In November 2011, the Indian Navy was particularly incensed with what a US naval lieutenant had posted on a blog. The unnamed lieutenant, who spent four days on destroyer INS Delhi in the Arabian Sea as part of an exchange programme, called the Indian crew “generally clueless”, with “almost zero seamanship skills”. It was a long, harsh critique of what he saw on the frontline warship. At the behest of the Indian Navy, the blog was removed soon after.
Did the blog touch a raw nerve? Just 10 months earlier, the naval frigate INS Vindhyagiri collided with a merchant tanker in Mumbai harbour and sank. It was the fourth time a warship was completely written off in 23 years. Since 1990, the Indian Navy has lost one warship in peacetime every five years. Since 2004, it has lost one naval combatant every two years. Few global navies have such a dubious record.
Five days after the August 14 explosion destroyed INS Sindhurakshak, killing 18 crew members, Defence Minister A.K. Antony told Rajya Sabha that “preliminary probe indicated the blast was due to possible ignition of armament”. Armed with torpedoes and missiles, the submarine was fully fuelled and ready to sail for patrol early next morning.
Former southern naval commander Vice Admiral K.N. Sushil (retired) says it is too early to conclude it sank due to negligence. Evidence points to a blast in an oxygen-fuelled torpedo, he says. “The Navy must do a forensic examination to pinpoint the cause,” he adds.
What is worrying is that with each warship loss, key maritime capabilities are being lost. Sindhurakshak had returned from Russia four months ago, and after a two-and-a-half year refit, was the Navy’s most potent conventional submarine. The frigate INS Vindhyagiri was the only warship that could control spy drones far out at sea.
Peacetime losses of warships are not uncommon. Since the World War II, the US Navy has lost 16 warships in accidents. Russia’s nuclear submarine Kursk sank in August 2000 after a faulty torpedo exploded during a training exercise. But in case of the smaller Indian Navy-it only has 30 frontline warships and 14 submarines-they point to a far disturbing trend, of human rather than technical error. Prahar and Vindhyagiri collided with lumbering merchant vessels. INS Agray was cut into half in 2004 when a crew member tossed a misfired anti-submarine rocket overboard.
The spate of accidents comes at a time when the fleet is expanding in both size and complexity. Last year, the Navy acquired INS Chakra, its first nuclear-powered attack submarine, from Russia. It is set to induct its largest ship, the 44,000-tonne aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, from Russia this year. Former eastern naval commander Vice Admiral A.K. Singh (retired) slams the Government’s apathy. “The Navy is using vessels long past their service years of 25 and 30 years as the Government doesn’t sanction new ones in time,” he says.
Ageing ships alone do not explain other accidents and collisions. Naval officials say there are a series of smaller mishaps that point to Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) not being followed. The August 2009 collision of the missile corvette INS Kuthar with destroyer INS Ranvir in the Bay of Bengal was traced to a rudder failure, compounded by a flawed manoeuvre. In 2010, three crew men on destroyer INS Mumbai were instantly killed when an AK-630 Gatling gun went off as safety drills were not followed. The submarine INS Sindhughosh collided twice; once with a fishing boat in 2006 and once with a merchant vessel in 2007. “The Navy has put in place multiple, institutionalised methods and procedures towards enhancing safety,” a naval spokesperson said, responding to a questionnaire. “Each type of unit has a Safety Class Authority that oversees safety aspects and guides safety related policy. On completion of major repairs, all units undergo a safety audit, prior to joining respective formations.”
“The problem is that we aren’t empowering our young officers,” admits a senior naval officer, echoing what the US navy blogger said. Experience levels have suffered as there is a mismatch between number of warships and officers. Each year, 60 captain-ranked officers vie for the command of 15-20 warships. “A decade ago, a captain got two 18-month-long sea tenures, allowing him to build up experience; today he gets only one,” says a naval officer.
In 2006, then defence minister Pranab Mukherjee pulled the Navy brass up after a spate of accidents. Accidents have however continued despite ‘safety stand down’ procedures performed on all warships every quarter, and court-martials. INS Sindhurakshak’s tragic loss is an urgent wake-up call.