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The real naval disaster

Recent incidents have only highlighted that the navy’s submarines are old and should have been replaced.

Published:March 5, 2014 12:03 am

CR Sasikumar Photo: CR Sasikumar

By: Ravi Sharma

Recent incidents have only highlighted that the navy’s submarines are old and should have been replaced

Beginning in August 2013, when the Indian naval submarine Sindhurakshak sank, stories have been appearing about naval “disasters”, culminating with the fire on the Sindhuratna, another submarine of the same class, which resulted in the death of two officers. This led to the resignation of the naval chief, Admiral D.K. Joshi, owning moral responsibility for all the incidents.

This is only the second time that a naval chief has demitted office before time. In the case of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat in 1998, while the majority view of the navy, including retired officers, was that the manner in which he was dismissed was wrong, some believed that he was too autocratic and had overstepped his authority. In Joshi’s case, however, there is unanimity that he was not to blame but has taken a bold, honourable and courageous step on his own, setting a fine example for all.

Amidst the noise and hullabaloo, the “disasters” have not been critically examined to see whether they deserve to be termed as such. Let us get an obvious error out of the way: the incident of the empty gunshell fired from ICGS Sangram that hit the Western Naval Command headquarters in February 2014. Sangram is a vessel of the Coast Guard, which is an independent service and has nothing to do with the navy. 

Coming to the navy, the collision of INS Talwar with a fishing vessel in December 2013 could only have been due to misjudgement on the part of the ship’s staff or negligence of the fishing vessel crew. Pending completion of a board of inquiry, the commanding officer has been suspended. For all we know, he may be exonerated, but if found guilty, will be punished. Similarly, the brush of INS Tarkash with the jetty was due to human error, but it was no “disaster”.

Ships have been having arguments with jetties from the days of Lord Nelson, and there will be any number of such cases filed away in the archives of not only the Indian navy but navies all over the world. The grounding incidents of Sindhughosh, Betwa, Vipul, Mysore and Airavat look big taken collectively but are not uncommon individually.

A ship can be blamed for grounding if it strays from a marked channel or goes into a charted navigational hazard. But if the incident is attributable to an underwater and unidentified object not marked on the chart, perhaps as a result of silting and lack of dredging, it will be most unfair to levy any blame on the ships’ staff.

All these incidents have been or are being examined thoroughly by the navy and disciplinary or corrective action has or will be taken on completion of the boards of inquiry. In none of the cases discussed so far does the buck travel any further than the captain of the ship. 

Here, it is essential to point out that the captain of a ship is a prize appointment and the individual is selected by top officers of the navy after a detailed examination of his service record and proficiency. However, there is no escape from human error. According to reports, the navy chief had already taken corrective action by ordering a reappraisal of the performance of key officers and affected many transfers. 

The collision with the jetty and the groundings were not “disasters”, either in the manner in which they happened or for the damages caused, which were not substantial except maybe in one case. These incidents should not even have found their way to the media. The navy would do well to investigate how this has happened. This is not to suggest that they should have been brushed under the carpet.

Proper procedure must be followed and necessary action taken, but unnecessary reporting in the media and painting a frightening picture of naval “disasters” is wrong. Admiral Joshi quite rightly spoke of them as minor incidents, and neither the media nor the ministry of defence had cause to disbelieve him. 

We are now left with three incidents that are of a serious nature. The fire on INS Konkan seems to be an isolated incident and one does not have any details to comment on it. It is, however, pertinent to note that this happened on the east coast and, therefore, should not be held against the CinC Western Naval Command, who seems to be in the line of fire. The Sindhurakshak and Sindhuratna incidents have both occurred on Kilo-class submarines and can be grouped together, although the cause may not be the same.

In fact, full details are not yet known beyond the fact that there were some explosions on the former and smoke in a compartment on the latter. The Sindhuratna was on post-refit trials and had on board the Western Naval Command Commodore Commanding Submarines and his inspection team. Any charge of negligence is therefore incorrect. We should avoid passing judgement till we get to the bottom of the matter. 

The submarines are old and well past their sell-by date. The navy has repeatedly apprised the defence minister and the MoD of this. The case for replacement of submarines is at least 10 years old. This is the true “disaster”, which has only now been highlighted because these accidents have occurred. It remains to be seen if the MoD makes fast progress on the acquisition of submarines so that such disasters, or worse, do not take place. 

On one issue, however, the navy can be faulted. Content with the belief that the incidents were of a minor nature, it allowed the media to hype them and did not make timely efforts to clear the air. Its public relations machine is to blame. To draw an analogy, when a number of MiG-21 incidents were taking place not too long ago, the aircraft were labelled as “flying coffins”. But nobody was calling for the heads of the air force hierarchy. 

The mystery behind Admiral Joshi’s resignation remains. What triggered his resignation when he had recently dismissed most of these incidents as “minor”? One can only conjecture that the MoD, if not the minister himself, and the media were hounding him and he was bearing everything manfully till the Sindhuratna incident proved to be the last straw.

The writer is a retired commodore of the Indian navy 

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