Admiral D K Joshi’s resigning and the succession crisis it triggered are ultimately minor issues. More basic problems afflict the navy.
For instance, the Indian Navy’s high reputation for seamanship and ship-handling has been sullied somewhat by the spate of accidents involving frigates and destroyers ramming into docks and passing vessels. In a recent conversation with this analyst, Joshi dismissed these mishaps as “tire punctures”. At a minimum, it indicates a decline in ship-handling skills.
I recall, in this respect, the late Admiral S M Nanda, the country’s eighth Naval Chief, telling me of an incident from the 1950s when the navy annually exercised with the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet. In one such exercise, as commander of the cruiser, Mysore, he was asked by the host, who was testing his mettle, to squeeze his large ship into a tight berth alongside British warships in the harbour in Malta. It required intricate docking manoeuvres the British fleet commander was certain Nanda could not pull off and, in trying to bring his ship in unaided crash it into the jetty. But Nanda deftly slid Mysore into the slot without a hitch. The surprised Briton didn’t know, the Admiral told me with a chuckle, that he had captained pilot boats in Karachi harbour in the pre-Second World War days.
The point is that ship-handling skills are learned and the “sea eye” acquired hands-on by subaltern officers (in the rank of sub-Lieutenant and Lieutenant) steering small craft on coastal security duties and skimming in and about crowded harbours, something naval stalwarts will vouch for. It is a hard job, they say, to bring in a 6,000 ton-plus missile destroyer coasting in at 4-6 knots to the quay, and ship commanders lacking sufficient small boat-derived experience often flub this test. Lack of such skills is also reflected in ships running aground, which too has happened lately. Diffident captains opting to have tug-boats escort their vessels in and out of harbours will lack the experience in crisis when ships have to get out to sea in a hurry under their own power.
The trouble is small ship command billets are in short supply because the navy has no more than 20 offshore patrol craft and coastal combatants in its inventory, smaller vessels being monopolised by the Coast Guard (CG) tasked with the coastal security mission. In this respect, the navy has failed to respond to a 10-year-old offer by the CG director-general to sequester six of his vessels exclusively for junior naval officers to command. The skills differential is thus set to widen considering the CG is growing faster with induction of new patrol boats every two-three weeks and, in time, its officers could potentially be better in handling bigger ships than their naval counterparts.
Familiarisation with ships comes, moreover, from pulling time in them. More and more naval officers, however, have ever shorter tenures in rotational posts at sea, affording them insufficient time to familiarise themselves with the ships. It has resulted in an echelon of mid-level officers not quite capable, when commanding ships, of manoeuvring them well or tackling on-board crises and contingencies involving machinery and equipment.
Huge bunches of the navy’s 10,000-strong officer cadre, the smallest of any armed service, moreover, are sucked up for duty in large ships. The first fleet aircraft carrier, Vikramaditya, has 200 officers assigned to it. Because the ministry of defence (MoD) sanctions crew strength virtually at the point of commissioning ships, increases in personnel cannot be schemed too much in advance, making nonsense of manpower planning and compounding the problem of inexperienced officers assuming command of battleships.
The depletion of the submarine arm is especially alarming. In the wake of the Sindhuratna accident, the turgid pace of decision-making in the ministry of defence (MoD) will quicken for a while and bureaucrats, who often wilfully retard military procurement and indigenous production programmes, will frantically clear everything to avoid blame. It is an opportune time for the naval brass to take the seriously big step of embarking on an all-nuclear submarine arm as advocated by the veteran submariner, retired Rear Admiral Raja Menon, and secure two additional Russian Akula nuclear hunter-killer submersibles (SSNs) on lease, including the Iribis already offered to India, to fill the immediate void in sea denial capability. The lesser option is to build a conventional hunter-killer submarine (SSK) from scratch.
To achieve this grand aim, Project 75i, a programme to buy yet another foreign conventional sub at a mind-boggling `55,000 crore, should be altered to obtain an SSK, or SSN, with a production line to complement the one manufacturing the Arihant-class nuclear-powered nuclear missile firing submarines (SSBNs). In either case, it will be a daunting project considering the navy’s design directorate still lacks basic competence. It hasn’t developed the tools and the metrics to validate its own designs. But rather than be deterred by the enormity of this enterprise, the government should sanction this SSK/SSN project in mission-mode, affording it priority and autonomy as was done in the case of the Agni missile and Arihant projects. After all, the country had no experience in producing missiles and SSBNs either.
The navy’s submarine design group has enough insights from the German HDW and French Scorpene projects and long acquaintance with the Russian design philosophy to shake off self-doubt. It is imperative the navy goes all out on this option, seeding a comprehensive submarine and ship-building industry in the process. To ensure its success, it should insist on a private sector combine of majors, such as Larsen & Toubro and Pipavav Shipyard involved in making the Arihant, as prime contractor. This being no time for ethical niceties, the combine should be incentivised to reverse-engineer to the maximum, to rely on indigenous sources and resources, and to obtain the really critical technology and technical assistance from wherever and however it can get it. Commercial-minded corporates, espying nationalism-laced profit, will find a way.
Committed to shrinking the government and the public sector, the likely new prime minister Narendra Modi will welcome such an ambitious and freewheeling initiative to render the country genuinely self-reliant in armaments.
[Published as “Indian Navy Cast Adrift” in New Indian Express, Friday, March 7, 2014; at http://www.newindianexpress.com/opinion/Indian-Navy-Cast-Adrift/2014/03/07/article2094542.ece#.UxkWXD-Sw7s ]