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Sub-Standard: Despite many red flags raised, Navy still operating severely stretched underwater fleet

INS Sindhuratna has been rendered inoperable after a battery pit fire that killed two of its officers. (PTI Photo) INS Sindhuratna has been rendered inoperable after a battery pit fire that killed two of its officers. (PTI Photo)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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 capabilities are going to be degraded. By its very nature of being invisible, submarines are meant to ensure sea denial,” says Uday Bhaskar, naval analyst and former director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis.

More red flags were to follow. In 2010, the ministry was sent a reminder of sorts in the form of a detailed analysis of the submarine fleet, prepared by the Integrated Defence Staff, which compared India’s fleet composition with that of other navies in the region. The report then said that “the viable strength is less than 14 boats” since the two Foxtrot-class subs were undergoing a refit and were due for retirement.

“By 2015, the IN (Indian Navy) stands to be positioned at its lowest ebb in terms of subsurface strength and attendant sea denial and anti-access capabilities in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), despite the expected presence of one (and potentially two) leased SSNs (Chakra) of the Russia Navy. By 2015, the scenario in the Indian Navy is expected to have changed drastically,” says the report.

Serious concerns were also raised about the delays in the Scorpene project and it was recommended that “accountability must be established for any delays in release or absorption of technologies” and that “latitude provided for such slippages should be limited”.

The recommendation to the government was that Project 75 (I) for six new submarines should be kickstarted urgently to fill the gaps. However, four years from then, the government is still to approve the issuing of a tender to procure new submarines, much less being close to signing the contract.

The security assessment sent to the government expressed deep concerns that the depleting strength would make it difficult for the navy to handle the expanding Chinese navy over time.

“It is a matter of deep concern that in the next five years, India will have its lowest submarine capability in the history of the submarine arm as a result of retirements, obsolescence, critical delays in shipbuilding/procurement… As this critical capability is constantly eroded, there is an inverse increase in both capability and strength by the PN (Pakistan Navy), PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) and other navies operating in the IOR (Indian Ocean Region),” the report says.

The most telling remark is, however, from a confidential note the navy moved to the ministry to point out the status of its underwater fleet. “It is time for the Navy to openly accept that the submarine arm of the nation has never before been poised in such a vulnerable situation with regard to operational availability and strength,” it said, requesting for “urgent attention” from the government.

Rear Admiral (retd) Raja Menon says accountability needs to be fixed. “The government had taken six years to make up its mind on the Scorpene project and now it has been contractually delayed by four years. As a result, the navy has been operating with submarines with overage batteries. But instead of the real person who should have taken responsibility — the defence secretary — the Navy chief has gone.”

It is not that the underwater arm of the navy is the only one battling challenges. An audit report of 2011 exposed the status of the surface fleet too, revealing that the domestic warship building programme is facing delays and cost overruns have affected operational capabilities.

“By the year 2012, Indian Navy may retain only 61, 44 and 20 per cent of the envisaged force levels of frigates, destroyers and Corvettes,” the report presented to the government had said, pointing out both price and time delays in critical projects like the P15A for three 6,500 tonne frigates, P17 for three 4,900 tonne frigates, and P28 for four anti-submarine warfare corvettes.

“The lead ship in all the projects is delivered or expected to be delivered only after a delay of four to five years from the original date… As a result, the Navy will continue with a reduced fleet strength,” the report had said.

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While the ageing fleet and a sharp increase in operations are major contributing factors to the spate of incidents that led to the exit of Admiral DK Joshi this week, the navy faces other training and manpower issues as well. The Sindhurakshak incident, though not investigated yet, could in the end be attributed to human fault. Also, the mowing down of a fishing boat by the INS Talwar in December also boils down to human error. The navy’s argument has been that one of the causes of such accidents is that its manpower has been stretched beyond its limits, that the number of platforms inducted need many more personnel to man. A case that Admiral Joshi had pushed with Defence Minister A K Antony was for a huge increase in manpower, but that, the navy said, was held back by the finance ministry on grounds of monetary implications.

On finding a way forward, Bhaskar says an out-of-the box solution may be needed to ensure at least a stop-gap arrangement is made before long-term plans kick in. “If we are determined that we want a certain type of submarine, we shall have to start looking at other diesel submarines that have been mothballed by other nations. We can take four boats on lease from either Russia or Germany that operate the Kilo- and HDW-class that we have in service. Or, we can approach other nations that operate such boats. But this has to be a major political decision and a strong defence minister will be needed to carry it through.”

In the end, what this spate of accidents — arguably the worst in the navy’s history — and the exit of Joshi have brought to light is the need for a detailed study to urgently rectify what could be fatal flaws for this expanding, futuristic Indian armed force.

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