Time to rebuild

It is time that the higher defence management of India undergoes a drastic change lest we face another 1962 type of defeat.

Without doubt the resignation of naval chief Admiral DK Joshi on February 25, taking full responsibility for the recent accident in the Submarine INS Sindhuratna which resulted in the death of two young naval officers, will go down in the military history of India as an outstanding example of military leadership and accountability. However in the bargain India has lost an outstanding professional. This accident and the mishaps before this had little to do with the naval chief. The real responsibility lies with an incompetent defence minister and the clueless bureaucrats who staff and run the MoD, forcing the navy to operate submarines which should have long been retired. These people have damaged Indian security beyond repair for a long time to come.

The first major submarine mishap involving Russian built Kilo Class diesel electric submarine INS Sindhurakshak took place in August 2013 near Mumbai harbour resulting in the death of 18 sailors. This 25 year old submarine was given a life extension at the cost of Rs 815 crore by the Russians in 2012. It was followed by another Kilo class submarine INS Sindhugosh which ran aground while entering Mumbai harbour.

The recent accident of INS Sindhuratna took place just 50 km off the Mumbai coast when it was submerged with 94 officers and sailors. It was lucky that despite fire in its battery compartment it could surface and most of the lives were saved. This submarine also had very recently undergone a major refit. Incidentally the cause of INS Sindhurakshak mishap was also fire in the battery compartment. There were other incidents also with surface ships but they were not major and there was no loss of life.

Today China operates 65 submarines in which eight of them are nuclear powered. It is building 15 more submarines. Pakistan is operating 5 state of art Agosta class submarines. As against this, India till the year 2006, when Antony took over as defence minister, was operating 19 submarines of Russian kilo class, German HDW and Type 209. Most of these submarines are more than 20 years old and can be called obsolete. It needs to be remembered that a submarine which operates 300 t0 400 metres below sea level suffers intense sea pressure and has 20 to 25 years life span. During the NDA rule, realising that building a strong navy takes a long time, then government in power had sanctioned 12 modern submarines to be inducted by the year 2012 and the balance 12 by 2020.

 Had this plan been implemented by the UPA government, the Indian navy would not have been in such a dire state. However not a single new submarine has been inducted till date. The six Scorpene submarines which India is building with the French help, thanks to the MoD and its sense of urgency, this programme is running five years late. The first submarine is likely to be inducted not before 2016.

Sitting over project

The six additional submarines which were sanctioned by the current UPA government in 2007, Antony has been sitting over this project till date. Till now even the tender has not been floated. If the global tender gets floated now the tardy process of selection that we follow will take three years just to decide on the submarine. Then it will take another eight years to build them in India. The bureaucrats who run the ministry take no advice from the military for reasons best known to them. So utter chaos prevails with each service competing for the crumbs thrown by these babus.

The old submarines which India is operating are below par and are no match to what China is operating currently. Of the 19 submarines, now only 13 are left, and of these three are undergoing major long term refits. In the nine remaining, INS Sindhuratna has just met with an accident and will be out of action for quite some time.

At any point of time three to four submarines have to be in maintenance cycle, so actually India can only field four to five aged submarines against the formidable threat posed by the China-Pakistan combine. The submarines which are still operational are beset with lack of availability of spare parts and  their life extension is that much more costly. Another factor contributing to these accidents is the lackadaisical repairs and refits carried out by the Indian Public Sector Dockyards who lack work culture and accountability.

In the modern warfare submarine is the most potent arm of any navy, because this arm in hunter killer role lurking below the sea level is a major threat to any surface ship. This particular arm of the navy excels in sea denial role. No power projection can be made by any naval power if the surface ships are not accompanied by submarines.
By now it must be clear to all that Admiral DK Joshi who took over as naval chief last year and still had 17 months left as navy chief, had little role to play in this entire shoddy episode. Antony and even the prime minister should have dissuaded the well meaning admiral from resigning.

It is now time that the higher defence management of India undergoes a drastic change lest we face another 1962 type of defeat. There is a need for coordinating the efforts of the three services. To that end the already sanctioned post of Chief of Defence Staff must be brought into force. Similarly the integrating of MoD with the three service headquarters must be implemented post haste. Instead of yearly budgeting the defence budget should be on a long term basis.

It is of utmost importance that we go for thorough indigenisation. Let private players be encouraged in a big way. Whether public or private sector, quality control and accountability must be brought into defence production set up. Finally we must enhance our submarine fleet by ordering additional Scorpene subs already being built in India and fast tracking of nuclear submarine operationalisation plan of INS Arihant and more. There are no short cuts left now.

(The writer is a defence and strategic analyst)

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