A diesel-powered submarine exploded and sank in a dock in Mumbai, leaving rescuers scrambling to find 18 sailors who were on board. The INS Sindhurakshak had been returned by Russia less than a year ago after a major refit. (AFP Photo)
Last week, the Indian Navy celebrated two milestones: the launch of the country’s first home-built aircraft carrier INS Vikrant and the activation of the reactor on board the nuclear submarine INS Arihant, the first to be designed and built in India. While the operational induction of both these vessels is still three to five years away respectively, they mark a step forward in our indigenous defence production. Since 2010, India has become the world’s largest weapons importer.
Despite unacceptable delays in acquisitions or indigenous production of major capital assets, the navy remains one of the most professional and formidable forces in the Indo-Pacific Asia region. It is truly a ‘blue-water’ navy in its strategic and operational connotation and among the three services, the navy’s contribution to India’s future strategic aspirations is much more pronounced as it guards the economically vital sea-lanes which carry nearly 70% of our trade and 80% of our energy supplies. That our navy can ‘bottle up’ the fleets of some of our enemy nations in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean gives us a distinct operational advantage and we must build on it.
Over the years, owing to sluggish decision making, the navy’s operational capabilities have taken a hit. This problem is bound to increase after the INS Sindhurakshak mishap. The submarine was the navy’s foremost underwater showpieces with awesome offensive capabilities. The fact that the explosions took away a highly professional specialist crew makes the tragedy much more severe. That the destruction of the Russian-made Kilo-class submarine will cause a grievous dent in the navy’s depleting undersea operational capabilities is a gross understatement.
INS Sindhurakshak underwent an $80-million refit. A similar explosion happened when the warship was docked in Visakhapatnam in February 2010 that killed a crew member and left two injured. Earlier this year, when it was on its way back to India, after taking the delivery from Russia in January 2013, it ran into rough weather near Egypt. A distress call in May 2013 had then seen the Egyptian Navy tow the submarine to its dockyard, where repairs had to be undertaken. In light of this history, the navy must thoroughly investigate its worst mishap since Independence and the naval authorities and the government must address crucial questions in greater detail. Any lapses in security, vigilance and the sabotage angle must also be thoroughly investigated for the Mumbai dockyard is a soft target for anti-national elements.
It takes a long time to improve combat capabilities: arms, ammunition, weapon systems, electronics, communications systems and sub-systems are not available off the shelf and manufacturers need long periods to deliver after the painfully slow procedures of identification, trials, government discussions, rejections and approvals are done. Thus when a decision is taken it must be followed through quickly. Any delay is nothing short of being negligent towards national security.
In case of submarines, the navy is now down to a mere 50% of its fleet whereas we need a minimum of 24 to 25 operational subs. Even the deliveries of six Scorpene-class submarines, which are being built with German assistance at the Mazagon Docks in Mumbai, have been delayed by nearly five years. Equally surprising was the ministry of defence’s decision to wind up the submarine construction facility at these docks a few years back.
To improve the situation, the navy must carry out a security audit and review of the Standard Operating Procedures as regard to its fleet and look into the dependability standards of its critical systems, residual life, handling and safety for its hazardous ordnance.
As India’s pronounced strategic sea frontiers lie in the huge expanse between the Straits of Hormuz in the east to the Straits of Malacca in the west, it will be in our national interest to build up the navy’s combat capabilities to dominate this region.
Kamal Davar is a retired Lt General and was the first Chief of India’s Defence Intelligence Agency
The views expressed by the author are personal