Antiquated war ships. Delayed purchases. Power of middlemen. Political meddling. The Indian Navy is in troubled waters. An Open investigation
PR Ramesh | 26 Feb, 2015
It was a year ago that the dramatic resignation of Admiral DK Joshi, one and a half years after he took over, rocked the country’s defence establishment. Admiral Joshi had stepped down citing “moral responsibility” for a series of accidents in the Naval forces over the previous few months, a decision that his senior comrades described as being “in the highest tradition of the defence forces.”
Two of the biggest accidents had taken place on board Russian-made submarines and led to tragic loss of life. Since mid-2013 or thereabouts, the Indian Navy had been witness to an unseemly number of mishaps: as many as eleven. Eighteen officers and sailors died in the INS Sindhurakshak accident of August 2013, considered the Navy’s worst since the sinking of INS Khukri in 1971. In February 2014 came news of another Naval tragedy, this time involving the kilo-class submarine INS Sindhuratna, in which two officers died after inhaling toxic gases released by smoking cables. Both were attributed to ‘age-related’ problems. But for subs, a service life of 30 years is considered normal, and many of the LA-class attack submarines of the US Navy are three decades old or more. The INS Sindhurakshak had only seen 16 years of operational service. Moreover, it had returned from a mid-life refit and systems upgrade in Russia just prior to the accident, a refit that was aimed at extending its longevity by another 15 years. These facts place a big question mark on the real reasons for the spate of Naval accidents. Seven in the span of a year should strike anyone as odd in the extreme.
In January 2014, the home-built frigate INS Betwa rammed into a ‘hurdle’ while entering the Mumbai harbour. Speculation arose that this could have been due to the harbour not being dredged for years despite repeated Naval requests made to bureaucrats in Delhi. Again, in March last year, another accident occurred on the INS Kolkata, the guided missile destroyer being built at Mazagon Dock Ltd in Mumbai. A mal- function in its carbon dioxide unit while undergoing machinery trials led to a toxic gas leak that killed Commander Kuntal Wadhwa.
In December 2013 alone, the Navy saw three accidents, including one on INS Konkan, a Pondicherry-class minesweeper, which caught fire at the dockyard in Visakhapatnam while it was being repaired. That month, the INS Talwar, lead ship of the Talwar-class frigate of the Indian Navy, rammed into a fishing trawler. Fifteen people were injured. The previous month, a torpedo recovery vessel sank off the Visakhapatnam coast during a routine mission, resulting in the death of one sailor. Four others went missing.
Two years earlier, INS Vindhyagiri, a Nilgiri-class frigate, had capsized after a collision with a merchant vessel from Cyprus, leading to a major fire in the ship’s engine and boiler rooms. The frigate was later decommissioned. In 2010, one crew member on the destroyer INS Mumbai were killed instantly when an AK-630 Close-in weapon system went off as a result of poor safety drills. The inexplicable serial accidents later forced the Union Defence Ministry to review both its safety and weapons-related procedures.
But what blew the lid off the highly dysfunctional state that the Indian Navy finds itself in was part of a much-debated interview that the embittered former Chief of Naval Staff gave after putting in his papers. Exposing the rot and murky underbelly of the Indian Navy and its uneasy relationship with the bureaucracy and political establishment involved with the country’s security concerns, Admiral D K Joshi disclosed that “the root cause is this dysfunctional and inefficient business model that we have… While professional competence, accountability and responsibility [are] with the service, this is not the case with authority.… For example, when it comes to changing submarine batteries, which are available indigenously, or commenc- ing refits and repairs of ships, aircraft, submarines in Indian [ship] yards, the [Naval] service does not have that empowerment. Where there is authority, there is no accountability. And where there is responsibility, there is no authority.”
Repeated delays in repairs and refits, besides in- efficiency and lack of accountability, ran rampant in India’s Naval force. Depleting fleet strength, low levels of indigenisation, active weapon lobbyists and agents swarming the corridors of power, persistent bureau- cratic apathy, political indifference and intrigues had brought the Indian Navy to a moribund state, with young officers and sailors forced to bear the brunt of failures at the top. The Navy, it appeared, was riddled with loaded questions and boards of inquiry looking into inexplicable accidents, one after the other. In this bureaucrat- military tug of war, with the bureaucracy battling for supremacy, it is often the country’s defence men who suffer.
Observers contend that the 10 years of power held by the UPA Government will go down in history as a period when India’s military modernisation programme took a serious hit under the baton of former Defence Minister AK Antony, who was obsessed with maintaining his ‘squeaky clean image’ rather than dealing with inordinate delays in the prompt supply of spares and refits caused by stubborn bureaucrats. One joint secretary under Antony’s turf, Ram Subhag Singh, is understood to have been instrumental in not clearing any requests from the forces on emergency supplies for years. One such, for a change in submarine batteries, was kept pending by him for over a year-and-a-half. Subhag Singh’s long and disruptive tenure ended after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took charge last year and shunted out several joint secretaries across ministries for being inefficient and having spent long tenures at the same post. Singh was posted to NAFED as its managing director in the very first lot of transfers ordered by the Modi Government.
Indifferent bureaucrats and antiquated equipment contributed heavily to the parlous state that the Indian Navy languishes in. Under the Modi Government, the Defence Ministry led by Manohar Parrikar recognises the need to fix things swiftly. However, that may prove to be not so easy a task after years of neglect and deliberate steps by bureaucrats to assert their authority over the defence forces. The task is likely to be complex for several reasons. IAS officers, among other things, also tampered with the Order of Precedence to ensure that the country’s three Service Chiefs remain lower in the pecking order than the Secretary to the Government of India. In spite of suggestions made repeatedly over the years, the IAS lobby does not allow any military officer to spend time in the Ministry on deputation. This lack of appreciation of military needs by civil servants has wreaked havoc with plans to modernise India’s armed forces.
With the blame being taken by Naval officers and sailors, their morale has been impacted adversely. According to highly placed sources, there are currently close to 40 officers who face disciplinary action and court martial proceedings. As Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar told Parliament, there have been 24 submarine accidents in 2011 alone. In a recent article, defence analyst Ajai Shukla wrote, ‘There are serious systemic weaknesses in India’s equipment procurement that continue to delay the navy’s fleet modernisation.’ He points out, for instance, that Russia’s four-year delay in delivering a recently commissioned aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya (once called Admiral Gorshkov) and a three-year delay in building a second carrier in India have together forced the Indian Navy to rely on an aircraft carrier that has seen, in defence parlance, ‘operational service’ for over 60 years.
And even as the Navy’s existing submarines age, not a single of the 24 subs envisaged by its 30-year plan of 1999 has been delivered yet. The first six of these, being built at Mazagon Docks Ltd, are expected to see service only in 2015-18. Another six have yet to get the Government’s nod. Also delayed by half a decade or more are a set of frigates. Of the 10 kilo-class Russian submarines, three are out of operation. Of the 10 Sindhughosh kilo-class (877 EKM, also known as Sindhughosh-class) diesel electric submarines, eight are in operation with one lost in an explosion and one in need of serious repairs.
This is a progress report card that could spell little but disaster for any navy. Such heavy reliance on a fleet of ageing warships jeopardises both operational safety and national security. Meanwhile, the accidents have seen no let up. In the wee hours of one morning last week, when darkness still enveloped the waters off Mumbai, a fishing trawler rammed into INS Sindhughosh, a 3,000 tonne diesel electric submarine on a military exercise, damaging its periscope. With the eyes of the submarine damaged beyond repair, a quick replacement is crucial. The commanding officer, in the interim, will face a board of inquiry.
No one, however, is willing to openly broach the subject of the faulty Russian periscopes appendaged to Indian subs. Efforts to get them rectified or changed have fallen on deaf years for the past 10 years despite heightened difficulty in night vision tracking.
An analytical piece on the Indian Navy at the end of last year, titled ‘Indian Navy has a big problem, the sub-surface dilemma’, published by the American Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBS) observed, ‘Until these larger structural and institutional issues are addressed, it would appear that—notwithstanding India’s beleaguered naval officers’ best efforts—the nation’s sub-surface challenges are likely to grow, rather than [to] diminish.’
Telling observations such as these on the Indian Navy came on the back of another controversial decision taken by the then UPA regime to keep the post of Naval chief vacant for nearly two months after Admiral DK Joshi quit in February last year. Curiously, it wasn’t until 17 April that the acting chief Admiral Robin Dhowan was formally appointed India’s new Navy chief. The move raised eyebrows all around. The 59-year-old, who was to retire on 31 May 2014, will now get two additional years at the top of the Navy. Admiral Dhowan had superseded his senior Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha. The latter had served in a variety of Command, Staff and Instructional appointments. A qualified flying instructor, he had over 2,700 hours of flight to his credit in 18 different types of aircraft, especially Sea Harriers that take off from aircraft carriers. He had commanded two Sea Harrier squadrons and Air Station INS Hansa at Goa. His sea commands included INS Saryu, INS Shakti and INS Delhi. But Admiral Dhowan in the course of his tenure never served either as the Commander-in-Chief Western Command or Commander-in-Chief Eastern Command. Vice Admiral Sinha was head of the Western Command and the senior-most in the Navy after Admiral Joshi, but government sources put it out in the media that Sinha had not been considered for the top post as most Naval accidents in the preceding months had occurred under his command. As if on cue, Dhowan declared that his priority would be to ensure the strict implementation of all safety and Standard Operating Procedures, and to make the Indian Navy battle ready.
The Government’s decision on Dhowan itself took 50 days, and was then announced with undue haste even as last year’s General Election neared in May. That is when interested parties, ranging from influential Congress leaders to others, combined to push through an announcement at the earliest. As the intrigue grew, a strategy was crafted. Antony’s opposition to naming a new Naval chief so close to the polls notwithstanding, he was ordered to fall in line in the first fortnight of April 2014. Antony was called on the phone and directed to abort his poll campaign in Thiruvananthapuram and rush back. The then Defence Minister gave his assessment of all three candidates: Vice Admirals Shekhar Sinha, Robin Dhowan and Satish Soni.
Intelligence Bureau inputs were then sought. The then vice chief’s record did not have the requisite clearance from the IB. But the ubiquitous weapons lobby had thrown its support behind one of the chief of naval staff probables. IB Chief Asif Ibrahim was then summoned, and, according to sources, he was directed to submit a report. A former IB chief, who by then was part of the national security establishment, played a key role in securing Ibrahim’s ‘all clear’ for the process. However, there was a problem. A key member of the Appointments Committee of the UPA Cabinet was Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, who was busy campaigning in Sholapur, Maharashtra. Time was running out.
A special aircraft was kept on standby. Shinde was contacted and informed of the decision. The file signed by all other members of the ACC was flown with a special messenger to Sholapur, where Shinde penned his signature that sealed the fate of Shekhar Sinha, who had been assured by Antony that his seniority would be respected.
Despite the model code of conduct by the Election Commission already being in force, the UPA Government appointed a new Navy chief. When the decision was announced, the BJP protested.
Vice Admiral Sinha resigned in protest—yet another sorry commentary on the way things were done in the Indian Navy, one that clearly affected the morale in that force. Senior Navy officers say the spirits of their colleagues in the Western Naval Command are so low that no officer wants to be part of it. Add to that the fact that a highly capable senior officer, Vice Admiral Satish Soni, was pushed around in the Indian Navy thanks to the machinations of politicians and bureaucrats. He was moved from the Southern Command to the Visakhapatnam-based Eastern Command.
That does not insulate senior Naval officers from criticism, though. Over the years most Naval Chiefs have remained mum on all this. Today, when around a dozen court martial proceedings are on, thorny relations have set the clock back on naval plans. Not only has the series of accidents dealt a blow to the morale of middle-level officers, many in the top echelons remain caught in conspiracies to outdo each other.
A board of inquiry into the accident on INS Sindhuratna last year remains incomplete. Procedural requirements have been given a go-by and the commanding officer, a young man who managed to protect the submarine and over 90 officers and sailors when it got enveloped in black toxic gas, faced a court martial. Sources say that most of the six officers on the board of inquiry that was hastily set up—apparently under pressure from the Ministry under Antony—were those in charge of safety and operational readiness of submarines.
The explosion on INS Sindhurakshak on 14 August 2013 had resulted in 18 deaths. The commanding officer was not on board at the time, but he faces a court martial. A few, however, have not taken diktats from the Naval headquarters lying down. Another person in the know says a commanding officer of a ship that collided with a fishing trawler in the Bay of Bengal questioned the move to court martial him by sending a rejoinder that claimed that when the Navy had formally filed a complaint with the trawling company, how could he be held responsible?
A senior officer who has now retired blames the long-drawn process of acquisition as the Navy’s biggest wrench. Once technical specifications are cleared, he says, price negotiations with prospective sellers should begin. Under the current process, a long time lag allows people both inside and outside the Government (including weapons dealers) to manipulate specifications and prices. All this makes space for huge payoffs and other forms of corruption.
The Navy’s looming problems come at a time when India is preparing to upgrade its naval capacity to take on China both in the Indian Ocean (‘The Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean,’ say Chinese officials) and on the eastern coast, in the Bay of Bengal. China, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, is India’s biggest long-term concern and unless it focuses on modernising its equipment and repairing and streamlining institutions in the defence sector, it could pose a serious threat to the country.
The November 2014 CSBA article points out that ‘in parallel to its conventional submarine fleet, India has been investing in nuclear-powered platforms. In 2012, the Indian Navy commissioned the INS Chakra, an Akula- class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN), which it acquired from Russia on a ten-year lease. When it was commissioned, it was described as a potential force multiplier for India’s rapidly decaying submarine fleet, and as opening the door in the future for blue-water submarine operations. Whereas India’s diesel-electric submarine fleet is primarily located along its western coast, the INS Chakra has been stationed along its eastern seaboard—and is clearly positioned to address the Chinese threat. There have been persistent rumors of plans to lease a second Akula, although nothing has yet been officially confirmed’.
Today, as Chinese submarines make port calls in Sri Lanka and Pakistan and threaten India’s interests, the Navy has to make do with an ageing fleet of over two-decade-old submarines. New Delhi, the CSBA article maintains, is cognisant of the fact that in order to enjoy an effective sea-based deterrent, particularly vis-a-vis China, whose strategic centres are located along its eastern seaboard, it will need to develop larger SSBNs with greater missile-carriage capacity and more powerful reactors. ‘The development of a sea-based deterrent constitutes a colossal new undertaking for the Indian Navy, whether in terms of technological development, supporting infrastructure or even in terms of nuclear doctrine and command and control arrangements,’ says the article. But with the Navy in the state it is, and the task of modernising the country’s marine forces both highly complex and multi-dimensional, there are apprehensions over not justhow early India’s plans can be implemented, but whether they can be effected at all.
As part of the Government’s plans for it, the Navy expects to induct some 45 warships over the next few years, allowing for the gradual retiring of older vessels. Analysts are of the view that the Navy—with its current fleet of about 135 warships and its $5.6 billion annual budget—can still close down Indian Ocean shipping lanes if it so chooses. But in the short term, the administration has to focus on speedily streamlining its procurement procedures for the supply of running spares to sharply reduce the number of accidents traceable to some sort of technical malfunction.
But the chief challenge for the Modi Government on the defence front is not just evident in the Navy. The other two key forces, besides the Coast Guard (its role came to the forefront during the recent ‘Terror Boat’ incident) had also suffered immense damage in terms of both modernisation of equipment and morale. The Indian Air Force has seen several well-trained fighter pilots die in MIG crashes over the decades because the political leadership has had little interest in upgrading the jets. The Army has for years learnt to live with outdated equipment as well. In Siachen, for instance, the Army has to make do with Chetak and Cheetah helicopters, which have their lives extended every few years and whose technology dates back to the 1950s.
The challenges for Parrikar get all the more daunting by the day, especially since the last 10 years have been a lost decade for defence modernisation.