Extending the Bridges of Friendship

COMMANDER ABHAY KUMAR LAMBHATE, who took over as Chief PRO (Defence) at a simple ceremony held at the Mumbai Sub Area Headqurters on October 21, is a dark horse. Lauded internationally for efficiently planning and executing the Air Show during the the country’s first-ever International Fleet Review (IFR) in 2001 - called 'Bridges of Friendship’ - Commander Lambhate dismisses this fact with much humility. “It was all team work. I have merely done a good job with what was entrusted to me,” he tells HUBERT VAZ in his first free-wheeling chat to the media after taking over his new posting.

BEING the spokesman for the Defence Forces can be quite a tactful and taxing job, because you not only have to satisfy the insatiable appetite of journalists for scoops and insights but also weigh every word that slips out of your mouth. And for someone attached to the Navy, who knows what 'walking the plank' is all about, the job can really become one not sought after.

For an incumbent like Commander Abhay Kumar Lambhate of the Western Naval Command, who comes with two-and-a-half decades of illustrious service behind him, this post is, however, yet another feather in his colourful cap. While a couple of hands have hastily exchanged the 'coveted' post in recent months, Commander Lambhate has taken on the mantle with a smile and he knows fully well that his smiles have to last him long, if he has to be Chief PRO.

Commander Lambhate, who took over last month at the Headquarters, Mumbai Sub Area, is one of those few hand-picked officers who make it to the post of spokesman. His comely smile, his friendly disposition, and his vast knowledge of the Indian Navy's pulse and parameters, have landed him the job. But, most of all, it is his sheer drive to take on any challenge, that is said to be the most outstanding of his credentials.

"It was my childhood dream to become a defence officer and when I was commissioned in the Indian Navy on January 1, 1978, this dream came true. My parents were very happy at this achievement and are my biggest support till date. My mother feels proud whenever she hears anything good about the Navy itself, and my current posting is a reason for joy in my family," he confessed.

Having joined the Naval Academy at Kochi in July 1976, Commander Lambhate has handled many an important posting in the Navy. His important appointments include Flight Cdr. INS Rana, deputy director Naval Air Staff, Naval Headquarters and executive officer of INS Ranvijay. Cdr. Lambhate has also undergone training in Russia and was commissioning crew of Kamav-28, an anti-submarine helicopter which operates from the Ranvijay class of ships. He also had been associated with the Vikrant Cell at the Headquarters Maharashtra Naval Area in Mumbai.

Cdr. Lambhate is a specialist in anti-submarine warfare and has also skilled in flight safety and accident investigation. These credentials are obvious from the fact that he had skillfully planned and executed the Air Show involving 100 aircraft for India's first-ever International Fleet Review in 2001. This had invited widespread commendation from the rank and file in the Indian Navy as well as from the participating foreign naval officers.

His selection for anti-submarine warfare was done by the Naval Headquarters because he showed great aptitude for it. Explaining the term, Cdr. Lambhate said the naval officers handling this responsibility receive exclusive training for detection, tracking and destruction of submarines. After acquiring theoretical and practical training in this skill at the Naval Institute at Kochi, the officers are trained in taking tactical decisions when they encounter an `enemy' submarine. But, everything depends on its mission, he said adding that destruction of submarines are usually carried out with torpedoes or depth charges fired from a ship, helicopter or another submarine. Coming back to his important role in the IFR Air Show, Cdr. Lambhate disclosed that over 1 1/2 years advance planning went into the entire show to ensure that everything went on precisely. "We had a team of officers working out the entire programme since the task was herculean and involved planning the number of aircraft; their selection; preparation; orders; execution; procuring the aircraft and bringing them to Mumbai; selection of locations to base them, as well as tying-up with local authorities like the Coast Guard, Air Force, Naval HQ, etc. for coordination.

"No individual can really claim credit for this show," he humbly admits, adding that it was indeed appreciated by the Defence Forces in India as well as by those of participating nations. "The success of the show can be gauged from the fact that there was no accident or any untoward incident all through the rehearsals as well as during the Air Show despite the fact that around 100 different aircraft were flown in just 2 hours," he said adding that it involved meticulous planning going into micro-second details. All pilots were given detailed plans before the rehearsals which were conducted off the Mumbai shore.

Stating that the IFR displays told the world about India's prowess, and that its Defence Forces were second to none, Cdr. Lambhate labelled the show as 'a 100 per cent success' since everything perceived went off beautifully.

Speaking about the Western Naval Command, he termed Mumbai as the ideal location for its operations but refused to divulge details about whether there had been any plans for setting-up the Command elsewhere. "Mumbai is the most prestigious Command in the country and is the best location because of its huge harbour which can accommodate numerous ships, its connectivity by road/rail/air, the available logistics support and many other plus points," he said.

When asked why the Navy usually takes a back seat when it comes to helping out in civilian work, unlike the army which is often called in to quell civil conflicts, Cdr. Lambhate deferred. "It's not true that the Navy stays away from such responsibilities. It has always offered help whenever sought, though one might call it a silent service," he said pointing out that the Navy had offered commendable service during the Gujarat earthquake when even ships were converted into floating hospitals to treat and also transport the victims as well as essential supplies.

Having handled varied responsibilities in the Navy, Cdr. Lambhate admits that he was not particularly attached to any posting, since he went through every posting as an education and an enjoyable experience. "It helped me to build my own personality as well as to serve the nation," he said adding "Every time I was on a ship or an aircraft it gave me a great sense of pleasure and achievement. I always took my job in the right spirit."

About coordination between the three Defence Forces, he said each of the three forces had its own plans for each year but they functioned simultaneously as `sister services' without stepping onto each others' toes. During the year, there are tri-services conferences and civil-military liaison conferences which help in fostering greater camaraderie between members of the services. "All the three forces have a common goal and they provide support to each other," he said.

About the preparedness of the Western Naval Command in the current uncertain scenario, Cdr. Lambhate declined to part with any information, saying it was not in his jurisdiction to do so. However, he did assure that the Navy, like the other Services, was "Ever Ready" and "Always On Guard".