It has become unpleasantly common for defence analysts to scan the observations of the Chiefs of Staff of the armed services to detect some camouflaged political angles to what is stated by the “generals”. Happily it was a different feast on offer at the annual Navy Day press conference on Monday.
True that Admiral Sunil Lamba was spared having to play politics over Pakistan’s support to militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, or defend the controversial purchase of Rafale jets, but unlike the two other four-star generals he deliberately steered a course that would keep the focus on professional matters, even if that risked not winning the favour of those empowered to dole out post-retirement sinecures.
The Navy sometimes calls itself the “silent service”, yet while shunning the bombast often dished out by the brass hats, the Admiral was rather forceful and did not shy away from addressing thorny subjects: a re-vamped higher defence management organisation, for example.
He spoke in favour of a permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee ~ a diluted version of a Chief of Defence Staff ~ and had little hesitation saying the system of Theatre Commands (which flows from a CDS mechanism) was being opposed by the Air Force: a pointer to how several governments and defence ministers had failed to make the fly-boys see the bigger picture. He was honest enough to state that though the Navy was deployed on either side of the sub-continental peninsula it did not have to prepare for a two-front war.
And on the single front he was confident that while in a localised context the balance of power favoured India over China, the situation was reversed in the South China Sea and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region ~ none of the “muscle” that the present government flexes to earn its popularity. Even when dealing with piracy he was modest.
Given the stink over the Rafale off-sets, it was courageous for the Admiral to speak of penal action being initiated against Anil Ambani’s firm for not delivering the Off-Shore Patrol Vessels the Navy had ordered. Such professional honesty is refreshing. As was his admission that a resource crunch came in the way of another home-built aircraft carrier. That brand of openness added authenticity to his announcing plans for more combat platforms and aircraft.
And that action was underway to prepare for women to be embarked on warships ~ no tokenism in the Admiral’s scheme of things. And while the Army and Air Force seek to project “make in India” as something heroic or patriotic, the Navy can enjoy a quiet chuckle ~ many an ocean has been sailed since INS Nilgiri showed the way to indigenous warship construction and design. For the Indian Navy the Gateway of India has truly been the pathway to “blue water.”