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The accident involving two deaths on the Indian Navy’s submarine INS Sindhuratna on Wednesday will reinvigorate several debates concerning the country’s defence forces. The most prominent one is the level of safety that should be accorded to the defence personnel.
The job of moving a submarine towards its enemy counterpart is done by giant batteries, which, ironically, can be lethal for people on board because when a battery is charged, it releases hydrogen, which is inflammable. This has been broadly the case with the INS Sindhurakshak, which incidentally had undergone a Rs. 815-crore upgrade in Russia, and the INS Sindhuratna. The huge cost of the upgrade becomes at once questionable when naval officers themselves said it had something to do with the tragedy. And Russian officers in Zvezdochka had quarrelled with their Indian counterparts, who wanted to have their own operating systems. The only way to scale up the safety aspect is by hiking the navy’s capital outlay, which was a little less than Rs. 25,000 crore in 2013-14. Though the navy spends about 65% of this on new equipment, the number can be increased. Five of India’s 13 submarines are past their prime because they were bought in the 1980s, when it was profitable to do such deals with the erstwhile USSR.
The second issue is the country’s dependence on imports for its purchases of arms and battleships. To make better use of the defence budget and the allocation for capital expenditure, stepping up the level of indigenisation is of utmost importance, as defence minister AK Antony has himself said. Though the navy scores better than the army on this count, it leaves much to be desired. For many components such as engines and propulsion systems, India’s four defence shipyards have to look abroad. But in this Mr Antony’s cautious approach has to take a part of the blame. And the Defence Acquisition Council, a unit in the defence ministry, often succumbs to pressure from the armed forces to go for import, as seen in the case of the purchase of advanced jet trainers from a Swiss company.
While by owning up responsibility for the tragedy and resigning navy chief DK Joshi has proved he is a man of conscience, reported differences between him and his minister can cast a shadow on the partnership between the service chiefs and the ministry. Mr Joshi’s resignation is also likely to push back the appointment of chairman of the chiefs of staff committee, a post for which he was a frontrunner. However, the government should not delay the appointment for a post that can ensure greater coordination among the armed forces.