The naval power of any country is the real test of its standing. Since times immeoral, it is the naval strength that has made or destroyed civilzations and empires. Leaving the old times aside, in recent history Spain was the greatest power because of its strong Navy; but the defeat of Spanish Armada by the British made them the rukers of the world and till second world war Britannia really ruled the waves. Thereafter US and Russia were the super powers because of heir navy and that is the reason that China and Japan are out to become maritime powers.
India also has prestensions ofbeing a regional super-power, and its navy has been the real deterrant of the enemies. It is only last month India became the fifth nation with the capability to indigenously design and build its own aircraft carrier. INS Vikrant, as the new carrier is called, was launched by the defense minister with great fanfare signaling India’s coming of age as a global naval power.
This launch followed the announcement that the reactor in India’s first indigenously built nuclear-powered submarine (SSBN), INS Arihant, has gone critical, marking a turning point in New Delhi’s attempt to establish a nuclear triad.
But the celebrations came to an abrupt end when, two days after the launch of the aircraft carrier, INS Sindhurakshak, one of the 10 Kilo-class submarines that form the backbone of India’s aging conventional submarine force, sank with 18 crew members after explosions at the naval dockyard in Mumbai.
Together these developments underscored the giant strides that India has made as well as the challenges that India faces in its attempts to emerge as a credible global naval power.
Under development for the past eight years, INS Vikrant is likely to begin sea trials next year. With INS Vikrant, India not only will be able to protect both its eastern and western flanks more confidently but will also be able to project power much further off its shores, something that Indian naval planners have long desired.
INS Arihant is the first ballistic missile submarine built outside the five recognized nuclear powers. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the activation of the reactor aboard Arihant a “giant stride in … our indigenous technological capabilities.”
This highly secretive project took more than a decade to complete and will complete India’s nuclear triad, with the submarine’s ballistic missiles giving India a second-strike capability.
Indian naval expansion is being undertaken with an eye on China. Arihant and Vikrant notwithstanding, India has nautical miles to go before it can catch up with its powerful neighbor, which has made some significant advances in the waters surrounding India.
However, the recent incidents have only highlighted that the navy is not as strong as imagined. Beginning in August 2013, when the Indian naval submarine Sindhurakshak sank, stories have been appearing about naval “disasters”, culminating with the fire on the Sindhuratna, another submarine of the same class, which resulted in the death of two officers. This led to the resignation of the naval chief, Admiral D.K. Joshi, owning moral responsibility for all the incidents.
This is only the second time that a naval chief has demitted office before time. In the case of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat in 1998, while the majority view of the navy, including retired officers, was that the manner in which he was dismissed was wrong, some believed that he was too autocratic and had overstepped his authority. In Joshi’s case, however, there is unanimity that he was not to blame but has taken a bold, honourable and courageous step on his own, setting a fine example for all.
Amidst the noise and hullabaloo, the “disasters” have not been critically examined to see whether they deserve to be termed as such. Let us get an obvious error out of the way: the incident of the empty gunshell fired from ICGS Sangram that hit the Western Naval Command headquarters in February 2014. Sangram is a vessel of the Coast Guard, which is an independent service and has nothing to do with the navy.
Coming to the navy, the collision of INS Talwar with a fishing vessel in December 2013 could only have been due to misjudgement on the part of the ship’s staff or negligence of the fishing vessel crew. Pending completion of a board of inquiry, the commanding officer has been suspended. For all we know, he may be exonerated, but if found guilty, will be punished. Similarly, the brush of INS Tarkash with the jetty was due to human error, but it was no “disaster”.
Ships have been having arguments with jetties from the days of Lord Nelson, and there will be any number of such cases filed away in the archives of not only the Indian navy but navies all over the world. The grounding incidents of Sindhughosh, Betwa, Vipul, Mysore and Airavat look big taken collectively but are not uncommon individually.
A ship can be blamed for grounding if it strays from a marked channel or goes into a charted navigational hazard. But if the incident is attributable to an underwater and unidentified object not marked on the chart, perhaps as a result of silting and lack of dredging, it will be most unfair to levy any blame on the ships’ staff.
All these incidents have been or are being examined thoroughly by the navy and disciplinary or corrective action has or will be taken on completion of the boards of inquiry. In none of the cases discussed so far does the buck travel any further than the captain of the ship.
Here, it is essential to point out that the captain of a ship is a prize appointment and the individual is selected by top officers of the navy after a detailed examination of his service record and proficiency. However, there is no escape from human error. According to reports, the navy chief had already taken corrective action by ordering a reappraisal of the performance of key officers and affected many transfers.
The collision with the jetty and the groundings were not “disasters”, either in the manner in which they happened or for the damages caused, which were not substantial except maybe in one case. These incidents should not even have found their way to the media. The navy would do well to investigate how this has happened. This is not to suggest that they should have been brushed under the carpet.
Proper procedure must be followed and necessary action taken, but unnecessary reporting in the media and painting a frightening picture of naval “disasters” is wrong. Admiral Joshi quite rightly spoke of them as minor incidents, and neither the media nor the ministry of defence had cause to disbelieve him.
We are now left with three incidents that are of a serious nature. The fire on INS Konkan seems to be an isolated incident and one does not have any details to comment on it. It is, however, pertinent to note that this happened on the east coast and, therefore, should not be held against the CinC Western Naval Command, who seems to be in the line of fire. The Sindhurakshak and Sindhuratna incidents have both occurred on Kilo-class submarines and can be grouped together, although the cause may not be the same.
In fact, full details are not yet known beyond the fact that there were some explosions on the former and smoke in a compartment on the latter. The Sindhuratna was on post-refit trials and had on board the Western Naval Command Commodore Commanding Submarines and his inspection team. Any charge of negligence is therefore incorrect. We should avoid passing judgement till we get to the bottom of the matter.
The submarines are old and well past their sell-by date. The navy has repeatedly apprised the defence minister and the MoD of this. The case for replacement of submarines is at least 10 years old. This is the true “disaster”, which has only now been highlighted because these accidents have occurred. It remains to be seen if the MoD makes fast progress on the acquisition of submarines so that such disasters, or worse, do not take place.
On one issue, however, the navy can be faulted. Content with the belief that the incidents were of a minor nature, it allowed the media to hype them and did not make timely efforts to clear the air. Its public relations machine is to blame. To draw an analogy, when a number of MiG-21 incidents were taking place not too long ago, the aircraft were labelled as “flying coffins”. But nobody was calling for the heads of the air force hierarchy.
The mystery behind Admiral Joshi’s resignation remains. What triggered his resignation when he had recently dismissed most of these incidents as “minor”? One can only conjecture that the MoD, if not the minister himself, and the media were hounding him and he was bearing everything manfully till the Sindhuratna incident proved to be the last straw.
The above mentioned launch of an aircraft carrier is seen as critical for the Indian Navy as it remains anxious to maintain its presence in the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, especially in light of China’s massive naval buildup. Last year China commissioned its aircraft carrier, Liaoning, which is a refurbished vessel purchased from Ukraine in 1998. It is also working on an indigenous carrier of its own even as it keeps an eye out for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
India remains heavily dependent on imports to meet its defense requirements, so its recent successes are particularly important. But for all the euphoria, it will be five years until the INS Vikrant can be commissioned by the Indian Navy, and INS Arihant has yet to pass a series of sea trials.
The Indian Navy wants to be a serious blue-water force. Indian naval planners have long argued that to main continuous operational readiness in the Indian Ocean, protect sea lanes of communication in the Persian Gulf and monitor Chinese activities in the Bay of Bengal, it needs a minimum of three aircraft carriers and a fleet of five nuclear submarines.
With Admiral Gorshkov on track to be delivered by Russia by the end of this year and a second aircraft indigenous carrier in the wings, the Indian Navy could be close to realizing the dream of operating three carriers by the end of the decade.
But serious challenges remain as exemplified by the disaster of INS Sindhurakshak, which has brought the focus back to the enduring problems of safety and reliability that the Indian Navy has been grappling with for decade.
The Indian Navy has a poor accident record with several mishaps in recent years. INS Sindhurakshak had been reintroduced to service only in April this year after a refit in Russia. The navy has ordered a review of its submarine weapons safety systems after initial investigations showed arms on board the submarine may have played a role in its sinking. The latest accident comes as the Indian Navy’s surface fleet expands. The Indian submarine fleet is not only aging but also depleting fast with the induction of new submarines not on track.
Despite the success of Vikrant and Arihant, India’s indigenous defense production has been marred by serious technical and organizational problems, leading to significant delays in the development of key defense technologies and platforms.
The Indian Navy, much like the other two services, has found it difficult to translate its conceptual commitment to self-reliance and indigenization into actionable policy, resulting in a perpetuation of reliance on external sources for naval modernization. Yet India’s reliance on its navy to project power is only likely to increase in the coming years as naval buildup continues apace in the Indo-Pacific.
Apart from China, other powers are also developing their naval might. Japan’s commissioning of its third helicopter carrier, the Izumo, has raised hackles in Beijing, which has referred to it as an “aircraft carrier in disguise.” In this regional context, India’s naval engagement with East and Southeast Asian states is integral to its two-decade old “Look East” policy. Countries ranging from Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia to Vietnam and Myanmar have been pushing India toward assuming a higher profile in the region. India is training Myanmar naval personnel and is building at least four Offshore Patrol Vehicles in Indian shipyards to be used by Myanmar’s Navy. But would it maintain its regional supremacy si the question that faces India.