Despite many red flags raised over the years, the navy has been operating with a severely stretched underwater fleet. The resignation of the chief offers few answers by Manu Pubby.
In August last year, INS Sindhurakshak went down at the Mumbai harbour after multiple explosions on board. And now, INS Sindhuratna has been rendered inoperable after a battery pit fire that killed two of its officers. These are part of the Indian Navy’s Sindhughosh-class or Kilo-class submarines, a potent warfare platform at sea but which is being stretched beyond its design limit. The recent spate of accidents are another wake-up call for modernisation, the only consolation being the induction of cutting-edge platforms like the Vikramaditya aircraft carrier.
While the Scorpene project for six new conventional submarines that are being constructed at Mazagon Dock Limited, Mumbai, is lagging behind time — they’ll enter service after 2016 — the navy has, on several occasions, flagged the issue at the highest decision-making body of the Defence Ministry and requested the urgent procurement of new boats. But these have mostly come to nothing.
As successive defence reports, internal assessments and battle simulations have made clear, the one area where the navy lags the most is its underwater fleet. While deficiencies in other critical areas such as mine sweepers and reconnaissance aircraft also exist, the underwater fleet is the one that raises the maximum concern.
Given the platforms that India is inducting — two aircraft carriers this decade, a new range of stealth frigates, a futuristic destroyer fleet — underwater operations have become even more essential. The two carrier battle groups that are planned to be active — Vikramaditya this year and Vikrant by 2018 — also require underwater support.
In September 2009, for example, the navy informed the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) of the Defence Ministry that with the phasing out of older generation vessels, the submarine fleet would halve by 2012. The standing strength of the fleet then was 16 and the worry was that half of these would reach the end of their service life by 2012. This, however, did not inspire much reaction from the ministry and no files moved. A similar presentation made to the ministry in June 2008 also got no one to sit up.
“The writing is on the wall that India has not inducted a new boat since 2000 and the next boat, even if it is the Scorpene, will not be in before 2018. Therefore, the existing platforms have to be exploited beyond their normal endurance for frontline duties. The net result is that India’s sea denial continued…