Adm. Nirmal Kumar Verma
Printed headline: Master And Commander
India is rapidly building its military into a world-class force that can defend the country’s burgeoning commercial interests, as well as provide security. The navy, in particular, has undertaken an expansion program that involves the acquisition and development of capital ships like aircraft carriers, frigates, destroyers and submarines; multimission aircraft, and advanced weapon systems. The navy has 7,500 km. (4,660 mi.) of coastline to monitor, is involved in antipiracy patrols off the east coast of Africa and in the Indian Ocean, and charged with guarding against terrorism and criminal activity, as well as with keeping sea lanes open in a region rife with tension. Contributing Editor Neelam Mathews interviewed the man at the helm of the Indian navy, Adm. Nirmal Kumar Verma, in New Delhi for his perspective on expansion and mission objectives.
Defense Technology International: The navy is expanding in many directions, procuring aircraft carriers, air-defense ships, a nuclear submarine, advanced conventional submarines and the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. How are you accommodating all of these capabilities in terms of operations, logistics and training?
Nirmal Kumar Verma: It’s not that everything is being started from the word ‘go.’ We already have structures in place for logistics and training. Over the years we have improved them according to the type of equipment [being procured]. For example, if I compare the training when I was a young officer to now . . . the use of simulators cuts down training costs; the availability of spare parts [can be checked] online; and the resupply of spare parts happens automatically. As far as the new ships we are commissioning, their systems are already in place. It’s not an issue. For new acquisitions like the [Boeing] P-8I [maritime surveillance aircraft], the entire package will have to be put in place by the time we have the aircraft in two years.
The navy at present lacks power projection. What are your plans for developing a blue-water capability by 2022?
The navy’s planning in terms of force levels is driven by a conceptual shift from number of platforms, i.e., from the old ‘bean-counting’ philosophy, to one that concentrates on capabilities. In terms of force accretion, in accordance with the navy’s current maritime capability perspective plan, there are 40 ships and submarines on order. Our preferred choice of inducting ships has been through the indigenous route. There are 34 ships and submarines on order from Indian shipyards and the induction program is continuing.
Are the plans to build at least five ballistic missile submarines that can be equipped with Agni-III sea-launched ballistic missiles on schedule?
India’s nuclear doctrine states that our nuclear deterrent will comprise a triad of forces, on land, in the air and at sea. It is a fact that an undersea deterrent is the most survivable leg of the triad, and hence should form the core of a credible second-strike capability. The navy is the third leg of our nuclear triad and submarines are the obvious option of choice. The launch of the Arihant nuclear submarine in July 2009 was an important step. It is capable of launching ballistic missiles and is to be commissioned in two years.
When will the Brahmos cruise missile be inducted?
At present, the Brahmos missile system has been operational on a ship where the inclined-launch trial version is installed and onboard another where the vertical launch system is installed. The system is also being retrofit on some existing ships, as well as new ships.
The navy’s mission includes civilian evacuations, crisis response and disaster relief. How will its mission be different in the next 5-10 years?
My tenure is exciting in terms of the new platforms coming in. The first will be Project 17 frigates, one of which was recently commissioned. Two are to follow. Three ships are being built in Russia for delivery in 2011 and early 2012. Two tankers are also coming; these are not as glamorous but are a huge force multiplier and offer diversity in operations. The first follow-on destroyer comes in 2012—perhaps. I am not counting fast attack craft and other ships.
By 2015, we should see the Vikramaditya (formerly the Russian aircraft carrier Gorshkov) become part of the fleet. It’s a complement to the navy’s MiG-29Ks. I would expect to see an indigenous aircraft carrier in the final phase of trials in 2015. We will then have two aircraft carriers, with tankers to support them and frigates and destroyers that will put to sea with them. The task force could be operating in areas of interest from the Persian Gulf in the west to the Malacca Straits in the east. We should be able to meet the mission of the navy in ensuring that sea lanes are kept safe for international traffic.
By 2020 I expect that even the areas where we have lagged slightly, such as maritime surveillance, will be up to speed. It has also been some time since we acquired submarines—the [older ones] will need to be replaced.
Our naval academy will have simultaneously churned out hundreds of officers. It will also be an avenue for training officers from friendly neighboring countries.
What are your priorities in all these activities?
For years we were behind in maritime surveillance, submarines and a mine-countermeasure force. We have taken steps for surveillance and the asset (the Boeing P-8I) will be delivered to us. Within this financial year, we will place a contract for induction of mine countermeasures. We need to augment levels for submarines in a reasonable time, as there is a need there.
What is the schedule for the ship-based next-generation Barak NG surface-to-air missile?
The [Indian] Defense Research and Development Organization is developing the missile system and its MF-STAR multifunction radar under contract with industry. The contract provides for adaptation, installation, trials and product support. The initial system will be operational with commissioning of the first of the Project 15A guided missile destroyers. We are hoping [the weapon system] will be commissioned in 2012.
The U.S cleared Northrop Grumman’s E-2D Advanced Hawkeye surveillance aircraft for export. Where does the aircraft stand in the navy’s procurement plans?
At headquarters we talk about a number of things to get a feel for the types of capabilities that are available. At this time, given the resources we can commit, the requirement is for me to create an advanced early warning capability as an integral part of the task force. To that extent the capability is helicopter-based. It will continue to be a ship-borne requirement with the Kamov Ka-31 helicopter, which can land on a carrier. The E-2D is something we will put aside for the moment. There are far greater demands that need to be met.
The Scorpene submarines on order have been delayed. How will this decision affect capabilities?
With delivery delayed, augmentation [of equipment] has not taken place. So there will be a dip in force level.
Is the navy planning to build four landing platform docks (LPDs) alongside the amphibious transport dock INS Jalashwa (formerly the USS Trenton)?
Until now we had gone in for hard breaching. That is why the acquisition of the USS Trenton opened up new vistas. We have exploited her extensively and she has integrated well with our armed forces and is doing a fine job for us. The versatile platform plays a useful peacetime role as well. LPDs are certainly in our plan.
Is there any interest in the U.S Navy’s Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (Emals), which is under development? (See related story on p. 42.)
At this time for me to talk about it is futuristic. Options are there, and Emals would be one of them. We will look at this in the second half of the decade. When we talk of another carrier, there are a number of technologies we are looking at. We have not finalized the final size. Discussions are underway. If vendors from abroad query why the navy is asking questions, it is basically to form our concept of the carrier. It should be capable of flying the best aircraft and meeting our requirements for surveillance. This program will also need tanker aircraft.
What is the status of construction of stealth ships under Project 17?
The government-sanctioned follow-on program called Project 17 Alpha will have further improvements in stealth features and armaments. Seven are being built in India. The frigate and destroyer line will continue. I hope and expect the government will give sanction because facilities are available and the workforce is geared to it. Nations like the U.S. have long [building] programs, which in terms of ordering equipment result in cost savings. Each time you [order only two or three ships in a program] costs go up.
What is the navy’s role in the government’s plan to establish an aerospace command?
It will be a tri-service command. At the moment, a central body is handling requirements. Eventually, for any navy to be truly networked, it will need outstanding communications—certainly that would be the next field to venture in.
Adm. Nirmal Kumar Verma Chief of Naval Staff, Indian Navy
Credit: INDIAN NAVY
Birthplace: Hoshangabad, India
Education: National Defense Academy; professional courses at Britain’s Royal Naval Staff College and the U.S. Naval War College.
Background: Entered the navy on July 1, 1970; specialist in communications and electronic warfare. Deployments included command of a Leander-class frigate, Kashin-class destroyer and aircraft carrier INS Viraat. Verma commanded the Naval Academy at Goa, and was chief of naval training at the Defense Services Staff College and of the naval staff at the National Defense College. Worked on consolidating naval commands and directed the evolution of maritime capabilities and policies. Appointed vice admiral in November 2005, he formulated personnel and service policies, and as vice chief of naval staff created the framework for transformation of combat capabilities and infrastructure development. Verma was head of Eastern Naval Command before being named chief of staff on Aug. 31, 2009.