Ranjit B Rai


New Delhi, 04 December 2001

This is the story of a diminutive chain-smoking Milap Chand –– Gun Layer Second Class, who hailed from a small village in Himachal Pradesh and joined the Navy in the early 60s, having never seen the sea before. His report said he possessed cool nerves and had excellent hand and mind coordination. It was no wonder Milap was selected to go to UK in January 1971 as the Seacat aimer, with twelve key officers and sailors for four months training, to come back and commission India’s first Leander Class Frigate INS Nilgiri, being built at Mazagon Docks.

The Navy has since commissioned seven Leanders and three improved Delhi Class and five more are on order in what has been an epoch making and success laden ship building programme. The Seacat on INS Nilgiri was the Indian Navy’s first Surface to Air missile (SAM) system with two directors and launchers on the Port (left) and Starboard (right) sides. The aimers are required to visually gather the three foot long missile into their line of sight, as soon as it is launched and electronically transmit command signals to guide the missile traveling at supersonic speed to its target for the “kill” --- within the allotted fifteen seconds, much like today’s computer games that children play. There is no second chance. Each missile is stowed in air-conditioned spaces and at that time cost a few lakhs of rupees a piece –– the Nilgiri in 1972 cost only Rs 60 crores and its newer copy today costs Rs 300 crores.

Mrs Indira Gandhi commissioned Nilgiri on 23 Jun 1972 and the ship put to sea under the command of Captain Daljit Paintal (later Rear Admiral), to work up and carry out proving trials of its systems. Foreign guarantee engineers, weapon acceptance teams and Mazagon dock supervisors were embarked. The ship exceeded most specifications in speed, gunnery and sonar trials. 

The Nilgiri became the Navy’s pride and NHQ decided to send her to South East Asia on a flag-showing cruise. The Royal Navy Pilotless Target Aircraft (PTA) team at Singapore was contracted on payment terms to conduct the Seacat proving trials. A six member RN Team with four red coloured propeller driven PTA’s boarded Nilgiri at the Sembawang Naval base one evening, and a well worked up Nilgiri put to sea to be off Singapore in open waters. The next morning was a clear day, and the first PTA was launched from the ship’s forecastle. Milap Chand in the starboard director and another sailor in the port director tracked the PTA to the limits of its flight, before it parachuted down for recovery.

The Gunnery officer, then Lieutenant Commander Madhavendra Singh (soon to be Admiral and CNS on 29 December 2001), reported to the Captain, "Sir, Seacat is ready for the first firing run”. In the next few minutes the PTA was launched again and disappeared into the distance and turned around to attack the Nilgiri. The Captain maneuvered the ship and Milap Chand from the starboard director coolly and perfectly gathered the first Seacat as soon as it was in range and he guided the missile to blast the red PTA out of the sky. The RN team dubbed it a fluke. The gunnery team’s pride was hurt and the ship’s electrical officer late Cdr S N Singh (later Vice Admiral) was sure the systems’ well tuned electronics had responded perfectly to Milap’s joystick orders. The next PTA was launched and Milap Chand was shifted to prove the port side Director. Once again he gathered the missile and blasted the second PTA into smithereens, almost in vengeance. Only one more PTA was available and both systems stood proved.

The Captain hailed a 'Braro Zulu' (well done) over the ship’s broadcast and said to me, “No.1 we have already cost the Navy Rs 12 lakhs as they will charge Rs 6 lakhs per PTA destroyed and there could be audit objections if the third comes down too. I leave it to you and Guns (Gunnery Officer) to decide if we need another firing run. I went down to the Seacat deck and conveyed the Captain’s concerns to Madhavendra Singh, and added, “The RN PTA Commander tells me no ship has ever shot down three PTA’s in a row. The reputation of Nilgiri is in your hands Guns.”

By now the ships company had gathered on deck eager to see another firing run. After the PTA launch and some practice runs Madhavendra Singh ordered “Alarm Aircraft. Starboard”, meaning it was a firing run and Milap Chand did the impossible. He ensured a ‘kill’ and the third red PTA came down limp in the water and the ships company cheered with off caps. The RN Commander went up and congratulated Captain Paintal who as ex- DCPT at NHQ knew some Babu would ask questions on file. 

But today during Navy week this story is a salute to the professional unassuming thousands of Milap Chands who have served and man the Navy’s ships, away from the gaze of the public with pride, and keep vigil at sea in defence of India’s shores and waters.

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