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INS Sindhuranta and beyond

The casual attitude towards India’s defense preparedness at all levels is worrying.

An incident on board Indian Navy submarine INS Sindhuratna resulted in the unfortunate deaths of two officers and injuries to several other sailors.  Navy chief Adm DK Joshi has resigned, “taking moral responsibility” for the incident.  There have been as many as four major incidents pertaining to Indian Navy submarines in as many years. In August last year, a fire onboard INS Sindhurakshak resulted in explosions causing its sinking and the deaths of 18 sailors onboard.

There are similarities between the two ill-fated submarines.  INS Sindhurakshak and Sindhuratna are diesel-powered, Sindhughosh-class submarines first introduced in 1986.  INS Sindhuratna was commissioned in 1988, while Sindhurakshak was commissioned in 1997.  Both submarines were retrofitted at the same ship yard in Russia.  In 2010, a faulty battery value on board INS Sindhurakshak is alleged to have leaked hydrogen, resulting in fire and explosion that killed one sailor and injured two others.  Reports, although preliminary, now indicate that a battery leak could have also caused yesterday’s explosion on board INS Sindhuratna.

The reasons for Wednesday’s incident could be many, including failure of the crew to follow standard operating procedures, poor maintenance, technical malfunctioning or failure due to obsolescence.  Indeed, a 2008 CAG report highlighted delays in induction and refitting of submarines and projected, at the time, that 63 percent of India’s submarines would have completed their prescribed life by 2012.  However as of 2014, continued delays in India’s Scorpene-class submarine project are further straining the Navy’s submarine force levels and the serviceability of its aging fleet.

To be clear, incidents are bound to occur in even the most sophisticated, well-maintained and well-equipped of navies.  However, what should be concern for India is the casual approach to investigation and remedial action when incidents do occur.  The Navy announced the constitution of a Board of Inquiry to investigate the August 14, 2013 incident involving INS Sindhurakshak.  It was later determined that a full inquiry could not be conducted until the submarine was salvaged.

Going by news reports, it has taken 6 months for the Navy just to identify a company to salvage the vessel.  It is expected that it will take another 4 months after a contract is signed and work commences, to retrieve the sunken submarine.  An official inquiry will commence only then.  It is unlikely, then, that we will understand what happened to INS Sindhurakshak any time before 2015.  Where, other than in India, can these delays appear to be reasonable?  And what is the Navy and the political leadership supposed to do with its other Sindhughosh-class submarines in the interim?  Ground them pending inquiry, thereby reducing the number of operational Indian submarines to a grand total of 4, or continue to operate them and risk further accidents?

It is unfortunate that, with the exception of a few media houses, these questions are not being put to the people entrusted with India’s national security.  Mainstream media coverage of Adm DK Joshi’s resignation and his apparently acrimonious relationship with Minister of Defense AK Antony has overwhelmed questions on the root causes of these incidents and the general apathy at both political and military levels with which they have been dealt.

Some former servicemen have, perhaps rightly, rallied around Adm DK Joshi on TV news channels.  No doubt, there is a chasm, deep and wide in civil-military relations in India.  These are issues that the mainstream media must follow-up on.  However, to allow subplots pertaining to personality conflicts – the honorable and upright Navy officer vs. a much-pilloried Defense Minister — to dominate issues relating to the state of defense preparedness just because the former makes good viewing is to do disservice to the country.

General elections in 2014 could, by design, address the issue of the lack of political stewardship in defense.  A mere change in political leadership, however, cannot guarantee that we will be any closer to identifying or resolving the issues plaguing our submarine fleet.  What happens when these issues resurface, then? Lather, rinse, repeat?

 

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New submarines for the Indian Navy

Where are the questions from the media?

The Times of India ran an article on July 11, 2010 indicating that the Defence Acquisitions Council (DAC), chaired by Defence Minister A.K. Antony approved the allocation of Rs. 50,000 crore ($11 billion) towards the construction of six “next generation” submarines for the Navy, via a project codenamed Project-75 India (P-75I):

[The DAC] has finally decided that three of the six submarines will be constructed at Mazagon Docks (MDL) in Mumbai and one at Hindustan Shipyard Ltd (HSL) in Visakhapatnam, with the help of a foreign collaborator. “The other two submarines will either be imported from the foreign vendor directly or constructed at a private shipyard in India. Fresh estimates show each of these six diesel-electric submarines will cost almost Rs 8,500 crore,” a source said. [The Times of India]

There are several issues relating to the new project that should be of concern, not the least of which should be the amount allocated, which appears excessive for six conventional submarines (maybe The Times of India can clarify what was so  “new generation” about the subs). If a decision was taken to allocate such a large sum of money towards a project,  it should have been directed towards augmenting the indigenous nuclear submarine program, with India’s mid- to long-term security interests in mind.

Further, if MoD’s past record in cost projection is any indicator, $11 billion will be a significant underestimation.  Initial estimates of about $950 million for the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier, escalated to almost $4 billion.  Going back further, the  SU-30MKI deal  was initially estimated at about Rs. 22,000 crore, as against actual final costs of about Rs. 40,000 crore.  Again, based on MoD’s past record, a six year time estimate for the roll-out of the first of these submarines (which seems excessive, in and of itself) is likely fairly optimistic.  If MoD’s primarily concern is about plugging potential gaps before the Scorpene submarines become available (beginning 2014), a more effective sourcing strategy would be through a short-term lease agreement with another country.

The MoD’s lethargic approach towards requirements projection and sourcing, coupled with this Defence Minister’s obsession with self-reliance in manufacturing and “squeaky-clean” defense deals (let’s face it, they don’t exist) have already negatively impacted India’s defense preparedness.  This is further compounded by the almost complete absence of probing questions from the press on such issues.

“Mother of all” defense deals are good attention grabbers, but requirements for several other basic, but un-sexy equipment — grenades, howitzers, assault riffles, helmets, bullet-proof jackets, night vision devices and others — have been documented, re-documented and distributed to their final resting place, where they gather dust in some old office in South Block.

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