The Shadow over the Indian Navy: Accidents and Equipment Gaps - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 9 July 2014

The Shadow over the Indian Navy: Accidents and Equipment Gaps

The defence minister told parliament on July 8 that eleven accidents had occurred on navy warships in the last year (details at the bottom of this article) 

by Ajai Shukla
RUSI Newsbrief
July 2014
The article is available on the RUSI website at

Less than three weeks after being sworn in, in mid-June India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, made his first visit to an operational military unit, the newly commissioned aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, deployed in the Arabian Sea. In being the first prime minister to visit the navy before the army or air force, Modi highlighted a new maritime attentiveness in a country that has traditionally focused on its contested northern land borders.

The Indian Navy is growing in size, reach and operational sophistication and the Indo-Pacific region is keenly aware of this. In April, China’s navy chief, Admiral Wu Shengli, made a courtesy visit to an Indian frigate, INS Shivalik, which was visiting China’s Qingdao naval base for exercises to mark the 65th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Amidst the bonhomie, Admiral Wu sprang a surprise on the Shivalik’s commanding officer by requesting a tour of the frigate’s combat information centre, its operational heart. The skipper politely rebuffed the request.

The Chinese admiral would probably be even more interested in touring INS Kolkata, a 7,200-tonne destroyer that will be commissioned into the Indian Navy in July, with two sister vessels to come into service within a year. Also on the anvil in Mazagon Dock Ltd (MDL) – India’s premier warship-building yard – are four more destroyers, which will begin delivery in 2018. MDL and Kolkata-based shipyard Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Ltd will also build seven stealth frigates, the first of which will enter service by 2020. Meanwhile, Russia has offered to supply three more Krivak III-class frigates, as a follow-up to six such vessels supplied in the decade before 2023. At the same time, six Scorpene conventional attack submarines are under construction in MDL and there is an impending tender for another six submarines with air-independent propulsion systems. These warships will form part of a 160-ship navy, including the ninety capital warships envisioned by New Delhi in its Maritime Capability Perspective Plan for 2012–27.

The country’s 7,500-kilometre coastline – and the geostrategic advantage offered by a peninsula extending 1,000 kilometres into the Indian Ocean – facilitates the Indian Navy’s dominance of the 5,000 kilometres of international sea-lanes that pass through these waters. These carry much of the world’s oil and bulk cargo – 60,000 vessels annually, or one every nine minutes – between the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca. Both Beijing and New Delhi know that the advantages enjoyed by China on the Himalayan land frontier between the two countries – due to easy approaches from the high Tibetan plateau and well-developed transport networks – could be countered by an Indian blockade of Chinese shipping.

Further improving India’s position in this regard are two strategically invaluable island chains: the Lakshadweep archipelago in the Arabian Sea and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal. Here, India has raised the tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command, with its own land forces, warships and a fighter base on Car Nicobar Island. In 2012, this was supplemented with a second air base, INS Baaz, whose 10,000-foot runway will soon allow Indian fighters to comprehensively dominate the nearby Malacca Strait.

It is therefore no surprise, therefore, that India was singled out as a key partner in the US’s ‘rebalancing’ to the Asia-Pacific, first announced in 2011. The Indian Navy’s role as the gatekeeper of the Indian Ocean is also acknowledged by the UK, Russia, France, Japan and Australia, with which it regularly conducts joint exercises.

Yet there is growing evidence that many of India’s newest warships are unfit for combat. Thanks to poor planning, the Scorpene submarines under construction will begin joining the fleet in 2016 without their primary armament, the Black Shark torpedo. Not one of the twenty-five capital warships built in the last seventeen years is equipped with towed array sonars – essential for detecting enemy submarines shielded by unusual temperature gradients in the warm, shallow waters of the Arabian Sea. Allegations of corruption continuing to delay procurement of these systems.

Meanwhile, the Kolkata-class destroyers are vulnerable to anti-ship missiles because its Israeli-Indian-built, long-range surface-to-air missile continues to experience delays. The aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya is also awaiting this missile, with several older warships that deploy the Barak anti-missile system just as vulnerable given that, for years, New Delhi has failed to buy replacement missiles. While all of these systems will undoubtedly be fitted some day, until then, these vessels will be sitting ducks in combat situations.

If this were not bad enough, a spate of accidents on front-line warships has raised concerns about operational safety procedures and sparked murmurs of a leadership crisis. In August last year, a Kilo-class submarine, INS Sindhurakshak, sank in Mumbai harbour after an unexplained explosion killed all eighteen crew members on board, and led to fire damage to the INS Sindhughosh, parked alongside it. In December, a day after the navy chief, Admiral D K Joshi, dismissed safety concerns, the minesweeper INS Konkan was gutted in a major fire. Days later, INS Talwar, one of the navy’s newest frigates, sank a fishing trawler after a collision, leading to the commanding officer being relieved. In February, a fire aboard yet another Kilo-class submarine, INS Sindhuratna, killed two officers and injured seven sailors.

The resignation of Admiral Joshi, who accepted moral responsibility for the spate of accidents, presented the government with a scapegoat – an apparent relief, given its focus on the ongoing general election campaign. Yet, seemingly oblivious to the urgent need for stable leadership to address these issues, the government then dithered for more than fifty days before naming Vice Admiral R K Dhowan as the new navy chief in April.

Opinion is sharply divided within the navy about the cause of so many accidents. Predictably, there is denial, with many officers arguing that an organisation that operates at a high tempo, clocking 12,000 ship-days annually in often hazardous conditions, is inherently vulnerable to material failure, equipment malfunction, human error or just force majeure. In a service where warship captains have ultimate responsibility, there is concern that ‘witch-hunts’ following every mishap might create a culture in which commanding officers are reluctant to take even the slightest risk. As one admiral pithily put it, ‘Ships sometimes collide; desks never do’.

Yet there are also sober voices that acknowledge the need for a more critical and realistic appraisal, with the new navy chief pledging to ‘promot[e] safety consciousness in the Navy’, ordering extensive checks on weapon-related safety systems and reviews of standard operating procedures, especially on submarines.

Meanwhile, other accounts suggest that warship safety procedures may have suffered due to a greater focus on internal security. To launch the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008, Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters had sailed in from Karachi, in Pakistan. In the aftermath of the attack, New Delhi handed the Indian Navy responsibility for coastal security, despite India’s territorial waters being under the jurisdiction of the civil police and, further out, the coast guard. Consequently, the navy’s attention was diverted to policing, coastal patrolling, radar surveillance, and establishing the control centres and communications links needed to bring the entire coastal security organisation onto a common grid. Safety procedures were one of the casualties of this shift in the navy’s priorities away from blue-water operations.

Now, however, the navy is once again focused on its conventional tasks and capabilities, if somewhat belatedly. Of the fourteen submarines currently in service, no more than seven to eight are operationally available at any time. The long-term submarine-building plan of 1999 envisaged constructing twenty-four submarines in thirty years, but not one has yet been delivered. Meanwhile, the first of the six Scorpene submarines under construction will only be commissioned in late 2016, with the remaining five following at nine-month intervals. The next six submarines await government sanction, and although INS Chakra – an Akula-class, nuclear-propelled attack submarine leased from Russia – will help to fill this operational void, there is unquestionably a serious shortfall in submarines for a navy that might seek to blockade the world’s busiest maritime highway.

The admirals are also scrambling to make up deficiencies in the surface fleet. While there are forty-five naval ships at various stages of construction, a 2010 report by the government’s top auditor revealed that the navy has just 44 per cent of the destroyers and 61 per cent of frigates it needs, and just 20 per cent of its planned requirement of corvettes. Since then, the defence budget has fallen to only 1.74 per cent of GDP, the lowest level since 1962. Finally, of this year’s $37-billion defence outlay, the navy’s share is 15.6 per cent; and while this looks healthy in absolute terms, high domestic inflation and a weak rupee circumscribe what that money can buy. Naval planners are thus waiting to see whether the new government will allocate more money to their projects in its July budget.

Aware of these limitations, planners carefully downplay talk of a larger regional role and of the country being part of a US-led, anti-China grouping. In their public statements, navy chiefs declare that India’s ‘primary areas of interest’ are confined to the Indian Ocean. While acknowledging the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea as areas of concern, admirals are careful to add, as Admiral Nirmal Verma did in 2012, that there are no plans for ‘activation’ in those areas.

China, meanwhile, despite its clear discomfort with New Delhi’s renewed focus on the Indian Ocean, has refrained from assuming too overt a presence in the area in response. In fact, the PLAN’s only serious forays have been in the context of anti-piracy operations off Somalia, in which it co-operated with the Indian Navy.

Indeed, while there is much breathless indignation in New Delhi about China surrounding India with a ‘string of pearls’ – a garrotte of naval bases in countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan – it is clear that China’s attention is currently centred on the eastern Pacific and its proximate waters, where strong maritime challenges are emerging from the US and from neighbours with whom China has longstanding territorial disputes. As such, despite the problems facing the Indian Navy, the fundamental determinants of naval power – force levels and proximity – suggest that it does not yet face a credible challenge from China in its oceanic backyard. To ensure that this remains the case, the Indian Navy will have to speed up warship building and streamline its weapons-development processes --- as well as resolve the safety issues that have reflected so negatively on an otherwise well-regarded force.

List of recent accidents (as placed before parliament)

Fire on board INS Virat.
The Board of Inquiry (Bol) Proceedings are under examination at Naval HQ.
Fire onboard INS Konkan.
The Bol proceedings are under examination at Naval HQ.
Scraping of INS Tarkash Ship side on SBW Knuckle.
The Bol proceedings are under examination at Naval HQ.
Accident of INS Talwar with unlit fishing boat.
Disciplinary action being taken against four officer and two sailors found culpable by the BoI.
Crack on sonar dome of INS Betwa.
 The Bol proceedings are under examination at Naval HQ.
Suspended movement of INS Sindhughosh while securing to alongside berth.
The Bol is in progress at HQWNC.
Sea water increase into tiller flat through a crack / hole in ship side of INS Vipul.
The Bol proceedings are under examination at Naval HQ.
Damage to Port propeller whilst entering harbour of INS Airavat.
The Bol is in progress at HQENC.
Fire in the Third Compartment of INS Sindhuratna.
The Bol Proceedings are under examination at Naval HQ.
Accident onboard Yard 12701 (Kolkata) under construction at MDL, while carrying out trials of Engine Room firefighting system.
The Bol proceedings are under examination at Naval HQ.
Incident of smouldering and thick smoke in armoury during hot work onboard INS Matanga.
The Bol is in progress at HQWNC.

1 comment:

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