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Choppy Waters


With Admiral DK Joshi's sudden resignation, the lid has been taken off the Indian Navy's mess presided over by shortsighted politicians and ill-informed bureaucrats. Mayank Singh has the larger picture
MAYANK SINGH | Issue Dated: March 16, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Admiral DK Joshi | INS Sindhuratna |

Navy Chief Admiral DK Joshi’s resignation post the INS Sindhuratna submarine fire incident has underscored the kind of stress defence structures have been put under thanks to political pusillanimity, bureaucratic brinkmanship and a badly delayed modernisation programme.

Although Admiral Joshi owned up moral responsibility for the recent accidents, the sudden resignation – without even a pretense by the government to stop him – has thrown up critical issues related to the need for decisive and supportive approach to issues related to armed forces and their modernisation programme. In addition, there is crying need to implement reforms at the structural level in the ministry and hierarchy in uniforms.

At a time when operational commitments of the Indian Navy have risen manifold in the form of anti-piracy deployments, bilateral exercises, annual exercises, coastal security requirements post the 2008 Mumbai attacks and training commitments, the asset value and human resource of India’s elite force, has not seen a commensurate increase. It has lead to a lot of unwanted stress on both man and machine. Some or the other time, it had to tell on the system and it is doing it now.

Adding to the logjam are various bigger structural and organizational problems pertaining to the ministry of defence (MoD) and higher defence management. Navy’s manpower has been stretched beyond its limits; it is a fact that the number of platforms inducted need many more personnel to man but that, say insiders, is simply not happening.

According to well placed sources, Admiral Joshi had pushed with defence minister A K Antony for a huge increase in manpower but was thwarted by the ministry of finance on grounds of its monetary implications. In other words, scratch the surface and it is apparent that the problem has more to do with the approach of a largely civilian MoD towards defence forces.

The problems have their origins in the apathy displayed towards implementing perspective plans; the way the defence budget has been handled in the last few years with big amounts getting either surrendered or being diverted to complete other requirements, has led to a drastic deescalation of India’s much-needed defence modernization programme.

Former chief of army staff General VP Malik believes that India is ruled by obsolete organisational structures. “Every developed country does an annual strategic review and from it evolves its national security policy. We do not have any such thing, forget about national security policy.’’ What’s worse, says General Malik, is that even those committees which were formed for national security review like the Kargil Committee and Naresh Chandra Committee came up with good suggestions but were ignored. “The recommendations were sound but they were not implemented due to lack of understanding on the part of our political leaders and advised against by bureaucrats who have a short sighted approach towards country’s security. War today is politico-military as the days of full-fledged military wars are gone. Thus, there is an urgent need of our political leadership to take active interest into the things related to military and national security.”

According to sources, “If we start analyzing the inordinate delays in each of the critical equipment which are important from the defence capability’s point of view, we have a sad story to narrate. Night vision devices for the armoured vehicles, submarines, artillery guns, air defence systems, helicopters for all three services, MMRCA for air force and many more are yet to be bought. Certainly, there had been procurement like Aircraft Carrier INS Vikramaditya, Airlift and transport Aircraft C130 J and C 17 Globemaster.’’

The reason becomes evident if numbers are taken into count. The sanctioned strength of the submarine fleet - a number decided in the last century when there were fewer security threats for the Indian Navy - is 24. The holding strength is 14, of which two are currently in refit and a third, INS Sindhurakshak destroyed in August 2013. Now with  the fire in INS Sindhuratna engulfing two lives, matters have been made worse.

A typical example of gross mismanagement is the way in which future plans related to submarines have been handled. In 2010 a sailor had died and others injured due to defective battery in a Kilo class sub. After the accident at INS Sindhurakshak claimed the lives of 18 sailors and an officer, the reason attributed is the same: faulty batteries.

Now, in the latest case of INS Sindhuratna, sources say it is the blast in the battery chamber which has taken the life of two valiant officers. The critical need for improved batteries was pointed to the MoD long ago. While the procurement of batteries for submarines has been over looked by MoD officials, the future of the entire 30-year submarine perspective plan is a glaring example of mishandling, ill-planning and red tape.

Given the platforms that India is inducting with 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 of INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant, likely to join in 2018, also require underwater support.

An audit report in 2011 had clearly highlighted the constraints and problems which were coming to the surface. But, such reports have often been pushed under the carpet.

It is not just the underwater arm of the navy that is battling challenges. According to the audit report, India’s domestic warship building programme is facing delays and cost overruns that have finally affected operational capabilities.

“By 2012, the Indian Navy may retain only 61, 44 and 20 per cent respectively of the envisaged force levels of frigates, destroyers and Corvettes,” the report presented to the government had said, pointing out to 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. It had added: “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.”

Defence minister AK Antony has slowed the pace of procurement considerably with his inability to take quick decisions. Also, he is guided by a bureaucracy which does not understand the requirements of the armed forces which obviously needs a specialist rather than a generalist IAS officer who has probably served in ministries as apart as fisheries, petroleum or agriculture and now holds the keys to the country’s defence!

Former Admiral Sureesh Mehta, chairman, National Maritime Foundation sees Joshi’s resignation as one of the consequences of deteriorating civil-military relations. He says, “The single point responsibility of the defence lies with the defence secretary. The three chiefs carry full responsibility for their respective services but have no locus standi in the MoD. The defence secretary has been assigned authority for the “defence of India and for the three armed forces HQs”. However, he has zero accountability for anything, especially when things go wrong. Service chiefs have no role in the process of national security policy and decision-making.”

Decisions for arm purchases have been getting stalled at the political level for reasons unknown. For example, a hugely delayed signing of the Scorpene submarine contract has been further bedeviled by slippages on account of a serious decision-making deficiency in MoD. Add to it the contracts of artillery guns, light utility helicopters and MMRCA, apart from others, and it is clear that there is a problem of decision making at the ministry level.

Air vice marshal (AVM) Kapil Kak, senior defence analyst, considers Antony to be a big part of the problem. “We have our weakest defence minister in the form of Antony. He is very poor in decision making and is insensitive to the needs and requirements of defence forces,” he says. For another, Kak reflects on the measly budgetary allocation for defence. Between 1947 to 1962, on an average 1.49 percent of our GDP was spent on defence. Post the 1962 China debacle, the GDP percent was raised to 4. The average till 1988 dropped to 3 percent. Today the budget for 2014-15 is pegged at 1.7 percent. Compared with China’s 3.5 and Pakistan’s 4.5 percent of their  GDP allocation to defence this year, it is a small amount. In other words, the combined 8 percent GDP of China and Pakistan has to be balanced by 1.7 percent of Indian budget.’’ The details do not look too promising.

Laxman Behera, research fellow, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, believes that the focus on procurement is also leading to problems. “With the whole focus on buying more equipment, not enough attention is being paid on repair, refit and maintenance.’’ The priorities and planning are clearly haywire.

Admiral Sureesh Mehta stresses that the defence budget should be rolling budget and whatever is not spent in a financial year should not lapse. It may be useful to integrate the service HQs with the MoD and constitute a chief of defence staff as military advisor to the defence minister.

This is an old recommendation of the two committees, Kargil and Naresh Chandra, on defence. Add to it recommendations of the Standing Committee of Parliament on security reforms; no action has been taken, largely due to resistance from the bureaucracy and lack of political resolve. General Malik proposes a corpus amount kept separate to meet last moment requirements at the end of the financial year in March so that if required this corpus can help to finance the crucial modernisation plan. Good point but who is listening?

Choppy Waters

The navy chief’s resignation is symptomatic with the problems that plague India’s defence services

Arvind Radhakrishnan is assistant professor, School of Law, Christchurch College Bangalore

The nation was taken by surprise when it was announced that the Chief of Naval Staff Admiral DK Joshi had resigned. This came hours after seven sailors suffered serious injuries and two officers remained ‘unaccounted for’ in an accident on board India’s Russian-built submarine, INS Sindhuratna.

This has been a terrible time for the Indian Navy, ever since the INS Sindhurakshak sank in August last year resulting in the loss of 18 naval personnel. There have been ten accidents since then, involving warships and submarines. This has put the safety record of the Indian Navy under severe scrutiny.

However the navy chief’s resignation raises a few pertinent questions - Who is to blame for such incidents? Why do such incidents occur? Was the naval chief right in resigning?

This would be the first time in the last 15 years that a naval chief has had to leave office under controversial circumstances. The last time it happened was when Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was sacked for insubordination by the NDA Government in 1998 when George Fernandes was the defence minister. That had raised quite a stink.

Admiral Joshi is a well respected officer with nearly four decades of experience under his belt. It is a rather tragic end to such a distinguished career that included several commands, staff and instructional appointments including the captainship of guided missile corvette INS Kuthar, guided missile destroyer INS Ranvir and the aircraft carrier INS Viraat. He had a reputation for being a hard taskmaster who always ran ‘tight ships’. As a commanding officer he was known for taking stern action against officers who performed inefficiently. “He did not forgive, held officers and sailors accountable. He has now also held himself accountable,” said a senior officer.

Said former navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash, “He has done the honourable thing. The buck stops with him. The tradition in India is not to own up moral responsibility. Most of the accidents were trivial incidents, like a ship touching a jetty or a submarine being caught in low tide, for which a chief cannot be held responsible. Our politicians and bureaucrats should take a hint from Admiral Joshi’s conduct.” Will they?

The navy has been shaken by a spate of accidents in the recent past. One of the worst peace time disasters occurred in August, 2013 when INS Sindhurakshak sank in the Mumbai dockyards. It was one of 10 kilo-class submarines constructed in Russia’s shipyards for the Indian Navy from 1985 to 2000. Kilo class vessels can travel at around a maximum 20 miles per hour at a depth of around 900 feet.  It had the latest variant of a Russian-made submarine-specific cruise missile system capable of hitting targets more than 150 miles away. The navy had spent Rs 480 crore to upgrade the 16-year-old submarine with an improved weapons system and expected the boat to serve another 10 years. This disaster has seriously weakened the navy’s operational preparedness.

India is in a position to only deploy about 8 aging submarines against our conventional rivals China and Pakistan. Eleven of our diesel-electric submarines are nearly three-decade-old. Most of them, be it the Kilo-class ones of Russian origin or the 4 HDW ones of German origin, are under repair to extend their operational lives.

Even the INS Chakra, our only nuclear powered submarine, has been taken on a ten year lease from Russia.

The overreliance of the Indian Navy on Russian know how is disconcerting. The Indian navy has been operating Soviet-era warships, submarines, and aircraft carriers, many of them more than 30 years old. Is it not natural for accidents to happen? The delay in inducting the six French Scorpene submarines is proving to be costly. We have been rather indecisive in adopting the Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP), as part of the ‘Project 75’, which entails the six Scorpene submarines being constructed for over Rs 23,000 crores at Mazagon Docks.

These submarines will be inducted only by November 2016. The Indian Navy became interested in Russia’s proposals to overhaul the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier in line with India’s requirements and to supply MIG-29K fighters.

Indian admirals expressed a measure of displeasure: the idea of replacing the 20,000-tonne Vikrant and the 29,000-tonne Virat with ships almost half their size was not to their liking. Nevertheless, the design of a new aircraft carrier capable of carrying 12-15 aircraft got underway, although the fleet did manage to up the displacement to 17,000 metric tonnes.

In layman’s language, the term ‘aircraft carrier’ generally implies a multirole vessel capable of carrying aircraft, while the word ‘indigenous’ in this context refers to a national project of top priority that is mostly implemented internally. The project in question, however, did involve foreign experts, since India is not yet capable of independently engineering a ship of such complexity. This is surely disconcerting, especially when we tend to boast about our engineering prowess to the whole world.

As one of the major nations in the Asia-Pacific Region (APR), India seeks to establish a hegemony, for which maritime superiority is a must. Can this ambition ever become a reality if we do not indigenize our naval production? This is a pertinent issue, especially when China is investing heavily on its ever growing maritime prowess. A powerful Indian Navy can certainly impede oil traffic heading for China through the Malacca Strait, thus preventing easy Chinese access to the Indian Ocean.

 At present, Pakistan is well equipped with five ‘new conventional’ submarines and is considering to get six more ‘advanced’ vessels from its all-weather friend China. China is much ahead ofIndia with 47 diesel-electric submarines and eight nuclear-powered submarines. Incidentally, the Pakistan Navy is the first force in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to have submarines equipped with AIP in the shape of three French Agosta-90B vessels. The conventional submarines have to surface every few days to get oxygen to recharge their batteries in contrast to the AIP equipped submarines that can stay submerged for much longer periods to significantly boost their stealth and combat capabilities.

The other issue relates to inter-service resource allocation. The navy has been steadily losing out to its rival services. In the 2013-2014 defence budget the navy’s share of total defence spending fell by the most, and the navy comprises the smallest share of the budget; a rather measly 18 percent when compared to 28 percent for the Indian Air Force and 49 percent for the Indian Army.

A recent report by India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) found that the Indian Navy only has “61, 44 and 20 percent respectively of the frigates, destroyers and corvettes that it has projected as its minimum requirement.” The plight of the Indian navy is only symptomatic of a general lack of strategic thinking. The government’s response has been to portray the raising of a mountain corps (to contain China on land), as a trade-off vis-à-vis the navy.

One of India’s leading naval experts Rear Admiral (Retd) Raja Menon has openly stated “Most of all, we appear not to have assessed the Chinese weakness and strengths. Their strength is the huge logistic network that they have built up in Tibet. By creating a one axis strike corps, we have played into their strengths. The Chinese weakness lies in the Indian Ocean, a fact that even Beijing will readily concede. The clash between their political system and economic prosperity requires resources and, increasingly, the Chinese resource pool is Africa, which generates massive sea lines of communication (SLOC) through the Indian Ocean.

India should think about the question of military modernization as a series of choices across all the three services rather than a slew of policy decisions to be made in isolation from one another.

Leading strategic experts like Bharat Karnad feel that it may be a little too late already. He feels that India’s strategy of having 50 odd capital ships by 2030 may not be enough to counter China through blockading it. States Karnad: “Indeed, the Chinese could well achieve their limited war aims before many of their naval ships and merchant marine can be found and sunk, and the Chinese economy impacted. Unlike India, China has built up strategic reserves of oil and minerals; these will last longer than the limited war will endure and before India’s maritime counter can have effect.”

The Indian Naval doctrine (2004) clearly places emphasis on nuclear submarines, equipped with nuclear missiles for developing reliable Minimum Nuclear Deterrence (MND). The MND capability establishes a firm case to acquire a ‘non-provocative strategic capability’ through nuclear submarines like INS Chakra (on a 10-year lease form Russia) and the indigenously developed INS Arihant.

On the other hand, the Chinese Naval modernizing programme includes the replacement of old Romeo and Ming class conventionally powered submarines by much more capable Song and Kilo-class submarines. China’s nuclear powered submarines (SSN) of the old Han-class are being replaced by the new type 093-class SSN. Also, China is planning to deploy the new Type 094-class of nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN).

To exercise any control over the Indian Ocean, India and China need an effective aircraft carrier force, as these carriers are power projection platforms, acting as a deterrent. India’s specific focus on developing power projection capabilities can be seen in terms of three operation carrier battle groups- INSVikramaditya, Indigenous Aircraft Carrier’ (IAC-I) and IAC – II. The operation of these aircraft carriers would guarantee that the Indian Navy has two operational carriers at any given point with the third one in for refits.

In the case of China, its first aircraft carrier formally entered into service on September 25, 2012, although the ship is not expected to be ready for combat for some time. China has successfully managed to secure vital choke points by cooperating with states like Myanmar (intelligence gathering station to monitor Indian naval activity), Pakistan (Gwadar Port on Pakistan’s western coast), Sri Lanka (development of the port of Hambantota) and Iran (aid to Iran’s efforts to modernize its military hardware).

These relations are further complemented by expanding ties with Maldives (plan for a submarine base), Seychelles (facilities for Chinese ships engaged in anti-piracy operations) and Mauritius (investment on a special enterprise zone). By doing so, China now has greater access to ports and naval bases in strategic locations in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East.

The Indian Navy centered on three aircraft carrier battle groups including INS Vikramaditya carrying 16 latest MiG-29 K series of aircraft likely to join the service by 2013; IAC -I to be inducted into the fleet by 2018 and IAC II is due in 2022 and is expected to carry 29 MiG-29K aircraft. Indian Navy is getting ready to operate five nuclear submarines by 2020, including two leased from Russia and three built indigenously.

Admiral Joshi’s resignation cannot be viewed in isolation, in that he was resigning because he was ‘inefficient’ to prevent accidents. The truth is far more stark. It deals with ageing naval equipment and a lack of longsighted strategic vision. This resignation is a tremendous feat of courage, performed by an officer who still had 18 months of service left.

How seldom we are privy to such acts? A feat of this magnitude occurred was when Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned as Union railway minister accepting moral and constitutional responsibility for a railway accident at Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu that resulted in 144 deaths. That precedent is being repeated after a gap of many years, if not decades. It is very important that politicians and bureaucrats who run the MoD recognise this act of courage and honesty. It should be a great learning curve for all concerned. The issue becomes doubly important when you consider that it involves something as crucial as the defence of India.

There are many lessons that can be drawn from this. A naval chief has accepted responsibility for the mistakes of his subordinates and upheld the highest standards of public morality by resigning. He has acted as a true leader, who takes responsibility for everything under his command, in other words he decided that the buck stops with him. In an age bereft of exemplars, this act has left an indelible impression on our collective consciousness. 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017