If the government move to appoint Vice Admiral Sunil Lanba as the Navy vice chief goes through now, India’s maritime force faces the prospect of its next chief too being “inexperienced” when it comes to heading operational commands.
Present Navy chief Admiral Rabindra Dhowan has no operational experience of commanding either the Eastern of the Western naval commands, the two sword arms of the force. Lanba, who is the Delhi-based National Defence College (NDC) Commandant, is tipped to be the next Navy chief in May 2016, when Dhowan retires after a 25-month stint at the helm of the world’s fourth largest maritime force.
Dhowan, who was till recently the Navy vice chief, had become chief on April 17 this year, 50 days after Admiral D K Joshi resigned owning moral responsibility for a series of naval accidents that began with the sinking of INS Sindhurakshak at the Mumbai dockyard due to internal explosions on August 14, 2013.
Before becoming Navy vice chief, a post he held for nearly two years, Dhowan got no chance to command either the Visakhapatnam-headquartered Eastern Naval Command or Mumbai-headquartered Western Naval Command, as he was seen as an officer who may not get to the top post after all.
Lanba too may become vice chief now without having helmed the two key operational formations of the Navy, as until recently he was not in contention to become the Navy chief. But now the situation has changed after Joshi’s resignation.
Ideally, according to senior Navy officers, it would be better to provide command experience to a set of officers, who are seen as contenders for the Navy’s top post. But that may not come about in the case of Lanba.
“God forbid, if we again have a situation where a chief quits today, naturally, the vice chief will be among the contenders, as it happened in the case of Dhowan. However, in that scenario, the next likely chief too would have no experience commanding a sword arm of the force,” lamented a senior Navy officer.
Interestingly, the second senior-most naval officer, Vice Admiral Anil Chopra is the present Eastern Naval Commander and he had been there since October 2011 and has done command for nearly two-and-a-half years. But, with the Western Naval Command vacant after Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha took voluntary retirement in the wake of being superseded by Dhowan, Chopra is all set to be moved to Mumbai as Sinha’s successor for the remaining period of his service till May 2015, which is over a year from now.
In the case of next senior most naval officer, Kochi-based Southern Naval Commander Vice Admiral Satish Soni, he is likely to replace Chopra in Visakhapatnam. Soni was tipped to be the next Navy chief if Joshi had completed his tenure till August 2015. But that was not to be.
Soni, slated to retire in January 2016, will be in Visakhapatnam till superannuation in January 2016 or be moved to Mumbai to succeed Chopra in May 2015 for an eight-month tenure in the Western Naval Command.
The fourth senior-most naval officer, Vice Admiral S P S Cheema, is heading the Strategic Forces Command, which is a tri-service formation. He would soon return to the Navy to take over as the Southern Naval Commander from Soni. Cheema will retire in January 2016.
However, all of these appointments and transfers are being recommended by the Naval headquarters, a move seen as expedient and arising out of ego clashes among the naval top brass.
Navy Sources told The Sunday Standard that Dhowan would like to have an officer, who would be “comfortable working with him and would be ready to work under him” as Vice Chief, in place of a reluctant Chopra, who is said to be upset over an “inexperienced” officer being posted as chief.
One line of thought in the naval headquarters, they said, was Lanba could be given opportunity to command either the Western or the Eastern Naval Command after Chopra’s or Soni's retirement. But, there are others among the naval top brass, who feel it should not be “too little too late” as then Lanba would get less than a year’s command experience before he became chief.
Lanba, who was last the Chief of Staff of the Eastern Naval Command in the Navy, had moved on as the Commandant of the National Defence College in 2012.
An Ati Vishisht Seva Medal winner, Lanba, a Navigation and Direction specialist, has commanded Destroyers INS Ranvijay and Mumbai, Frigate INS Himgiri and Minesweeper INS Kakinada. Commissioned into the navy in 1978, he is an alumnus of the National Defence Academy and the Defence Services Staff College, apart from the Royal college of Defence Studies at London. He has also held appointments such as the Chief of Staff at the Southern Naval Command and Flag Officer Sea Training and the Flag Officer Commanding of the Maharashtra and Gujarat Naval Area.