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A navy all at sea

An enabling political environment is missing. We need to introspect on what ails higher defence management.

Updated: February 28, 2014 9:24 am
The perception is that the navy, the traditional silent service, has been making news for the wrong reasons. The perception is that the navy, the traditional silent service, has been making news for the wrong reasons.

The unprecedented resignation of Admiral D.K. Joshi from the high office of chief of naval staff (CNS) on Wednesday, in the wake of the unfortunate accident on the Kilo-class submarine INS Sindhuratna earlier in the day, may seem impulsive. But it is in keeping with the finest traditions of the military. The unwritten tenet of the profession of arms is that success is attributed to the subordinates in the chain of command. The blame for failures and lapses rests with the top leadership — and as the “old man”, Joshi took it on the chin and burnished this principle, which alas has been ignored in India for many decades.

Leadership applies across the civil-military spectrum. Not since former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned as the Union railway minister in 1956 (following an accident in Ariyalur, Tamil Nadu, in which 144 people were killed), has there been a display of such conviction and the resolute acceptance of moral and institutional responsibility.

The resignation of Joshi is as unprecedented as the swift manner in which it was accepted by the government, and this aspect merits attention. The Indian navy has been under adverse scrutiny since the enormity of the loss of another Kilo-class submarine, the INS Sindhurakshak, which suffered an explosion on board in August 2013 that gutted the boat and led to the loss of 18 lives. In the interim — from Sindhughosh to the Sindhuratna mishap — there have been as many as nine incidents of operational lapses and minor accidents involving naval ships and submarines that have come under intense media focus. The perception is that the navy, the traditional silent service, has been making news for the wrong reasons.

Unfortunately, this perception — that there was something terribly wrong with the institution — was allowed to fester and, in many ways, Sindhuratna is the straw that broke the camel’s back. The loss of life in any context is agonising and while the military profession accepts this exigency as being in the call of duty, every commander assumes the safety of the lives of those under his command as sacrosanct. Consequently, the penalties and repercussions for such occurrences are strict. The fact that two young officers lost their lives in the Sindhuratna incident may have weighed heavily on Joshi. In his resignation, the former CNS has set the same, if not higher, standard of rectitude that he had applied to his commanding officers.

But the larger question that lingers is: does the buck stop at the office of the naval chief? Each of the accidents/ incidents is of different magnitude and contour. Many would be deemed to be of an order not unprecedented — as, for instance, a ship touching the jetty while coming alongside, or for that matter a sonar dome being scraped during an exercise. Some incidents, such as a submarine having to “bottom” and settle down due to tide conditions, can be ascribed to the fact that the Mumbai harbour was not appropriately dredged, and this in turn was due to financial approval being withheld and imprudent penny-pinching by the mandarins of the national exchequer.

The tragic explosion on the Sindhurakshak was an unprecedented accident, and the exact cause for it is yet to be established. But the navy has accepted responsibility in the aftermath, and remedial measures have been put in place. It is unfortunate that another submarine met with an accident on Wednesday, and such a pattern is disturbing. Specific to the Indian navy’s submarine arm, it merits notice that the fleet is ageing and the Kilo-class boats were inducted from the former Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Most of the class is more than two decades old and the last diesel submarine was commissioned in 2000. Consequently, old platforms are being exploited beyond their normal life cycle after repeated refits and repairs. This takes a toll on the material state of the hull and the equipment on board. For reasons more relevant to the texture and inadequacy of India’s higher defence management, regular induction of new platforms for the navy and the other two services has been woefully inadequate.

Whether it is the artillery gun for the army or the fighter aircraft for the air force, to identify but two examples, the higher defence management of the country — which is the purview of the politico-bureaucratic lattice and the legislature — has remained indifferent to the substantive issues that plague national security. The military sets for itself standards of probity and professional conduct that are higher than those for any other institution. However, the military in any democracy needs an empathetic and enabling socio-political environment and this, regrettably, has been lacking in the Indian context. The civil-military dissonance is growing, and whether it is tardy planning or prudent fiscal outlays to nurture the military, the last 10 years have been feckless and arid. Related to this is the growing bitterness among the veterans community, and the ignominy of the state petitioning the courts against the grievances of the retired “fauji” is illustrative.

Admiral Joshi’s resignation is tinged with sadness, but it could also be an opportunity to introspect over the deeper context of India’s higher defence management and the many inadequacies that await objective attention and policy correctives. The next government would be well-advised to give this matter the highest priority.

The writer is a former director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and the National Maritime Foundation

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