The Navy was different from the Air Force and the Army because of its institutional tilt towards indigenization of equipment it used, especially major hardware such as capital weapons platforms. It had the warship directorate as part of Naval Headquarters that, over the years, has acquired the capability to design everything from fast patrol craft, corvettes, frigates, missile destroyers, to aircraft carriers. The only demerit on can point to in this respect has been the curious lack of confidence of the sub-directorate for submarine design that, despite designing and developing the Arihant nuclear-powered ballistic missile firing submarine (SSBN) with Russian assistance, still wants some foreign, preferably Western, firm to hold its hand in the prospective Project 75i — the indigenous next-gen conventional submarine. It’s mystifying that this should be so.
According to stalwart submariners like VADM KN Sushil (Retd), the 75i designers got stuck, unable to decide on things like the diving depth. More likely, the problem of designer-diffidence is, perhaps, due to submarine design unit being unsure it can translate the design into actual engineering drawings to pass on to the production unit. This was among the crucial aspects in which Russian help was sought and given by Russia on the Arihant. This lack of confidence in producing a wholly Indian designed conventional sub, — design to delivery, is bad enough. Now the Navy has gone a step further in the slippery slope of dependence on foreign suppliers.
CNS Admiral Sunil Lanba, rather than doubling the effort and the resources to correct any deficiency and speed it to operational status, has publicly rejected the navalised Tejas under development as “over-weight” and unfit for duty on the first India-made carrier in its final production stage, and indicated his Service will soon look abroad for a combat aircraft. The Navy thus joins the Indian Air Force which has distinguished itself less in war — recall that it lost four aircraft in the first three days of the 1999 Kargil border war, an astonishing attrition rate for any self-respecting air force, than for its perpetual reliance on whatever fighter plane is available from abroad for usually exorbitant price, resulting in helter-skelter acquisitions that have bequeathed to the country a force of such great diversity and so little sustained punch as to be a bad and costly joke. Now the Naval brass, like its IAF counterparts, will set its Service and the nation on the course of ending even the semblance of arms independence.
Is it just coincidence that Lanba is trashing the Tejas at just the time when the US Government, Pentagon, and the Boeing Company are well into a concerted attempt to sell the Navy on the virtues of its aged — the plane is already some 50 years old — twin-engined carrier aircraft F-18 Super Hornet, after successfully peddling the F-16 to IAF, again at the expense of the Tejas Mk-II? The selling-point of both these spendthrift deals that apparently made an impression on defmin Manohar Parrikar and broke down his commonsense resistance to buying these obsolete fighter aircraft is that their manufacture in India will helm Modi’s ‘Make in India’ program in the defence sector. That the F-16 and F-18 are unlikely to survive the first encounter against intelligent missiles, better manuevering aircraft such as the Su-30 or MiG-35, leave alone the more advanced Su-PAK FA, or modern air defence systems, seems to be nobody’s concern. So, the nation will soon have aviation arms — air and naval, outfitted with aircraft that’d have been cutting-edge in the 1970s!! This even as the PLA air force is pushing the toggle on its J-20 incorporating the advanced design features and technologies stolen/copied from the US F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning-II, and the Pakistan Air Force is in the process of inducting more J-10s and, should things work out with Moscow, in the future possibly even Su-30 or even MiG-35 — after all, United Aviation Co., of Russia has to make up for lost sales to India.
Navy was also once known for its ship-handling skills and for top class ship-shore logistics management. I remember the ex-CNS the late ADM SM Nanda telling me how it was routine for Indian naval ships exercising in the mid-50s with the Royal Navy off Malta, HQ (UK’s) Mediterranean Fleet, to be severely tested by the RN. Such as when he was asked by the shore authority to maneuver his ship, INS Mysore he was then commanding, into a purposely configured tight space bookended by two RN warships, which he managed to do smoothly, winning encomiums from the RN Fleet Commander and his underlings. They were unaware, Nanda chuckled, that he was a tugboat captain in Karachi harbour before signing up with IN. It was Nanda, it must be remembered, who rescued the Service’s reputation after its dismal inactivity under ADM BS Soman in the 1965 conflict with Pakistan, with a smashingly aggressive profile in both the eastern and the western theatres in the 1971 War, crowned by the daring and devastating naval raid by a force of Osa-class corvettes towed to missile range, on the Karachi port to disable the Pakistan Navy — a perfect but more destructive counter to the smalltime shell-and-scoot mission by Pak naval craft against Dwarka in 1965.
Where’s the fabled shiphandling, onboard weapons handling, and ship-to-shore logistics management competence of the Indian Navy gone? What has happened?
Since 2010, here’s the list of 17 major mishaps, the list reproduced below from Wikipedia, without comment:
1) In 2010, three crew members on destroyer INS Mumbai were instantly killed when an AK-630 Close-in weapon system went off as safety drills were not followed.
2)January 2011: INS Vindhyagiri, a Nilgiri-class frigate, capsized after a collision with a Cyprus-flagged merchant vessel MV Nordlake near the Sunk Rock light house, following which a major fire broke out in the ship’s engine and boiler room. Everyone on board was evacuated as soon as the fire broke out and hence there were no casualties. INS Vindhyagiri was later decommissioned.
3) August 2013: Blasts ripped through the torpedo compartment of the submarine INS Sindhurakshak while it was berthed at the naval dockyard off the Mumbai coast. Fifteen sailors and three officers were killed. Other sources state that a small explosion occurred around midnight which then triggered the two larger explosions. The disaster was thought to be the Indian navy’s worst since the sinking of the frigate INS Khukri by a Pakistani submarine during the 1971 war.
4) December 2013: INS Konkan, a Pondicherry-class minesweeper under the Eastern Naval Command, caught fire at the naval dockyard at Visakhapatnam while undergoing repairs. The fire engulfed much of the ship’s interior before it was extinguished. No casualties were reported.
December 2013: In the second incident in the same month, INS Talwar, the lead ship of the Talwar-class frigates of the Indian Navy, collided with a fishing trawler injuring four of the 27 people on board the trawler and sinking it. The fishing trawler was operating without lights. The captain of the ship was subsequently stripped of command.
5) December 2013: In the third incident in the same month, INS Tarkash, again a Talwar-class frigate, suffered damage to its hull when it hit the jetty while docking at the Mumbai naval base. The navy ordered a board of inquiry.
6) January 2014: INS Betwa, a Brahmaputra-class guided missile frigate, ran aground and collided with an unidentified object while approaching the Mumbai naval base. The sonar system of the frigate was cracked, leading to faulty readings and an ingress of saltwater into sensitive equipment.
7) January 2014: In the second incident in the same month, INS Vipul, a Veer-class corvette of the elite 22nd Killer Missile Vessel Squadron, was detected with a hole in its pillar compartment which forced the ship back into the harbour while it was on an operational deployment.
8) February 2014: On 3 February, INS Airavat, a Shardul-class amphibious warfare vessel, ran aground while returning to its home base at Visakhapatnam, causing slight damage to its propellers. Following the incident, its commanding officer, Captain JPS Virk, was relieved of command pending the findings of a Board of Inquiry.
(9) February 2014: On 26 February, INS Sindhuratna, a Kilo-class submarine, had a fire detected on board when trials were being conducted which resulted in smoke leading to suffocation and death of two officers. Seven sailors were reported injured and were airlifted to the naval base hospital in Mumbai. According to the naval board of inquiry, the fire was caused due to problems in the cables of the vessel. This particular incident led to the resignation of Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) Admiral D K Joshi on 26 February 2014, who owned moral responsibility for the incidents in the past few months.
10) March 2014: INS Kolkata had a malfunction on board which led to a toxic gas leak killing Commander Kuntal Wadhwa instantly. According to the Indian Navy, the ship suffered a malfunction in its carbon dioxide unit while undergoing machinery trials, leading to gas leakage. Since the ship was not commissioned at the time of the incident, the enquiry into the mishap will be done by Mazagon Dock Limited, where the ship was constructed.
11) May 2014: INS Ganga suffered a minor explosion in the boiler room while undergoing a refit at the Mumbai dockyard. Four people suffered minor injuries. There was no fire and no equipment was damaged.
12) November 2014: A torpedo recovery vessel of the Astravahini class A-73 sank 30 nautical miles (56 km; 35 miles, off the Vizag coast during a routine mission to recover torpedoes fired by fleet ships during a routine exercise. The accident resulted in the death of one sailor while four others were reported as missing however 23 other personnel were rescued by SAR teams deployed right after the incident.
13) March 2015: A Dornier Do 228 aircraft belonging to the Indian Navy Aviation Squadron 310, on a routine training mission, lost radar contact and ditched at sea about 20 nautical miles (37 km; 23 mi) southwest of Goa on the night of 24 March 2015. The aircrew on board the aircraft comprised three officers (two pilots and one female observer). The lone survivor, Commander Nikhil Kuldip Joshi, was picked up by a passing fishing boat. The bodies of the other two officers Lieutenant Abhinav Nagori and Lieutenant Kiran Shekhawat were recovered. Media reports suggested that the female observer could be the first woman in India’s military to die in active service. Meanwhile, a Board of Inquiry was ordered to establish the cause of the accident.
14) November 2015: INS Kochi, a Kolkata-class destroyer, conducted BrahMos missile test firings whilst the airspace remained open to traffic, due to a communication failure.
March 2016: A fire broke out on the soon-to-be decommissioned aircraft carrier INS Viraat which resulted in the death of one and the injury of three others.
15) April 2016: A sailor lost his leg while two others were injured in an oxygen cylinder explosion on board INS Nireekshak. The explosion took place on 16 April while a diving bailout bottle, a small 12-inch (30 cm) oxygen bottle that is carried by divers in their diving helmet, was being charged. The sailors were admitted in the Military Hospital, Trivandrum as the ship was on it way to Mumbai from Visakhapatnam.
16) June 2016: Two people, a sailor and a civilian contractor, were killed by a toxic gas leak that occurred during maintenance work in the Sewage Treatment Plant compartment during the first refit of the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya at Karwar. Two other people were injured and taken to the naval hospital.
17) August 2016: A minor fire broke out at INS Dega after a MiG-29K accidentally jettisoned one of its drop tanks.
And then today you had the ill-fated Betwa, that last ran aground in 2014, and having undergone repairs, especially to its sonar system, was in the process of being floated back into the harbour from the drydock when, almost laughably, it tipped over and fell on its side, breaking its mast and possibly lot else.
With basic naval skills of this order, the Indian Navy doesn’t need enemy action to disappear.
This together with the virtual jettisoning of the naval LCA, the likely purchase of the aged F-18, and the search for a foreign partner for Project 75i, can the Navy any more pretend it is operations-wise, an equal of, and can strategically tackle, the Chinese Navy in its own Indian Ocean backyard? Or, even hold-off the minor Pakistan Navy whose Agosta B submersibles will soon be armed with Babar cruise missiles with conventional and N-warheads?