Since the turn of the century, India has invested heavily in building the navy it needs for dominating the northern Indian Ocean, a crucial maritime highway for the flow of hydrocarbons from West Asia to China, Japan and the Southeast Asian countries; and for the transportation to Europe of merchandise from those manufacturing economies.
With China’s military a looming presence on its Himalayan border with Tibet, New Delhi has long derived strategic assurance from its potential stranglehold over China’s sea lines of communication, or SLOCs, as these maritime highways are termed.
Over the last seven months, however, a spate of accidents involving Indian Navy warships has placed a question mark over this capability.
On February 26, the navy chief, Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi, resigned after an accident in which two officers were killed and five sailors seriously injured while fighting a fire in INS Sindhuratna, one of the navy’s nine Russian Kilo-class submarines.
This was not the first such incident. On August 14 last year, a catastrophic explosion inside INS Sindhurakshak, another Kilo-class submarine that was berthed in Mumbai, killed all 18 sailors on board and sunk the vessel.
The surface fleet has been as accident-prone. In 2011, a frigate sank after colliding with a merchant vessel.
Last December, a minesweeper was gutted in a major fire. Just days later, one of the navy’s most modern frigates, INS Talwar, rammed and sank a fishing trawler.
Extended poor form
The pressure that was already building on the navy came to a head with the INS Sindhuratna blaze, resulting in Admiral Joshi’s departure.
The Indian Navy’s extended run of poor form would have come as a surprise to other navies, both regional and global, which accept, even welcome, India’s pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean. The US, Russian, British and French navies, which conduct joint training with their Indian counterparts every year, hold it in high esteem.
As one US official put it recently: “This is still the most reliable force for safeguarding shipping lanes between the Gulf of Aden and Strait of Hormuz on the west, and the Malacca Strait in the east.”
India’s growing maritime authority flows from its geography, with the Indian peninsula protruding like a 1000-kilometre dagger into the Indian Ocean.
Its island chains of Lakshadweep, and Andaman & Nicobar, enhance its control of key international shipping lanes that pass through these waters. India has committed money, resources and strategic attention to building up the bristling Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC), which dominates the nearby Malacca Strait, through which 60,000 commercial vessels transit each year, an average of one every nine minutes. Most analysts believe that the Indian Navy – with its flotilla of some 135 warships, and its $5.6bn annual budget – can shut down the Indian Ocean shipping lanes whenever it chooses.
‘Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean’
Beijing is all too aware of this. Chinese leaders, dating back to Defence Minister Chi Haotian in 1994, have argued that “the Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean.” But the fundamental determinants of naval power – force levels and proximity – suggest that China is some way from being able to challenge India in its own oceanic backyard.
Yet, the Indian Navy’s ability to dominate these waters rests on its ability to operate its warships effectively, something that is now being questioned after the spate of recent accidents.
Excuses that India’s Kilo-class submarines are inadequate or obsolete are patently untrue, since more than 50 Kilo-class submarines are operating in navies worldwide, including those of Russia, China, Vietnam, Algeria, Poland, Romania and Iran.
Algeria’s two Kilo-class submarines are older than India’s, but have suffered no significant mishaps. INS Sindhurakshak, which sank last August, had seen just 16 years of operational service; and had recently returned from a mid-life refit in Russia that extended its service life by at least another 15 years.
A service life of over 30 years is not unusual for submarines.
India’s earlier Foxtrot-class submarines served in the fleet for over 35 years. Many of the US Navy’s Los Angeles-class attack submarines, the mainstay of its underwater force, are 30-35 years old.
Nor can it be argued that India’s Kilo-class submarines have outlived their utility; the Indian Navy’s own long term plan for the future fleet, envisages many more years of service for these vessels.
Under heavy pressure from the media and the defence ministry in New Delhi, the Indian Navy has pledged to re-examine all its safety procedures, and to audit its weapons-related procedures.
An analysis of all accidents will now be circulated within the navy so that everyone absorbs the lessons. Yet, there are complaints from the admirals that an intrusive media has blown the issue of safety out of proportion. Several of the recent incidents, say admirals, barely rate a mention.
They argue that the navy’s 160 ships typically clock some 12,000 ship-days at sea annually, in varied waters and weather. In these challenging circumstances, they say, some incidents are inevitable.
Even if that were true, there are serious systemic weaknesses in India’s equipment procurement that continue to delay the navy’s fleet modernisation.
Russia’s four-year delay in delivering a recently commissioned aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya; and a three-year slippage in building a second carrier in India, forces the Indian Navy to continue operating an aircraft carrier that has been in the water for over 60 years.
Even as India’s older submarines sail into the autumn of their service lives, the navy’s long-term submarine building plan of 1999, which envisages building 24 submarines in 30 years, has not yet seen a single one yet delivered.
The first six – Scorpene submarines, being built by Mazagon Dock Limited, Mumbai – will join service only in 2015-2018.
The next six still await the Indian government’s sanction. A line of frigates and destroyers being constructed in Mumbai are four-five years behind schedule.
Given these shortfalls, it is hardly surprising that warships are often retained in service long after they should have been scrapped.
It is likely that the shock waves of Admiral Joshi’s resignation will jolt the Indian Navy into taking hard steps towards improving operational safety.
The expected entry into service of 45 under-construction warships over the coming years will allow the retirement of older vessels.
Meanwhile, the refining of India’s procurement procedures – which has been ongoing, even if slowly – would ensure a steady flow of running spares (like submarine batteries) which will reduce the chances of malfunction-related accidents.
The Indian Navy has been reminded that accidents carry consequences for admirals as well as sailors. This might be Admiral Joshi’s most valuable legacy.