Indian Navy: Responding to Perceptions of Being ‘All at Sea’

10 Mar, 2014    ·   4334

Cmde (Retd) C Uday Bhaskar reflects on the recent naval accident in Mumbai

A tragic industrial accident occurred on 07 March on a naval warship under construction in the Mazagon Docks, Mumbai, resulting in the death of a naval officer. The fire-fighting equipment on board the Kolkata class destroyer was being tested and a malfunction of the valves led to the sudden discharge of carbon-dioxide and the subsequent death of Commander Kuntal Wadhwa - the engineer officer designate of the ship.

This missile destroyer is to be commissioned in the Indian Navy later in the year as the INS Kolkata and will be followed by two other ships – the Chennai and Kochi. Part of the Indian Navy's ambitious indigenous design and ship-building effort, when inducted, these three ships will add considerable punch to the country's overall naval capability.

While this ship is still under construction and yet to be handed over to the Navy by the shipyard, the fact that another naval officer lost his life - albeit in an industrial accident - soon after the loss of two other naval officers on the submarine INS Sindhuratna in February 2014 adds to the sadness of the Navy as a family. The loss of life is always cause for anguish and hopefully this will be the last of such mishaps for a long time.

Operational mishaps for the military as an institution occur often during peacetime training and depending on how and when they occur, the necessary lessons are learnt and policy correctives applied. The Indian Navy has had a particularly challenging phase since August 2013 when the INS Sindhurakshak had an explosion on board while in the Mumbai harbour that resulted in the loss of precious lives. The submarine is yet to be salvaged from where it is still semi-submerged. In the intervening months some sections of the print and audio-visual media have given inordinate attention and space to every operational lapse of the Navy, thereby creating a perception that all is not well with the Indian navy and its top leadership.

Regrettably, the senior political leadership was stampeded by this dominant perception in the public domain and unable to take a confident and informed professional assessment about this string of incidents and accidents and the Naval Chief at the time, Admiral DK Joshi, was chastised in public. While recognising the democratic principle that the political leadership has the mandate and responsibility to monitor and admonish the highest echelons of the military, there is a certain protocol that needs to be maintained on all sides and sadly this was not the case which led to the unprecedented resignation of Admiral Joshi from the high-office of the Chief of Naval Staff on 26 February.

More than ten days have lapsed since this resignation and at the time of writing, the Government is yet to announce the successor to Admiral Joshi. It needs little reiteration that the military as an institution is based on well-defined hierarchy and related operational responsibility and the opaque uncertainty that now prevails in the Navy ought to be redressed at the very earliest.

The kind of media focus that recent naval incidents and accidents have received in the public domain has led to some very undesirable perceptions and misplaced conclusions. Even as the Indian Navy was undergoing a trial by the audiovisual media in particular - most of the operational units of the service were deployed in the biggest annual exercise - TROPEX - in the Indian Ocean region. This exercise included the deployment of the aircraft carrier, a nuclear submarine, missile destroyers and the recently inducted maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Some aspects of the exercise also involved units of the Indian Air Force. This should set at rest the invalid perception that the Indian Navy is 'all at sea'.

Concurrently, a statement by the Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram in relation to the spate of naval accidents has led to some disquiet. Yes, the Finance Minister is the guardian of the national exchequer and it is a tenet going back the Chanakyan era that every rupee garnered from the citizen through taxes should be spent wisely and in the larger collective interest. In the course of his remarks, one part notes: "I sincerely hope that the defence forces will learn a lesson and make sure that the money allocated to them is spent more wisely and more efficiently on essential matters."

Presuming that this statement is accurate in every word - the inference that follows is disturbing. Have the Defence Ministry and the armed forces not spent the funds allocated to them ‘wisely’? If so, this must receive the immediate attention of the CAG and the legislature and accountability sought. Given the probity associated with Defence Minister AK Antony, this observation is intriguing.

On the other hand, if the recent naval accidents are being attributed to less than 'wise' leadership - this perception must be clarified. In many of the incidents related for example to the submarine mishaps - the leadership and courage displayed in managing the exigency was of the highest order and professional competence. Commander Sandeep Sinha, the CO of the INS Sindhuratna, which had a fire on board while underwater displayed rare personal courage and competence and led from the front in dealing with the emergency that had arisen. The officer is still in hospital recovering from a serious lung condition.

The lack of wisdom and perspicacity which ails the management of national security lies at the higher levels of India’s defence management. Denying the armed forces adequate funds for capital expenditure to modernise and upgrade major platforms and inventory is one example and the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) is the highest forum for such deliberations and decision-making.

The defence forces must be held to the highest standards of professional competence and probity, and the citizen who dons the uniform does so with the full knowledge that when called upon - his or her life will be at stake.
But concurrently, a certain empathy is expected from state and society – not calumny - however unintended.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Dainik Jagaran in Hindi.