Navy accidents

As the fire and huge explosion incident in the INS Sindhurakshak submarine last 14 August is still fresh in public memory, the involvement of another warship in a fire incident has caused much consternation in the strategic circles.

Though the Navy has put up a brave face with various explanations, and as the Naval Chief Admiral D K Joshi proclaimed from the Naval Day Press Conference podium that the accident record in the Indian Navy was not as that bad, a minesweeper of the Navy updated the Indian Navy record of accidents, a day later.

INS Konkan, a leading minesweeper that was undergoing repair work in Vizag caught fire recently while undergoing repairs. The incident occurred a day after Navy Chief DK Joshi said that the Navy’s safety record was ‘not all that bad’ as compared to other sea faring nations. Under fire from Defence Minister AK Antony who had advised top naval commanders last month to train personnel better and ensure that national resources are not frittered away, Joshi had said that recent incidents in which vessels had been lost were ‘isolated and separate’.

Earlier Indian Navy had lost its premier warship INS Vindhyagiri in January, 2011. The navy chief Admiral Joshi had claimed that “these are isolated and separate cases. The reason does not derive their linkage from previous cases. Operational risks are fraught in this business of armed forces.

Repeating mistakes

However, the Indian Navy refuses to take lessons. Frittering away of national strategic assets in this manner cannot be called an isolated incident as claimed by the naval chief.

Similar incidents abroad results in sacking of the top naval officers, however no heads have rolled in India over these incidents of very serious nature. These accidents speak of the serious deficiency in Indian Navy maintenance culture; hence the MoD must come out with an emergency plan to improve the safety procedures in Indian Navy.

The maintenance of weapon systems in other Services are no better, which is also evident from the record number of aircraft incidents that happen in Indian Air Force. Since the army operates on land, the damage to its weapon systems during maintenance or operation goes unnoticed.

The INS Konkan is a minesweeper and its tactical significance is very obvious from the very nature of its role and responsibilities and as the Navy is still waiting for a government sanction to acquire more minesweepers, the damage done to the minesweeper during the maintenance is irreparable.

The engine has suffered major damage. INS Konkan is a Pondicherry class minesweeper obtained from Russia. The fire broke out when the vessel was undergoing a refit at the naval base in Vishakhapatnam. Fortunately no serious casualty occurred, saving the naval headquarters from further embarrassment after the Sindhurakshak incident in which 18 naval personnel died.

However, several naval personnel had to be evacuated from the site and fire tenders in large numbers were called in and ambulances were dispatched to control the loss of life and property.

Depleting fleet

As the incident in the Sindhurakshak has drawn attention towards its depleting submarine fleet, the minesweepers are also in a similar state of affairs.

The Indian Navy is in dire need of more minesweepers to safeguard its coastal areas and naval assets.

During maritime combat the enemy nation’s first priority is to ensure that adversary warships should not be able to sail on combat missions by planting mines on the coastal areas and where the big warships operate in the high seas.

The minesweepers clear the path of the warships for their safe movement and operation. The sea mines are used to sink the enemy ships by triggering pressure, acoustic or electro-magnetic signals from a surface warship of a submarine moving nearby.

These are the easiest and cheap methods to kill an enemy warship. The mines are laid quite easily and threat perceptions from these self contained explosives are very high. Hence naval officials want to induct these minesweepers as early as possible so as to ensure that Indian coastal areas are never threatened by enemy mines.

Navy currently possesses seven minesweepers of Pondicherry and Karwar class out of which six are based at Vishakhapatnam and one at Mumbai. They have already gone through midlife updates and they will be operational till next ten years. However, they have aged and cannot give same performance as of a new one.

Hence, it was natural for the Defence Minister Antony to tell the Navy commanders, “It must be ensured that safety mechanisms are accorded topmost priority and Standard Operating Procedures are adhered to strictly and without any exception”.

He further had warned the navy top brass that it was the responsibility of the Indian Navy to optimally operate and maintain assets and hardware, as well as train its personnel suitably so that such national assets are not frittered away.

Resource constraint

At a time when the armed forces are facing the threat of budget cuts as indicated by the Prime Minister during his address to the Commanders last November, the loss of such expensive weapon systems and platforms must not be tolerated.

Due to resource constraints the government has not been able to take a final view on these minesweepers. The proposal to acquire eight Korean minesweepers  is with the Ministry Of Defence  since last year, which would be worth Rs 24,000 crores. The procurement process had begun almost a decade ago and the Navy had finally zeroed in to the Pusan based Kangnam after it was found to be the lowest bidder in 2010.

If we go by a statement of a shipyard’s Union leader, the Navy has been adopting a casual attitude towards maintenance of its warships. The naval authorities have been accused of outsourcing the manpower for the maintenance of such significant warship.

According to the leader of employees union the naval authorities have been warned not to engage the contract labor in the defence sector, as the work is of perennial nature. This leads to casual attitude and also indicates that the navy had to pay a heavy price for not deploying dedicated experts, controlled by the naval headquarters, in the maintenance of such warships.  

Retired naval personnel are of the opinion that the civilian work culture has permeated the armed forces and the naval top brass seem to be oblivious of the goings on at the ground level.

The safety culture that needs to be ingrained in each soldier from the very beginning seem to be lacking nowadays and the workers have become very casual in their attitude towards safety measures.  

Similar allegations are also leveled against the Hindustan Aeronautics after an aircraft crashes while flying. The maintenance of the fleet is dependent on good functioning of spare parts but, faulty spare parts are often implanted in an aircraft, which often results in a fatal accident, causing not only the loss of precious life of a pilot but financial loss to the national exchequer also.

However, two incidents of very serious nature in the Indian Navy within a span of four months need serious introspection among the top naval brass over the state of affairs in the Indian Navy.

The combat readiness of the navy not only depends on the government’s attitude towards forces but also the prevailing work culture and good governance, for which the naval headquarters should be solely held responsible.