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A year after submarine disaster: Have any lessons been learnt?

By Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd) | PUBLISHED: 12, Aug 2014, 15:26 pm IST | UPDATED: 12, Aug 2014, 15:29 pm IST

A year after submarine disaster: Have any lessons been learnt? "...I feel personally responsible for each and every one of you, as if you were my own sons and daughters. And so my only prayer is that you serve with honour and return home safely": Former US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates while addressing the West Point Military Academy class of 2008.

On Thursday, Aug 14, it will be one year since the Indian Navy (IN) submarine Sindhurakshak suffered a catastrophic explosion and sank in the shallow waters of Mumbai dockyard. This was followed by an equally traumatic event as the navy chief, Admiral D.K. Joshi, accepting moral responsibility for a series of mishaps, offered to resign from his post. The alacrity with which his resignation was accepted spoke of relief in the ministry of defence (MoD) that a sacrificial lamb had offered itself. Apart from this, not a leaf stirred in South Block.

Even as the IN grieves over the loss of 18 gallant sailors and officers who went down with Sindhurakshak, it is notable that no functionary in our politico-bureaucratic establishment has ever felt or conveyed the kind of angst and concern for servicemen, expressed so publicly by Robert Gates. India's 100 percent civilian MoD has acquired a reputation for its lethargic and inept management of national security, but let me dwell on the Sindhurakshak tragedy to highlight a few examples of the indifference, bordering on callousness, it displays towards India's fighting men and women.

Forty-seven years after acquiring its first submarine in 1967, the IN still lacks a submarine rescue vessel (SRV) which can enable the crew to escape from an incapacitated submarine without suffering the severe effects of decompression. The IN has been grappling, for nearly two decades, with the MoD bureaucracy, to acquire a SRV, but one does not seem to be, yet, on the horizon. During the 2006 Fleet Review in Visakhapatnam, when president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam spent six hours underwater (coincidentally, on the Sindhurakshak), we had to ask the US Navy to provide rescue cover in case of an accident. In stark contrast, tiny Singapore, built its own SRV within a few years of acquiring its first submarine. Our MoD is either ignorant of the gravity of this lacuna or simply does not care.

Very soon after the horrific explosion which ripped through Sindhurakshak, it became obvious that chances of any crew members having survived the inferno were very slim. The priority, now, was to quickly access the wreckage so that bodies of the crew could be handed over to grieving families and an investigation commenced expeditiously. In a Kafkaesque demonstration of languid functioning, the MoD took a full six months to float international tenders and to select a company to salvage the submarine. It was another four months before the hulk of the submarine could be raised. During this ten-month interregnum, no signs of concern, anguish or urgency were visible in South Block.

There are media reports that a naval Board of Inquiry has completed investigations and submitted its findings to the appropriate authority. That these findings have not yet been made public is understandable, given the security implications of the matter. However, it bears recall that former Raksha Mantri (RM) A.K. Antony had delivered a stinging rebuke to the navy for this accident in November 2013, accusing it of "frittering away national resources". The RM did not seem to realize that he was referring to a serious and perplexing mishap and that his premature indictment was not founded on any facts available at that juncture.

The irony of his words obviously escaped Antony; by publicly berating the navy, he was actually castigating himself because Naval Headquarters (NHQ) is now termed "Integrated HQ of MoD". This also exposed the huge chasm that persists between the military and the politico-bureaucratic establishment, cosmetic "integration" notwithstanding. Had Antony, during his long tenure, ensured the actual incorporation of NHQ into the MoD, the responsibility for these accidents would have devolved collectively on the shoulders of an integrated ministry. A bold, proactive and well-informed RM could have also deflected unfair media criticism of the navy, a major cause for the despondent navy chief to resign.

Speculation about the causes of the accident would be inappropriate because the IN has a time-tested system of investigation and analysis which would have pinpointed the causes of this accident, whether material defect, system malfunction or human error. The service will thereafter implement remedial measures to eliminate the possibility of recurrence.

However, an aspect that bears the closest scrutiny and review is the continued reliance of all three services on equipment of Soviet/Russian origin. In an August 2000 mishap, which bore uncanny resemblance to the Sindhurakshak accident, the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk suffered an explosion and sank with the loss of all hands. The final report on the disaster concluded that the explosion was due to the failure of one of Kursk's hydrogen peroxide-fuelled torpedoes. The collapse of the Soviet Union dealt a severe blow to its military-industrial complex from which it has not yet recovered. The steep decline in quality control as well as poor product-support of Russian systems is being acutely felt by India's armed forces - on land, at sea and in the air.

As we recall, with sorrow and pride, the sacrifice of Sindhurakshak's brave sailors, let us remember that the most deleterious impact of the last regime's inefficiency and indecision was on India's national security. Consequently, the MoD faces huge, accumulated, problems and challenges which could take decades to resolve.

It is indeed unfortunate that the new government should have assigned half a minister to a ministry where three would find their hands full.

  • The author is a former Indian Navy chief