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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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Mock Outrage

The Opposition staged walkouts — twice in three days — over the Indo-Pak joint statement at Sharm el-Sheikh, and the End-Use Monitoring Agreement (EUMA) or the so-called “Blue Lantern” program, for high technology defense purchases with the United States.  Too often this “walkout” culture is misinterpreted as a reflection of a vibrant democratic process in India. The irony is this that it is anything but.  The farcical walkouts staged by the Opposition undermine their own role in the democratic due process of the country.

Challenging a government on decisions it takes requires actual work. And really, when have our babus ever been fans of work?  Why waste time gathering information, formulating a view and challenging  those opposed to it, when you can just shout someone down in Parliament and summarily extricate yourself from the proceedings in mock outrage?

EUMAs are required as part of satisfying the “eligibility” requirements of the United States’ Arms Export Control Act. At least one source from the Defense Cooperation Security Agency (DSCA) confirms that India has previously signed similar EUMAs with the United States as part of the sale of the C-130J “Super Hercules” transport aircraft and USS Trenton (INS Jalashwa).  However those were transaction specific EUMAs, which both India and the US hope to do away with via a general master products and services agreement (which is essentially what this latest “agreement” is), as defense trade between the countries increases.

But the UPA and the Obama Administration have delivered mixed messages on the scope of the EUMA — is it restricted to defense related high technology purchases only, or does it include all high technology  transfers, which would scope in the Indo-US deal?  If it is the latter, as Brahma Challaney suggests, Manmohan Singh has some explaining to do with his representation to the Rajya Sabha that the Indo-US nuke deal was governed only by the 123 Agreement, the Separation Plan and the safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

The brouhaha around the much denounced “physical inspections” clause per se is unfounded.  First, while the US retains the right to physically inspect equipment, India gets to decide on where and when this inspection can occur. Second, regardless of the scope of high technology transfers, India is under no obligation to purchase anything from the US if it doesn’t want to, if push comes to shove, not even nuclear fuel or ENR technology. Third, since when has a piece of paper come to mean anything in the world today?  In a worst case scenario, what are the US’s options if India refuses to allow physical inspectors or reneges on earlier promises? Censure? Embargo? Been there, done that. Move on.

The implications of an agreement to physical inspections is less of a concern.  What is concerning however is the complete absence of a democratic exercise that examines and challenges the government on important strategic ventures it enters into (or plans to enter into) during its tenure.  A level of involved discourse of the ’60s and ’70s has given way to rowdyism.  Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad Yadav took the cake as they marched out the LS in protest; lest it be forgotten, it was only last week that the latter had to be corrected that the issue he was addressing the House with unswerving confidence was in fact “Global Warming”, and not “Global Farming”.

Where are the checks and balances?  What if it turns out that the UPA has misrepresented a large extent of the obligations with regard to high technology transfers, including the nuclear deal that it has entered into on behalf of the nation? The only qualification necessary to storm out in fits of rage is to be equipped with a pair of legs.  Who holds the government’s feet to the fire, if not the Opposition?

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