Crippling Blow for Indian Navy

What really happened to India's diesel electric submarine Sindhurakshak on Aug. 14 may take months to discover, if ever.

But the tragedy, which took the lives of 18 submariners when unexplained explosions ripped through the vessel at the Mazagon dockyard in Mumbai, has spotlighted the depletion of the Indian navy's force levels, particularly its submarine arm usually the most potent component of any blue-water navy globally.

The loss of INS Sindhurakshak is especially worrisome at a time when Chinese naval power is reshaping regional geopolitics. Most of India's neighbors are rebuilding their navies as well, which will have a profound impact on the Asian maritime security environment.

The 2,300-tonne diesel-electric submarine, commissioned in 1997 at a cost of $ 4 million, had recently undergone a $ 5-million refit and upgrade in Russia. The intensity of the explosions that sank the double-hulled boat, and the nature of the fire, which actually melted steel, was an immediate indication that there would be no survivors despite the frantic efforts of rescue personnel in the aftermath.

That was confirmed by Defense Minister A K Antony who announced on August 19 that the "rapidity and intensity of the explosions and the resultant damage to the submarine indicate that the 18 personnel on board would not have survived." Seven bodies have since been recovered.

The current authorized strength of the Indian Navy has been steadily eroding. The country currently has only two classes of submarines -- four older- generation HDW 209 Shishumar class and 10 Russian origin Kilo Sindhughosh class submarines. Defense analysts say these aging platforms are barely enough to guard India's 7,500-km coastline, more than 1,200 islands, an exclusive economic zone of 2.2 million sq km, not to mention operations in foreign waters.

To maintain its level of desired combat capability, analysts say, the navy requires more investment. It was for this purpose that the navy's 30-year submarine induction program was conceived in 1997. The program envisaged the launch of the first dozen submarines -- six each under Project-75 and 'Project-75 India' with foreign collaboration -- by 2012. Another 12 submarines with "totally indigenous design" were to be inducted in the 2012-2030 timeframe.

However, a decade and a half later, the Navy has yet to launch even one of the 24 planned submarines.

"It is an operational imperative for navies across the world to possess strategic blue-water capability to maintain a mix of conventional and nuclear-powered submarines," said Robin Parashar, a Mumbai–based defense strategist. "China has done so since the 1970s. But the Indian Navy fails to measure up on this score."

Worse, Parashar said, India suffers from a paucity of adequate professional expertise on defense and security matters in the ministry. "This," he said, "is the main cause for delayed decision-making. Politicians don't have the time while the bureaucracy suffers from individuals in flux. It is hard to develop and retain expertise."

The analyst added that politicians and bureaucrats are at loggerheads with naval planners, which results in the navy's development and acquisition programs suffering miserably. Compounding the current mess is the ministry's failure to motivate the Defense Research and Development Organization and defense production units to perform, while excluding the private sector and FDI in defense.

The government was told in the mid-1990s that the submarine force levels were in a state of steady decline due to age, obsolescence and the thoughtless closure of a submarine construction facility established in the Mazagon Docks with German assistance.

A proposal for construction of 24 subs by 2030 received in-principle approval from the Cabinet in 1999. However, lackadaisical decision-making by the ministry of defense ensured that the contract for construction of the first six wasn't signed until 2005.

The creation of a national maritime advisor, a cabinet committee on maritime affairs and a maritime commission has been recommended within the government. But none of these has been implemented.

In the meantime, while India dithers, China is building a powerful blue-water navy. It commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, last year. Beijing also has in the pipeline an indigenous carrier of its own apart from a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Japan and South Korea are boosting naval aviation. Australia too is building two helicopter carriers, the Canberra and the Adelaide, which are expected to be commissioned in the next few years.

Government officials point to the induction of the six Scorpene submarines from France and access to nuclear propelled boats (SSN) for training purposes from Russia are on their way, but these infusions are still years away.

"The Indian Navy paid a very heavy price because of the inability of bureaucrats and politicians to arrive at the right strategic assessment," says defense expert commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar.

According to Bhaskar, who served in the Indian navy for 37 years, the deeper strategic issue that warrants scrutiny is the manner in which the submarine as a capability has been perceived by the national security apex.

"The trajectory from 1967 to 2013 is illustrative of a plan that has gone awry -- and the deleterious effect of short-sighted, impulsive political compulsions on national security."

In the late 1980s, India embarked on an ambitious program to acquire more advanced HDW boats from West Germany, as well as to build them within the country as part of a technology transfer agreement. Had this been executed, it would have augmented India's overall military profile.

Regrettably, the HDW deal was marred by a corruption scandal similar to the one that afflicted the Bofors artillery gun -- and the nation paid a heavy price when the deal was peremptorily scrapped by the Rajiv Gandhi government. There are questions over the Scorpenes that replaced them, with DCN suspected of being "out of compliance" with the OECD Convention on Bribery in the sale.

Jolted by the sinking of INS Sindhurakshak, Defense minister A K Antony is now scrambling to get his ministry's act together. This week he directed that top priority should be given to maintaining the "health" of the existing 13 conventional diesel-electric submarines -- 11 of which are 20 to 27 years old -- through "faster" life-extension, upgrade and maintenance refits.

Antony has also asked officials to "expedite" the 30-year submarine building plan, which was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) way back in July 1999 but has been stuck in the doldrums for years.

Clearly, India's naval program suffers from a resource gap and a strategic vacuum. Even as the importance of the navy to India has grown along with its widening maritime interests, the navy's share of defense expenditure has fallen by 16 percent.

India had been laying the keels of as many as 40 warships a year, but this program has been put on the back burner due to the government's fiscal problems. Due to the same reason, there has been a 20 percent cut in defense outlays this fiscal year.

Projections show only five to six of the present 14 Indian submarines will be fully operational by 2020. Even with a few Scorpenes by then, India will suffer from a shortfall of the minimum 18 conventional submarines required to keep Pakistan and China in check.

(Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist, neetalal@hotmail.com)