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Clearing the waters

Look for the real causes of the accidents instead of undermining the reputation of a first-rate navy with ill-informed speculation.

Corruption has to be fought, but to use the fear of corruption to allow the country’s fighting capability to be run down reflects mismanagement and incompetence. CR Sasikumar Corruption has to be fought, but to use the fear of corruption to allow the country’s fighting capability to be run down reflects mismanagement and incompetence. CR Sasikumar

Look for the real causes of the accidents instead of undermining the reputation of a first-rate navy with ill-informed speculation.

The resignation of the naval chief with 15 months of service remaining is unprecedented and laudable, and represents the highest standards of professionalism. The spate of accidents, however, raises questions that the stepping down of the naval chief is unlikely to lay to rest. The theatre of the absurd that followed in terms of ill-informed comment has muddied the waters and threatens to undermine the reputation of a first-rate navy.

Speculating on the causes of an accident, especially one that claims lives, before a board of inquiry has submitted its report borders on the reckless. In the case of the Sindhuratna, much attention was focused on the batteries. The preliminary finding reportedly is that the problem was not with the batteries but in the concealed life-cable of the submarine. Confirmation will have to wait until the final report.

Speculation and ill-informed analyses have led to allegations being made in three categories. One, that an apathetic civil bureaucracy and an indifferent political class have starved the defence forces in general and the navy in particular of much-needed funds. Two, there have been inordinate delays in ordering replacements, resulting in force levels being reduced to dangerous levels and that our young men and women have been given substandard equipment that endangers their lives. And three, the entire civil-military relationship has broken down.

Each of these allegations merits examination. The defence budget, presently at Rs 2,03,672 crore (US $37.4 billion) has been on the rise. The Indian navy’s share has been around 16-17 per cent. Clearly, the navy would want, and perhaps deserves, more. It has pegged its demands for several years at 18-20 per cent. Funds, on the other hand, are not unlimited and need to be prioritised. The navy recently acquired the 44,500-tonne aircraft carrier, the Vikramaditya, the erstwhile Gorshkov, for a whopping $2.5 billion. It has an expensive, leased nuclear-powered submarine and the indigenously produced Arihant presently undergoing sea trials. Clearly, therefore, the allegation of the navy being deprived of funds does not wash.

The navy has a total of 138 platforms, both ships and submarines, almost 50 per cent of which are 20 years old. Ships and submarines are periodically refitted and modernised in order to keep them in active service well beyond 30 years. Aircraft carrier Viraat is over 50 years old. As rightly pointed out by Admiral Arun Prakash, by international standards, the Indian navy is young, with a large proportion of modern and newly constructed ships, with some approaching middle age and others nearing their stipulated retirement age. Moreover, 45 newly constructed warships will join the fleet in the coming decade. The Indian navy presently has 13 conventional submarines in its inventory, excluding Sindhurakshak. The Perspective Plan envisages a fleet of 18-24 submarines.

In July 1999, the Cabinet Committee on Security had approved a 30-year plan for a comprehensive Submarine Construction Programme. As part of the 30-year plan, 12 conventional submarines were to be constructed during 2000-12. Not a single conventional submarine was delivered to the Indian navy during this period due to delays in the envisaged projects. Since the present Raksha Mantri has been in position for eight of the last 10 years, he cannot escape responsibility. On this point alone, asking for his resignation is fully justified.

Six submarines of the French Scorpene design are being constructed at Mazagon Dock Limited (MDL), Mumbai, in collaboration with DCNS, France. The case for further construction of six submarines is being processed for approvals, four of these will be constructed indigenously and two abroad in order to compress delivery timelines.

It is the job of the bureaucracy, in both the ministries of defence and finance, to raise questions when expenditure of a magnitude that requires their approval is concerned. It is the responsibility of the political leadership to overrule the bureaucracy when it becomes asinine. Corruption has to be fought, but to use the fear of corruption to allow the country’s fighting capability to be run down reflects mismanagement and incompetence. The present defence minister has allowed his penchant for fighting corruption to get the better of his professional judgement, which should have been guided by the need to ensure minimum force levels.

An ageing fleet, by definition, requires a higher revenue budget. The revenue budget, which looks after repairs and the fit of ships, submarines, etc, has stagnated around Rs 11,000 to 12,000 crore. The cost of batteries on submarines is debitable to the revenue budget and is only Rs 12 crore. The batteries on the Sindhuratna — not the cause of the fire — were well within their life cycle. Focusing on the batteries and suggesting that they were the cause of the fire is designed to divert attention from the real causes, which will become clear when the board of inquiry report is received. The accident on board the INS Kolkata on March 7, which claimed the life of a naval commander, the engineering officer, could have been avoided if prescribed operating procedures had been followed and he had worn a gas mark.

The navy and defence ministry need to take a good, hard look at its production and repair facilities, the MDL, a PSU, and the naval dockyard. The MDL, on average, has been taking twice the time to produce warships at twice the cost. The overall responsibility for this would again appear to lie with the political class and the senior management of the defence ministry, which has allowed the situation to deteriorate in the last 10 years. For this again, the UPA government is solely responsible.

The navy, for its part, needs to reassure itself about its training and operating procedures and the maintenance of equipment.

There should be zero tolerance for deviations, and responsibility should be fixed for improper certifications.

The writer, a retired diplomat, is a former joint secretary (navy) in the MoD. He recently joined the BJP.

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