A Navy Chief Rises From The Eagle’s Nest
Vice Admiral Karambir Singh will assume charge as the Chief of the Naval Staff. 
Vice Admiral Karambir Singh will assume charge as the Chief of the Naval Staff. (Photo: Altered by The Quint)

A Navy Chief Rises From The Eagle’s Nest

In a surprise move, the Government of India announced on 22 March that the next Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS) would be Vice Admiral Karambir Singh, PVSM AVSM, currently FOC-in-C, Eastern Naval Command. The incumbent, Adm Sunil Lanba AVSM PVSM ADC, retires on 31 May.

From the Eagles' Eyrie

'KB', as Karambir Singh is fondly known in navy, is the current 'Grey Eagle' – a honorific bestowed upon the senior most serving naval aviator.

He is also from the ‘Eagles’ – the navy’s helicopter squadron that previously operated Kamov-25 ‘Hormone’ helicopters and now flies the Kamov-28 ‘Helix’.

Both are anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters.

The Ka-25s were phased out in 2008. The Ka-28s are presently returning under an extensive and much-delayed mid-life upgrade (MLU) that will equip them with modern avionics and sensors.

Helicopters – A Serious Void in Indian Navy

A single squadron (INAS 333) of Ka-28s along with a sprinkling of Seaking Mk 42Bs form the backbone of our fleet's integral air ASW. It is arguably not much to be proud of.

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The replacement program for naval multi-role helicopters (NMRH) is still a paper airplane gliding through the corridors of MoD. If or when the first batch of 24 MH-60 Romeos come through an intergovernmental Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route, there will be something for helicopter pilots in the navy to cheer about.

From that Void, Emerges a Naval Chief

The only silver lining on this dark cloud is that for the second time in Indian history – and the first time for the Indian Navy – a helicopter pilot will ascend to the highest office in service.

Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major was the only other helicopter pilot who became service chief (IAF, 2007-09). That should tell you something about career progression of helicopter pilots in the armed forces.

The Invisible Pecking Order

Within each service there is an invisible pecking order of arms & services.

Sedimentation of helicopters and their lot to the lower end of this order is traditionally the norm. It's not hard to see why. Helicopters are slow, ungainly, noisy machines. They go about their job without hogging limelight, even when when calamity strikes.

Remember Operation Rahat, the biggest of them all, during Uttarakhand Floods of 2013? Chances are, most of you don’t. Because it’s done & dusted and the choppers with their unsung heroes have quietly returned to the hangars.

While few sorties of IAF fighters stole the nation's heart & attention recently, all that rotors had to show was the smouldering wreckage of a crashed Mi-17V5 with six lives lost.

Flying the Ka-25: All Guts, No Glory?

Against this backdrop the 'rotors' must, in their understated manner, celebrate KB's ascent to the navy's top office.

The admiral has flown Chetaks (Alouette III) and Ka-25s during his flying days. The Ka-25 is a mean machine that requires guts of steel to fly. A rudimentary 'steam gauge' cockpit, almost NIL automation or stability augmentation, single-pilot with one Tactical Coordinator (TACCO), and typical Russian design that adds crew comfort as an afterthought, made it one of the most challenging helicopters to fly.

Dark night launches of the Ka-25 tested limits of guts, crew coordination and piloting skills long before terms like crew resource management (CRM), and HOCAS (Hands On Collective and Stick, a feature in modern cockpits) were invented.

Not surprisingly, precious lives were lost during their operation.

Some crew even opted out because they couldn't cope with demands the machine imposed on piloting skills, especially on moonless nights. KB is not one of them.

Very Few Survive That System

KB always had a bigger world-view, much larger than what obtained through the glazed windshield of the Ka-25.

The struggle between ‘cockpit time’ and ‘ship time’ is one that has claimed many bright aviators and made few Admirals. The more time one spends in cockpits, squadrons and aviation billets, lesser the chances of surviving the race for flag rank.

Even when they had a chance to forge attractive options for the 'cockpit or bridge' conundrum, naval aviation blew it, advancing all kinds of homilies & lofty arguments.

The net result? Top-heavy squadrons populated with 'passed-over' crew holding tons of experience may soon take orders from 2 & 3-star admirals with 3-digit logbook totals sitting in higher echelons of decision making. Whether good or bad, that's the system we curated.

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First Among Unequals

Just as in the IAF, it's the fighter pilot fraternity that rules the roost, the navy has its own steep pyramid dominated by those who have spent years at sea doing 'fleet' assignments. Unfortunately, dark night deck launches or extended embarked flight duties never made that cut. No promotion board has 'flying hours' as a criteria. In the rarefied atmosphere of flag rank, flying experience matters less than the cost of a flying boot.

To survive such a system and emerge at the top beating several odds is what makes KB’s selection as CNS so special.

He will supersede his senior Vice Adm Bimal Kumar Verma (BK), a copper-bottomed general service officer, on 31st May 19. Such a precedent is not unusual coming from this government. Gen Bipin Rawat's selection as Army Chief took the same route. Meritocracy at such high ranks is hardly a quantifiable factor. So the real reasons for such selection may never be known.

Meritocracy Should Prevail

Even so, one hopes it is meritocracy.

With so many 'members-only clubs', lobbies & political signalling ahead of general elections, there could be much more than meets the eye.

Whatever be the reasons, one thing is certain – and I speak from my personal experience of being from the ‘Eagles Eyrie’: KB has impeccable credentials, he is widely liked and respected as a calm, composed, ‘thinking’ Admiral. The navy at large couldn’t be happier for the decision.

So well fought BK, but KB is the winner. We expect only grace from you. Wise men never quibble over seniority or date of birth.

Now Bring in Some Real Changes

The larger issue is what change should we expect KB to usher in for the aviation that bore birth pangs of his evolution to Chief. Even as the surface navy steams ahead with modern warships, supersonic cruise missiles and communication satellites up in space, aviation is scraping bottom of the barrel. Successive change of guard at the top has failed to meet their constituencies' expectations from the CNS. This is understandable given that the Chief presides over an entire service, not just an arm. But just walking that extra mile to help a straggling brother surely cannot be below the dignity of the chief or his office.

So even as the Eagles, Falcons, Harpoons and Angels applaud KB’s historic flight to ‘service ceiling’, the true test of whether he truly ‘belongs’ to this community, in my assessment, will be his appetite to walk the talk no other chief did.

Wish you fair winds and following seas, Admiral. We always had the guts. Now bring back the glory to rotors. We waited far too long for this. And who knows when a rotor, if ever, will occupy that corner office again?

Postscript: A thoughtful and apt Kamov-25 memento awarded to Eagles on leaving squadron reads “You can check out any time, but you can never leave!”

(Capt KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and blogs at www.kaypius.com. He can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com. He has flown over 24 types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft and holds a dual ATP rating on the Bell 412 and AW139 helicopters. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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