In his second press meet as CNS, Admiral Joshi played it extremely safe
In his second annual press meet as the chief of naval staff, on 3 December 2013, Admiral D.K. Joshi was a cautious man. Having been baptised by fire after his first annual press conference in 2012, when he tripped badly on China repeatedly, this time, not only he avoided the ‘C’ word like plague, he mastered the art of mouthing the words without saying anything.
When Admiral Joshi was flag officer commanding in chief, western naval command, one of his staff officers, in a rare moment of candidness, told me during the commissioning of INS Satpura, that as far as the media was concerned, Vice Admiral Joshi was an arrogant man. Having met him a few times since then, I think calling him arrogant is unkind. Admiral Joshi is not an arrogant man. He comes across as a person who has allowed himself to be persuaded by his staff to regard media as a necessary evil, even though he is not fully convinced about its usefulness to his job.
This lack of interest in communication shows in the way he hoards words. His statements are staccato and even the most innocuous information is given out with utmost reluctance. It’s as if it hurts him to say the words. One inference could be that he is cautious because he wants to avoid controversy at any cost. But my view is that he doesn’t particularly care about controversies. He is far too self-assured, rightly or wrongly. He just doesn’t care about interacting with the media. Unlike his predecessors, once removed, he doesn’t consider media a force multiplier. Hence, his annual press conference is a mere tradition which must be put up with, without pleasure. And it doesn’t help that most of his immediate staff also feel awkward with the media around. Forget friendly banter, they are reluctant to have a conversation. The maximum that they can manage is laying down the rules or passing on instructions.
The press conference started with the traditional round-up of the Indian Navy, a sort of an annual update on the highpoints of 2013. Sure enough, right on top was the final arrival of aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya which had by then set sail from Severodvinsk, Russia.
“INS Vikramaditya will bolster navy’s blue-water capability,” said Admiral Joshi, adding that in anticipation of the ship’s arrival, the Indian naval pilots have been doing extensive training on MiG-29Ks at INS Hansa in Goa.
While the ship’s exact arrival is a bit of a secret, it is likely to be at its berthing place, Karwar, by the end of January. Project Seabird (building of the Karwar naval base) was to have started on Phase II by now, after Phase I was declared completed in 2005. Yet, Admiral Joshi said that work on Phase II will start shortly, having finally been approved. “Meanwhile, the Karwar base is completely ready to receive the aircraft carrier,” he said. On the subject of aircraft carrier, Admiral Joshi expressed optimism about the indigenous one. “The air defence ship, INS Vikrant, which was launched earlier this year, will be commissioned in 2017,” he said. But those who thought that it would then lead to a three-carrier navy, disappointment was in store when the chief put them wise by pointing out that, “By then we would have retired INS Viraat after a long service.”
Among the other surface vessels on the assembly line, the chief said that 45 ships, surface, as well as sub-surface were currently on order with different Indian shipyards. The figure, despite its impressiveness conceals a sad reality of lopsided development and delayed acquisitions. For instance, of the 45 ships, only six are submarines, and these are the long-delayed Scorpenes, being built under license-production at Mazagon Docks Ltd in Mumbai. Sure, they are being built at an Indian shipyard, but not only is there a huge technology transfer, even the supervision is French. And for the latter vessels which will have greater degree of indigenisation, the French have refused to stand guarantee.
The second line of submarines, Project-75 India, also has been inordinately delayed. For the last couple of years, each chief of naval staff used to say religiously that the request for proposal for P-75I would be issued shortly or within this year. However, Admiral Joshi was honest enough to admit that, “The RFP for P-75I has been delayed.” As he refused to put any timelines to it now, it was obvious that the RFP will not come out any time soon. After going through sustained labour pains over the composition of the programme — how many boats to be built in India, how many abroad, how many in the Indian defence shipyards and how many in the private shipyards — the latest rumour is that of the six boats, two will be built at the OEMs shipyard, and four will be built in India, probably at defence shipyards. No room for private players here.
“The government is aware of this criticality,” said Admiral Joshi, which became worse after the fatal accident in INS Sindhurakshak, rendering it unusable. Incidentally, INS Sindhurakshak was amongst the newer submarines. Of the 14 submarines that the Indian Navy operates at the moment, the loss of Sindhurakshak leaves it with only 13 operational submarines.
But this is in theory. In reality, two of the Kilo (Russian-built) class submarines are already well past their 25-year service life. They can remain in service notionally to maintain the numbers, but it would be cavalier to put them to sea. Of the remaining 11 also, mid-life upgrades and refits would keep at least a couple of them out of circulation at any given time.
“After the Sindhurakshak incident, we are trying to take mitigating efforts to make the best of the bad situation,” said the CNS. “These include increasing the man-power during refits to ensure better availability of the boats. We are also looking at the possibility of service life extension of some of the boats.”
On the other submarines supposedly on the horizon, Admiral Joshi was succinct. Asked when the navy is likely to finalise the agreement on leasing the second Akula nuclear-powered submarine from Russia, he shot back, “I don’t know if we are leasing the second Akula.”
What is the status of the indigenous INS Arihant? “Currently, we are carrying out a series of tests to validate the reactor,” he said. “This should be over in a few weeks, after which sea trials will commence. The harbour trials are over and they were 100 per cent successful.” Has the weapon suite for the sub been finalised? “Rest assured, when commissioned, INS Arihant will not be toothless,” he said. In another context, he admitted that given the budgetary limitations, it is always a toss-up between platforms and state-of-the-art weaponry for a service. “Sometimes, you opt for the platform, because they take longer to come through,” he said.
Ships aside, navy is also in the process of buying air assets. While the first of the P-8Is have arrived in India, the RFP for the medium range maritime reconnaissance (MRMR) aircraft has been issued. The RFPs for the rotary wing assets are under process.
Given that the proposal for the creation of the Special Forces command is now with the ministry of defence, how does he see the Command unfolding? Would each service contribute man-power to the new command? “No, the navy will retain its MarCos,” he said. Then where will the Special Forces come from for the new Command? “There will be new raisings,” he clarified. Succinct, he is.
As procurements and modernisation go hand in hand, the twins dominated the presser. The other subject, which the chief brought up during his initial address and which found immediate resonance (owing to the 5th anniversary of the 26 November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai) among the journalists, was coastal security. According to him, Phase I of the coastal security programme has been completed.
“There is better awareness and better coordination among all the agencies operating in this domain, including the Centre, state governments, ports, fisheries department, customs, state police, Indian Coast Guard and the navy. There are more radars in the coastal radar and the automatic identification system (AIS) chains,” he said. “The architecture for Phase II is in place. Much of the infrastructure is in place. The coastal security bill has been drafted and will be steered by the ministry of home affairs,” he added.
Now that the grounds have been paved for coastal security, is the navy ready to hand over the baby to the Indian Coast Guard? “We have been tasked by the government to do a job and we will continue to do so. I am not aware of any timelines,” he said.
All through the press meet, the journalists tried very hard to drag the CNS towards China, whether by asking questions on the imposition of no-fly zone by China or the supposedly burgeoning defence cooperation with Sri Lanka. But this time, Admiral Joshi was taking no chances. To the former he said, “We do not operate in the South China sea on a regular basis. So the issue of airspace cover does not concern us.” To the latter he said, “There is no scaling up of activity with Sri Lanka. Ours is only a training-based relationship. In any case, we need to have good relations with all our neighbours.” The lesson of the last year has been learnt well. If only he’d also realise that there is a difference between being cautious and cagey. While the former is expected and accepted; the latter raises suspicion.