Originally Published 2014-03-01 09:48:19 Published on Mar 01, 2014
With the building of Scorpene submarine getting delayed to early 2016 and the possibility of the futuristic P 75I project unlikely to fructify, the country must be ready to face serious compromises on the underwater maritime security front.
Navy accidents: Who is to blame?
" The most silent of the three armed forces, the Indian Navy has been part of the screaming headlines of the media for nearly a year now, mostly for all wrong reasons. While the good news of achievements like the largely indigenous nuclear submarine Arihant reactor going critical and the launching of the Indian Aircraft Carrier (IAC1) Vikrant have been relatively obscured, but as is the wont, the negative portrayals have effectively created headlines.

Events highlighting the lack of professional approaches like accidents along with issues of moral turpitude of naval officers have been in the forefront. It is felt that many of these reports of related incidents have been hyped by the media and more importantly have dented the core of a proud and professional naval force.

Additionally, the current discourse debates the erosion of navy's aspirations of achieving blue water capacity and the attendant responsibility as the security provider of the Indian ocean region . After all, a blue water navy status is not only a reflection of its capable inventory of platforms but also the mind set. Given the current unfolding of events many are inclined to believe that the Indian Navy needs to develop both.

The latest in the series of mishaps, that led to the unprecedented resignation on moral grounds of the forthright and honest Naval chief Admiral D K Joshi for the accident on board Sindhuratna, a Kilo class submarine, has raised more questions rather than provide answers as to who should ultimately be held accountable for such losses. This accident led to the death of two officers and injured eight sailors.

Earlier, in August 2013, an explosion led to the sinking of Sindhurakshak alongside the jetty, leading to a loss of precious 18 lives. Additionally, the media has brought out that there have been as many as ten incidents of operational lapses and accidents, in recent times, involving naval ships and submarines that have come under intense focus.

In a reflection of the resignation of the Union Railway Minister Lal Bhadur Shastri way back in 1956 due to a train accident that claimed 144 lives, the Navy chief's resignation was unprecedented. The Government, unused to receiving resignations on moral grounds, showed unusual alacrity in accepting it, leading credence to the accusation that they were on the lookout for a "scapegoat" for the rash increase in accidents. The question remains as who is really accountable for the current sorry state of affairs.

Since the accusation of numerous accidents by naval ships and submarines has been brought about by the media, it merits deeper introspection.

Each of these accidents are distinctly different in magnitude and many are likely to occur in the normal operation of ships and submarines and should not cause unusual alarm. For instance, a ship touching the jetty while coming alongside in adverse conditions, or for that matter a sonar dome being scraped during an exercise. Some of the grounding incidents can be ascribed to the fact that the Mumbai harbour, despite its silting rates, was not appropriately dredged for long due to lack of financial approval and penny pinching. Despite these short comings, many a commanding officer has been removed from command for the commissions and omissions. These administrative actions are double wedged swords and if used excessively could result in Commanding officers preferring to "play safe" rather than take legitimate initiatives and calculated risks which is a dire necessity in any aspect of naval operations.

Since the two major accidents have involved submarines, it is worth noting that our submarine fleet is ageing with the Kilo-class boats bought from erstwhile Soviet Union being of mid-1980s vintage. In addition to that, there exists a tendency to exploit the platforms beyond their life cycles with repeated refits and repairs in complete disregard to manufacturer's guidelines which state that Russian submarines have a 12-year life cycle before a major refit and ten years after. But our policy of many refits takes a toll on the material state of the hull and the equipment on board.

In the present case, commissioned on November 19, 1988 Sindhuratna's active life ended in December 2013. She had gone for sea trials post a refit when a fire in the battery compartment led to the accident. Each Kilo class submarine is powered by 240 batteries, weighing 800 kg each - one of the most important part of a submarine. These batteries have a service life of approximately 4 years and Sindhuratna's batteries used up their life cycle in December 2012 while the new batteries (made by Chloride India and Standard Batteries) were expected only by the end of 2014. It takes two years to build these batteries and there is a waiting list with the manufacturer. The important question is why such an important part was not replaced when the retrofit was done? Was it not part of the retrofit planning? If it was, then why such an important component could not be available? Was it because of lack of funds or problem in the procurement process which forced the Navy to send the ship for trials with batteries whose life was over well over a year ago? The guilty need to be identified and punished severely, whether in the Navy or Defence Ministry.

The other major accident involved Sindhurakshak. The lessons from this experience have already been incorporated into the SOPs of other submarines.

More importantly, the force levels for submarines is likely to be reduced to very alarming numbers, seriously affecting the security calculus and capable of leaving gaps. As per media reports, this aspect has repeatedly been informed to the Ministry of Defence since 2011 with no succour in sight. With the building of Scorpene submarine getting delayed to early 2016 and the possibility of the futuristic P 75I project unlikely to fructify, the country must be ready to face serious compromises on the underwater maritime security front.

The military sets for itself standards of probity and professional conduct that are higher than those for any other institution. However, in any democracy, the military needs a conducive and empathetic environment which in our case is not being provided by the Defence Ministry. The current tenor of dissonance in the civil military relations doesn't augur well and has implications for the security preparedness of the country. It is quite evident that "the buck doesn't really stop with the Naval chief" and that the Defence Minister and the bureaucrats in the ministry are equally accountable, if not more. It's time that politicians and senior bureaucrats too own up responsibility for the actions of their ministry.

(Dr P.K Ghosh is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi. He is a former senior Navy officer)

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