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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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The ties that bind (2)

Transforming the nature of the India-UK relationship.

In my previous blogpost, I argued that for India and the U.K. to enter into what Prime Minister David Cameron calls an “enhanced partnership,” would require both countries to engage each other on issues impacting their strategic interests.  I had argued that security was one such area, and the extent to which the U.K. can play a meaningful role in addressing India’s security needs could go a long way in determining how successful this “enhanced partnership” will be.  Today’s TIME online has an interesting piece on the on-going battle between U.K.’s MoD and the Exchequer over replacement costs for the Royal Navy’s V-Class nuclear submarines (h/t @pragmatic_d):

As part of Britain’s austerity cuts, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) has been asked to find savings of between 10 and 20% by 2014, and then work off of steady-level funding until 2020. Britain’s V-class subs, known as Trident after the U.S.-made ballistic missiles they carry, are aging and need to be replaced by 2024. A replacement system as sophisticated as the V-class submarine will cost around $30 billion, with the first contracts to be inked by 2016.

Defense Secretary Liam Fox has said the MoD could not spend that much on nuclear subs while simultaneously cutting its budget without jeopardizing the purchasing of other big-ticket weapons such as armored vehicles, aircraft carriers, and fighter jets. He insisted the money should come not from the MoD but from the Treasury, which has traditionally paid for Britain’s subs. However, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who heads the Treasury, said that wasn’t going to happen. “The [nuclear submarine] costs … are part of the defense budget. All budgets have pressure. I don’t think there’s anything particularly unique about the Ministry of Defense,” he said.

Malcolm Chalmers, a former nuclear adviser to two British foreign secretaries, says V-class submarines are relics of the Cold War. While Britain’s conventional forces are no longer organized to defend against a military attack from the Soviet Union, its nuclear policy has “remained largely unchanged since the 1960s, when a surprise attack on Western Europe was a central driver for U.K. force planning,” he wrote. The [RUSI] report concludes that the government should save money by either halving the number of new V-class-type boats it builds, building a new submarine fleet capable of both conventional and nuclear roles, or scrapping the submarine-based system altogether and maintaining a non-deployed arsenal to be delivered either by airplane or special forces. [TIME]

Some of this current monetary pressure can be alleviated by a U.K. offer to lease its V-class submarines to India on a short-term basis. This will be well received in New Delhi and will help in broadening the scope of bilateral engagement. India today is seeking to diversify its delivery systems — essential for maintaining a credible secondary-strike capability.  Its sea-based deterrence system, however, is nascent, with a small fleet of aging diesel-powered submarines. The induction of the nuclear-powered Arihant-class submarines — products of India’s indigenous Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) project — is still few years away.

U.K. has made significant contributions to the Indian Navy in the past — lest we forget, the only aircraft carriers India has had — Vikrant and Viraat — were both purchased from the Royal Navy; HMS Hermes (Viraat) played a pivotal role in the South Atlantic during the Falklands War.

Given the sensitivity of the technology, India and the U.K. will need to conclude a more over-arching dual-use agreement before any transfer takes place, which could pave the way for future high-technology trade.  And while the sale of Advanced Jet Trainers to  HAL is an important step, more potential on defense and security collaboration between India and the U.K. exists and can be realized.  This will require both India and the U.K. to determine commonalities in each others’ long-term strategic interests, re-visit mechanisms that can make such collaboration possible, and commit to exploring the full potential of an Indo-U.K. strategic partnership.

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