The swift, unexpected and unprecedented resignation of the chief of naval staff (CNS), Admiral DK Joshi, has thrown the establishment off balance. While commending the CNS for moral uprightness, the navy has blamed lack of modernisation as the main reason for the series of recent accidents involving frontline warships. The defence ministry, on the other hand, has censured the navy for its poor safety and maintenance record.
While both reasons are correct, the real problem lies elsewhere: The navy is simply overstretched; its aspirational yearnings have exceeded its capacity and capability. The navy’s limited frontline assets have been flogged incessantly on its tertiary and extraneous roles at the cost of its primary role of operational preparedness. The choice before Admiral Joshi was to either throw up his hands in exasperation and apprise an uninvolved defence minister, AK Antony, of home truths or to quit on moral grounds; he chose the latter.
According to the navy, its primary role is preparing for war; its secondary role is naval diplomacy; with constabulary or policing being its tertiary role. Though a 120-ship navy, its blue-water assets even when liberally counted are frugal and include eight destroyers, 15 frigates, eight guided-missile corvettes, 13 submarines, and eight major amphibious ships. The two aircraft carriers are not fully operational. Of these, most of the cutting edge ships are with the western naval command against Pakistan.
Before the 26/11 attacks, the destroyers and frigates used to be on a fortnight’s exercise once a year with enough time for re-coup, maintenance and review of conventional war-fighting doctrines. This left the navy with ample time, energy and assets to pursue its secondary role: navy diplomacy. Between 2004 and 2009, the navy was on a balanced upwards trajectory in terms of planning, modernisation, doctrine, training and maintenance, and, importantly, transparency, which is necessary for successful naval diplomacy.
Things altered dramatically with the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which exposed chinks in India’s coastal security. In the aftermath of the dastardly event, the navy was made overall responsible for maritime security with the Indian Coast Guard and the state marine police assisting it; the job demanded accountability with little authority and, worse, it remained open-ended. This extraneous role has had two damaging effects on the navy; expensive platforms are being routinely flogged on policing duties, and the primary role of blue-water navy has taken a backseat. Expensive frontline ships have limited engine hours, and if they are used at slow speed required for policing, they have massive maintenance problems.
Next, the Indian Navy, starting 2009, got involved in anti-piracy operations in a big way. For months, cutting-edge ships have been on these duties with their main radars switched off, sailing around in circles. This has not helped training or maintenance. All these years, the naval leadership, clamping on transparency, pretended that it had not compromised on its primary role. Now, after nine years of overreach, the chickens have come home to roost. It needs to be understood that training and maintenance are two sides of a coin. If there is little training, people will lose touch with standing operating procedures, and this is responsible for the present spate of naval mishaps.
The navy, like the other technology-intensive service, the air force, has acquired a lot of assets. Unfortunately, the acquisitions have been haphazard, and not according to plan; there is a race amongst the services to get whatever they can from the ministry. Thus, sea-denial assets like submarines have got neglected at the cost of sea-control assets like aircraft carrier and aviation. What good is an offensive posture if credible defence is missing? Thus, the next defence minister more than the CNS will need to do soul searching, not just for the navy for the other services as well.
Pravin Sawhney is editor, Force
The views expressed by the author are personal