Navies have always held a special place within the armed forces. They have forever been an extension of military power, their dominance usually- as during the British colonial heydays-acting as a force multiplier presaging economic and political ascendance. Navies take the war to the enemy. They have also been seen as crucial to a nation’s ability to defend itself against more powerful forces. Witness India’s thrust in the last decade to try to counter China by allocating more to its navy out of its defence budget. Witness Iran sending its navy to US shores to try to make a point.
That said, the last few weeks have been a nightmare for the Indian Navy; it seemed, for a time, that it was reporting almost an accident a day even after the resignation of the Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Joshi, who quit owning ‘moral responsibility’ after the Sindhuratna incident. The media was quick to highlight the navy’s poor safety record over the last year, with a spate of accidents- at sea, in harbour, while manoeuvring and at its shipbuilding centre at Visakhapatnam that is home to the country’s ambitious nuclear submarine programme.
The Indian armed forces in general, and the Indian Navy in particular, have been reported often enough to be suffering from poor procurement policies and decisions, a lack of strategic vision by the country’s politicians and myriad issues that have hit them ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We are led to believe that the country’s defence preparedness is in a mess and that the navy suffers from an ageing fleet that is falling apart.
I will be the first to admit that it would be unusual if the paralysis in governance we have seen in India over the last few years had not hit the armed forces. In fact, it would have hit them first and harder than it has hit governance in general and the economy in particular. Indeed, the comatose behaviour of the Defence Ministry has come under fire after the recent naval accidents, with senior journalists calling Defence Minister AK Antony inert, in a stupor, and worse. So, yes, indecision in governance is a factor here, as is the fact of widespread corruption and kickbacks connected with defence deals in the world’s largest international procurer of weaponry, a position India has held for the last few years.
However, many of the accidents that have happened in the last year in the naval fleet have not been on old ships but on relatively new ones- the Talwar, Tarkash and Airawat incidents, for example. Moreover, few of these incidents were due to machinery breakdowns or some such, but appeared to be navigational errors- the Sindhughosh grounding in a harbour channel, for example. Age or poor refurbishment was not a factor in the Sindhuratna fire either, which started due to a short circuit elsewhere and had nothing to do with old batteries not replaced, as first reported.
To add to the list of human error probables are other incidents to do with safety- a CO2 valve blowout on a destroyer at the Mazgaon docks, for example, that killed a naval Commander and injured another worker. The naval officer suffocated when CO2 was inadvertently released after the valve blowout, which begs the question as to what kind of procedures were in place on the largest Class of destroyer in the Indian Navy. Also worrying is the possibility that Indian naval yards are not much better than the government owned commercial shipyards of yesteryears when it comes to safety. Or their quality of construction- something that would be really alarming given that we are talking, here, about fighting ships that need to be built absolutely reliably.
A question begs to be asked, therefore: does the Indian Navy- like its merchant naval counterpart- suffer from poor training?
Because, all in all, the impression I get is of a critical defence arm- the Indian Navy- suffering from low morale, high human error, poor training and political and bureaucratic paralysis. I do not get the impression that ageing ships or poor procurement are the causes of the accidents that seem to be happening with embarrassing regularity.