1 June 2012
‘Navy has a leading role to play in Indian Ocean’
The former Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sureesh Mehta (retd), took over as the chairman of the National Maritime Foundation on 18 January, 2012. He was Navy chief from October 2006 to August 2009 and held concurrent charge as chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, from September 2008 onwards. After his retirement from the Navy, Admiral Mehta served as the High Commissioner of India to New Zealand from December 2009 to December 2011.
An alumnus of the National Defence Academy, he was commissioned into the executive branch of the Indian Navy in July 1967. Shortly thereafter, he joined the Indian Naval Air arm and extensively flew the Hawker Sea Hawks from the aircraft carrier Vikrant.
Admiral Mehta also commanded Indian naval ships Beas and Godavari and Indian Naval Air Station Garuda at Kochi and held various senior staff-level posts before taking charge as the Chief of Naval Staff. He spoke to SRI KRISHNA on various aspects of the Navy and its role in coastal security and other issues.
What role do you foresee for India in the Indian Ocean region?
India has a leading role to play in this area, and not just because of the recent developments. Very often India has been given the epithet of a ‘rising power’, but the fact is that we have had an important role to play here for more than 5,000 years. It was glory all the way except for the last 300-400 years before Independence, under British rule, wherein we had to see a decline in our position. So it is not as if we are a ‘rising power’ ~ we are only regaining our lost glory in this region.
Of course, this is primarily driven by economic growth, which has been phenomenal compared to what the rest of the world has seen in more recent times. But apart from that, there is also the very important factor of the demographic dividend where our huge working population has a major role to play, not only in India but also outside. The 20 to 40 age group is going to be on the increase over the next 20 years or so, while the rest of the world will be ageing, and if we can harness that with education and technical capability, I would say India would provide the global work force of the future. Within the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), what is required is to take most of these countries along with us; we need to gain the confidence of these countries and foster good will. We can work collectively under the banner of regional forums such as IOR-ARC and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) towards capacity building and capability enhancement of our neighbours. Together, we can all work for the general benefit of this region.
What are the issues of immediate concern for countries of the IOR?
A large part of humanity lives in this area in different states of affluence. While some nations are extremely affluent, there also subsist a very large number of people at the lowest end of the poverty scale. And this is a problem area. I would therefore think education and skill development, along with food security, are probably things that we need to ensure in the first instance. It is nice to see the initiative of our farmers who are tapping new resources, such as in Ethiopia, and producing good crops. Such efforts should ameliorate some problems.
How do you foresee the threat of piracy in the region?
Piracy has become a very major threat in the past six to seven years. The Indian Navy has been operating in the region on anti-piracy missions ~ with some success ~ for at least the past five years. The threat has grown I would say because of support from outside. There can be no doubt that there is some kind of a ‘mafia syndicate’ that is at work. While many measures have been put into place, and they are showing reasonable returns, the long-term solution lies on land. If you can give people education and food, you will see an automatic decline. There is need for large-scale intervention, and this is required to be done by countries in the region.
Do you feel there is realisation in the country now on the importance seas have in the security of the nation?
I can say that there has been a ‘sea-change’, following a conscious effort by the Navy and other maritime organisations to take up the task of eradicating ‘sea-blindness’ from the nation’s consciousness. Today, you have a much greater awareness of the importance of the ocean itself, not just of the threat. We have so much of trade and movement of goods in this area. India is virtually an island nation, because the Himalayas to the north leave only the sea routes through the oceans available for trade and commerce. And as economics and commerce are issues that will take precedence above all, the importance of the oceans for our growth cannot be undermined.
How do you look at coastal security post 26/11 and the Navy having been given a bigger role?
In hindsight, the situation could well have been avoided if we had been better prepared. The issue was looked at in some detail under the aegis of the Coast Guard and the home ministry in 2002. An ‘immediate requirements’ plan for coastal security, which included the infrastructure for a large number of Coast Guard and coastal police stations, had been formulated. Unfortunately that plan, as many other things, moved slowly. Now, we have put into practice all those plans that include identification of boats that come into our harbours and are evolving search methodologies for improving harbour security. But India does have a huge coastline of nearly 7,600 km, and there are still some major issues, and more needs to be done to make things fool-proof.
What is the status of the National Maritime Foundation vis-à-vis the need for having coastal security and what role can the Navy play in this?
The National Maritime Foundation is a registered society which does Track-II work, strategic thinking, and is basically meant as a feeder for use by the Navy. Though the Navy doesn’t have any direct control over the Foundation, there is continuous interaction on the studies that we do, and we put across our views on anything to do with maritime environment.
You were the Navy chief before taking up the current post. Do you think the country is in a position to have a Blue Water Navy in the near future and if so, when do you think it can become a reality?
We already have a Blue Water Navy. A Blue Water Navy is a navy capable of carrying out multifarious tasks while operating at great distances, which is what we are doing. The force levels depend on the mission at hand. True, we need to have many more ships which are highly capable and therefore, a set growth path has to be pursued. We have long-term perspective plans for these kind of things, and if the ministry of defence allows these to fructify, then there is no doubt that we will have an even more capable navy in the years to come.
Why do you think the armed forces are not able to attract the kind of talent that they used to do earlier?
The reason is very simple. It is the good economic growth of the country. If we are not getting the type of people we want, I shouldn’t crib because probably somebody else who also needs them is getting a bigger share of the pie, all in the national interest. We of course, need to do something about it, and the answer lies in tweaking our training system, and make suitable changes so that the end product that is coming out of the training establishments is as good as the one that used to be earlier, irrespective of what the level of entry might be. A tall order but possible. We now have an Indian Naval Academy that was inaugurated by the honourable Prime Minister four years ago, and the first batch would be passing out within a year. The Academy’s course has been designed around a B-Tech syllabus, so that at the end of the four-year course, a student comes out as a graduate communication and electronics engineer, capable of performing his duties on board technologically sophisticated ships that we run in our Navy.