Just a week into Independence, the outline of a plan to reorganise and develop the Indian Navy was prepared by the naval headquarters. The plan projected the urgent need for four aircraft carriers and 16 submarines, with two submarines to be acquired every year from 1952.
In 61 years since then, the navy has just one ageing operational carrier. The navy got its first submarine in 1967. The objective of having 16 submarines was achieved not in the projected eight years but over decades.
In the backdrop of the Sindhurakshak accident, defence analysts state that politicians and bureaucrats were at loggerheads with naval planners, which resulted in the navy’s development and acquisition programmes suffering miserably.
This is despite the fact that the navy has to protect the 7,500 km coastline, more than 1,200 islands, and an exclusive economic zone of 2.2 million sq km.
Navy officials point out that governmental apathy was evident after the Chinese invasion of 1962. The government, which initiated an exhaustive review of defence requirements in 1963, decided to raise the army’s strength from 550,000 men to 825,000 and the air force’s strength from 33 squadrons (660 aircraft) to 45 squadrons (900 aircraft). But the navy’s proposal to raise its strength from 35 ships to 130 was not taken seriously.
“The navy is like a Cinderella Service,” said defence expert commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar. “The Indian Navy paid a very heavy price because of the inability of bureaucrats and politicians to arrive at the right strategic assessment,” he added.
Clearly, India’s naval programme suffers from a resource gap and a strategic vacuum. Even as the importance of the navy to India has grown along with its widening maritime interests — most strikingly the rapid rise of seaborne imports of oil, gas and now, coal — the navy’s share of defence expenditure has fallen by 16%.
India had been laying the keels of as many as 40 warships a year, but this programme has become endangered by the government’s fiscal problems. The 20% cut in defence outlays this fiscal year, if it proves to be a sign of things to come, would sink even the modest naval plans.
Even if it had more ships, New Delhi has no clear plan about what to do with them.
India has no naval strategic doctrine. There is little coordination among the many government agencies. Over the past 12 years, the creation of a national maritime advisor, a cabinet committee on maritime affairs and a maritime commission has been recommended within the government. None of these have been implemented.
As rear admiral (retired) Rajeev Paralikar said, “The need of the hour is not only to acquire but also build indigenously to ensure that we are self-sufficient.”
Said Bhaskar, “While we bemoan the disaster of INS Sindhurakshak, we hope the government takes note of the navy’s dismal conditions, and amends its strategic assessment and expedites the navy’s requirements.”
With Pramit Pal Choudhuri