships which are deployed-which can tackle any situation or contingency in the Indian Ocean region(IOR) where they’re operating.
Q: When you look back, when you said you had this vision, one of the things we spoke about a couple of times was the operational tempo that you took to another level. How has it helped the Navy over the last 3 years or so?
A: I came out with the idea of mission based deployment-of deploying combat ready ships in our areas of maritime interest. We identified areas of interest in the IOR-we have mission deployed ships in the Gulf of Aden and in the Andaman Sea-in the mouth of the Malacca Straits. We identified areas in the northern part of the Arabian Sea, in the central Indian Ocean, northern Bay of Bengal and periodically here also we have mission ready deployed ships. With this, one was we got focused within the rank and file and I made sure this message went down to the junior most sailor-that this is the mission you’re on in our areas of interest. So, there was an aim, a commitment within the rank and file of the Navy of what we’re trying to do.
Q: Did it influence a lot of geo-political thinking, India’s outreach to the world-because your tenure also coincided with a government that had foreign policy and national security as one of its focus areas. Prime Minister Modi reached out both to the East and the West. The Navy has played a major part; would you think in that outreach?
A: We’re totally committed to the Honourable PM’s vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth For All In The Region) and ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikaas’. For that we have to ensure there is economic growth in the country and the nation has finally as a whole realized that we’re fundamentally dependent on the nation for the well-being and growth. We have a better maritime domain awareness and where required, we were there in the areas where the recent cyclone took place which hit Mozambique. Our ships were there in that part and they were in Mozambique in the port of Berau in a matter of a day. We’re totally committed to security and growth for all. Along with like-minded Navies and partners, we’ve taken the initiative of the Government forward.
Q: Indian Ocean Naval Symposium(IONS) also makes up a major part of this mechanism in the Indian Ocean and areas of our influence. How has IONS shaped up over the years?
A: IONS has now finished a decade. Along with Australia, we’re now working on information sharing. In a short period of 10 years, IONS has come a long way to become a platform. Membership has grown including members and observers.
Q: IONS is there, but India has also gone out of its way and proactively look for partnerships-bilaterally-with France, with U.S. of course, India signed the two foundational agreements. We’re looking at ports actively. How has that shaped the Navy’s future thinking?
A: Let’s look at logistics. We signed the first logistics agreement-LEMOA with the U.S. We’ve signed a logistics agreement with France. We have exchanged the Memorandum of Understanding(MoU) with Russia. We’ve also signed an agreement with Singapore. This has eased and increased our range of deployment. LEMOA-with U.S. already operationalized. Our ships have fueled from U.S. Navy tankers. It has helped. It has increased our presence in our areas of maritime interest.
Q: Visibility and influence has increased consequently.
A: We’re working with like-minded Navies and partners to ensure rules based order and international norms are followed.
Q: In areas like the Indo-Pacific that’s going to be the biggest challenge to enforce going forward. Do you agree?
A: I can’t agree with you more. (Laugh)
Q: Let me come back to more mundane matters in terms of the Navy’s asset creations and ship building. Currently less than a 100-ship Navy, planning to go up to 122-144 ships. What’s that plan?
A: We’re a 138 ship Navy. Our plan is to take it up to a 200-ship Navy along with about 500 aircraft. We’ve signed a number of ship-building contracts. In 2015 we signed a major contract called the 17 Alpha frigate programme. Recently we have signed a contract for large survey vessels, diving support vessel, signed a contract for 16 anti-submarine warfare(ASW) shallow water craft. At the moment we have 51 ships on order or under construction, 49 in India and 2 frigates from Russia.
Q: You’re submarine programme has been slower than surface ships. Where is it right now?
A: The 30-year submarine building programme that was formulated in 1999 is running behind schedule. Fortunately, the Project 75 or the Scorpene programme is progressing well. It’s up and running. We’ve commissioned the first boat, the second submarine is finishing its sea-trials and should be inducted in 2-3 months’ time. The 3rd boat has also started sea-trials; 4th boat has recently been launched. Scorpene programme is finally on track. As far as the follow on boats of the 75-India/ 75-I which is under the strategic partnership modal has also now started moving forward. We have set up a committee that is looking at identifying shipyards and working out how the EOIs (Expression of Interest) are going to be worked out. I’m hopeful that the 75-I project- we will also be able to sign the contract by end of next year.
Q: Last time also I had asked you that budget constraints are always going to be there in a country like India, where there are other competing interests for funds. But, given the fact that India needs submarines-and you’ve mentioned the progress-what is the Navy’s plans for aircraft carriers? You’re still looking at a 3 Carrier Battle Strike Groups(CBG) or what is the plan?
A: The Navy is committed to a 3 CBG configuration. We have Vikramaditya, which is already in service, 1st Indigenous Aircraft Carrier(IAC) Vikrant is fitting out and starting to do harbor acceptance trials. We should induct her sometime in 2021. IAC 2, we have worked out the form and fit within the Navy. We’ve taken it up to the ministry for approval. 3 CBGs will give us the capability of having at least 2 of them operational at all given times. I am confident we will get approval for IAC 2.
Q: Do you think enough funds are available or what has the Government been telling you?
A: We have worked out within the Navy with our budget and the year-on-year growth which is there and the expenditure over a 10-year period. We should be able to construct and fund IAC 2 within the Navy’s budget.
Q: So, in your senior leadership’s minds there is no dilemma that it should be either/or: either submarines or aircraft carriers?
A: No. We’ve worked out a long-term integrated perspective plan (LTIPP) and what the naval budget is. We’ve been able to work out that we’ll be able to fund our LTIPP within the allocation of the budget.
Q: Good to hear. You’ve had issues with shortage of helicopters-that’s back on track again.
A: That’s also on track. 24 multi-role helicopters, we’ve received the letter of acceptance (LoA) from the U.S. –under the foreign military sales (FMS) case. I’m confident will be able to sign this contract by the latter half of the year. We’ve got acceptance of necessity (AoN) of naval utility helicopters-111 of them through the strategic partnership model and that is also most heartening to see.
Q: That will be manufactured in India.
A: In India.
Q: Coming to human resource. Are you ok with the kind of intake you’re getting-the kind of quality of HR that are being inducted or do you need some more stepping up of recruitment?
A: Two parts. Officers and sailors. We have a shortfall of about 15% in both verticals. We’re now recruiting about 6000 sailors annually. We’re getting adequate volunteers and have just shifted to an online recruitment test and system which has worked very well. Our reach has increased; number of applicants have gone up. On officers’ side have adequate number of people volunteering and wanting to join. What has changed is people from tier-2, tier-3 cities are volunteering in larger numbers than from metros. )
Q: It’s been moving towards that. Now in February, India had this major development when the Pulwama attack happened and the government decided to strike back at Balakot. While the Air Force’s strike and the subsequent dog-fight has been spoken about, not enough is known in the public domain about what the Navy did-how it put the pressure on Pakistan. Can you elaborate?
A: We’re the silent service (Laugh) We were in the throes of our annual exercise TROPEX. When Pulwama happened, we pulled out some units and forward deployed them towards the northern Arabian Sea. When we were given clear-cut directives that we were going to do an action in Balakot, we terminated TROPEX, redeployed our forces to the northern part of the Arabian sea-different task groups including the CBG and submarines. We were aggressively poised to prevent any action being taken by our enemy.
Q: For the common understanding, when you say aggressive action, what would you have done to the Pakistani Navy or the traffic that’s coming in and out? Is it that you bottled them up, you choked them? How would you describe it?
A: No, this is a hypothetical question. The asymmetry between the armed forces is the maximum between the Pakistan and Indian Navies. It rests entirely in our favour. If push comes to shove we would have decimated the Pakistani Navy.
Q: That’s all you’ll say at this moment. It’s great to know, because the Navy has always played its part be it Kargil, be it 1971 where there was major action by the Navy. Kargil, we remember the role played by the Navy is something similar
A: You send a strategic message by forward deploying our forces, carrying out surveillance by maritime patrol aircraft to have maritime domain awareness. Post Balakot, we found the Pakistani Navy deployed very close to their coast and hugging their coastline.
Q: They didn’t want to get out when you were there. Moving to tri-service matters. You were chairman-until this morning- chiefs of staff committee. What is the status of the 3 tri-service divisions that you’ve created? Now are they off the ground or still in conceptual stage?
A: The 3 agencies-they’re off the ground. The head of the 3 agencies have been appointed, manpower is starting to be posted. We’ve decided where these agencies are going to be located. I’m happy with the progress we’ve made in the short time. I’m confident the 3 agencies will be up and running by the latter half of the year
Q: Space, cyber and special forces. When you’re superannuating, any regrets in your whole service or tenure as chief?
A: I was asked the same question on my farewell visit to Visakhapatnam by a young officer. One will only have regrets if you have personal agendas which I have never had. I have followed the honour code-of the core values of the Navy in the form of duty, honour and courage and I’m retiring a very satisfied man. We have a very potent Navy which is combat ready and mission deployed
Q: That’s very good to hear. Admiral Lanba as usual it’s a great pleasure to speak to you (Thanks a lot) It’s something I will always treasure. Thank You