Strategic thinking missing in Navy

The nation was taken by surprise when it was announced that the chief of naval staff Admiral DK Joshi had resigned.

This came hours after seven sailors suffered serious
injuries and two officers remained ‘unaccounted for’ (who were later found dead) in an
accident on board India’s Russian-built submarine, INS Sindhuratna. It has been a terrible time for the Navy, ever since the INS Sindhurakshak sank in August resulting in the loss of 18 naval personnel. There have been ten accidents since then, involving warships and submarines. This has put the safety record of the Indian navy under severe scrutiny. However this resignation raises a few pertinent questions --Who is to blame for such incidents? Why do such incidents occur? Was the naval chief right in resigning?

This would be the first time in the last 15 years that a naval chief has had to leave office in controversial circumstances. The last time a navy chief had to quit was when Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was sacked for insubordination by the NDA government in 1998 when George Fernandes was the defence minister. Admiral Joshi is a well respected officer with nearly four decades of experience under his belt. It is a rather sad end to such a distinguished career that included several command, staff and instructional appointments including the captainship of guided missile corvette INS Kuthar, guided missile destroyer INS Ranvir and the aircraft carrier INS Viraat.

Spate of accidents

The navy has been shaken by a spate of accidents in the recent past. One of the worst peace time disasters occured in August, 2013 when the INS Sindhurakshak sank in the Mumbai dockyards. It was one of 10 kilo-class submarines constructed in Russia’s shipyards for the Indian Navy from 1985 to 2000. Kilo class vessels can travel at around a maximum 20 miles per hour at a depth of around 900 feet. It had the latest variant of a Russian-made submarine-specific cruise missile system capable of hitting targets more than 150 miles away.

The navy had spent Rs.480 crore to upgrade the 16-year-old submarine with an improved weapons system and expected the boat to serve another 10 years. This disaster has seriously weakened the navy’s operational preparedness.

The overreliance of the Indian Navy on Russian knowhow is disconcerting. The Indian navy has been operating Soviet-era warships, submarines, and aircraft carriers, many of them more than 30 years old. Is it not natural for accidents to happen? As one of the major nations in the Asia-Pacific Region (APR), India seeks to establish a hegemony, for which maritime superiority is a must. Can this ambition ever become a reality if we do not indigenise our naval production?

The other issue relates to interservice resource allocation. The Navy has been steadily losing out to its rival services. In the 2013-14 defence budget, the Navy's share of total defence spending fell by the most, and the Navy comprises the smallest share of the budget, a rather measly 18 per cent when compared to 28 per cent for the Indian Air Force and 49 per cent for the Indian Army. A recent report by Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) found that the Indian Navy only has "61, 44 and 20 per cent respectively of the frigates, destroyers and corvettes that it has projected as its minimum requirement."

The plight of the Indian navy is only symptomatic of a general lack of strategic thinking. Admiral Joshi’s resignation cannot be viewed in isolation, in that he was resigning because he was ‘inefficient’ to prevent accidents. The truth is far more stark. It deals with ageing naval equipment and a lack of longsighted strategic vision. This resignation is a tremendous feat of courage, performed by an officer who still had 18 months of service left. How seldom we are privy to such acts.

The last time a feat of this magnitude occurred was when Lal Bahadhur Shastri resigned as railway minister accepting moral and constitutional responsibility for a railway accident at Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu that resulted in 144 deaths. A naval chief has accepted responsibility for the mistakes of his subordinates and upheld the highest standards of public morality by resigning. In an age bereft of exemplars, this act has left an indelible impression on our collective consciousness.

(The writer is a faculty member of the School of Law,Christ University,Bangalore)

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