– V.N. Balakrishna | March 10, 2014
Ahmedabad | “My only great qualification for being put at the head of the navy is that I am wholly at sea,”mocked the great Edward Henry Carson, First Lord of the Admiralty, during the height of submarine crisis of 1917 during World War I.
Today one wonders if those responsible for running the Indian Navy are “wholly at sea” given the spate of accidents. In less than a year there has been 14 accidents and 21 lives lost and the toll keeps rising. From the day when INS Sindhurakshak sank killing 18 sailors in August last year till last Friday when Commander Kuntal Wadhwa died in the INS Kolkata, nothing seems right for the Navy. Even before the uproar over Wadhwa’s death had died down, another accident occurred at the under-construction nuclear submarine site in Visakhapatnam Saturday evening killing one civilian worker and leaving two injured.
INS Kolkata, which was to be delivered to the Navy way back in 2010, is said to be a “modern” destroyer. It is still undergoing trials. However the accident raises perturbing questions of how a ship yet to be operational could see such a bizarre mishap leaving a top officer dead.
A disturbing conclusion keeps popping up, if sabotage is ruled out for the moment, of the lack of maintenance and submarines not given sufficient time to re-fit and re-coup. One reason could be that as knee-jerk reaction the Navy was forced to take up policing activities following the Mumbai terror attack of 2008. The danger that was overlooked by the powers-that-be was that if these expensive frontline ships and submarines are used routinely for slow speed reconnaissance in policing duties they are bound to develop massive maintenance problems and frequent “minor incidents.”
As if this was not enough to handicap Indian Navy, often touted as a sign of India’s growing military, it was also forced to take up anti-piracy operations in a big way after Mumbai terror attack. This too has affected training and maintenance schedules in violation of Standing Operating Procedures (SOPs).
At an operational level, the Navy’s strongly carrier-centric focus has led to its systematic neglect of submarine fleet for effective anti-submarine warfare. With less than half of its 13 submarine fleet in operational readiness it has a big chink in its armor unlike the past when it could proudly recall the sinking of Pakistani submarine Ghazi during 1971 war, one of the most important events in the history of naval warfare. But then India had a strong and decisive military and civilian leadership. Unfortunately, now with a Defence Minister shirking moral responsibility it is indeed cause for worry.
Experts say minor accidents could be the result of sailors not getting enough training on one type of vessel before being shunted out to another. Handling a ship or submarine is no easy task for young officers who barely get enough time to learn the ropes on smaller vessels. Not surprisingly, the preliminary inquiry report on INS Sindhuratna has blamed ‘human error’ for the battery kit explosion following “deviation from standard operating procedure.” If this is how bigger ships are handled can India ever have a blue water navy? Situation can get worse when metal-fatigued submarines are not replaced on time given half of the submarine fleet has completed 75% of its operational lives. Even the coastline patrolling to deter future Mumbai type attacks seems haphazard. With replacements dogged by corruption as Scorpene submarine saga epitomizes agonizing delays in procurement and blasé political leadership is a cocktail for disaster.
Let alone taking steps to induct state-of-the-art submarines and warships to create a blue water navy, Indian Navy is endangering even those vessels that are seaworthy. In deviating from the best naval operating practices there is clearly a mismatch in what the Navy does to what it should not at the behest of its political masters.