The Navy alone is responsible for its safety culture

Last Updated: Tue, Mar 04, 2014 00:33 hrs
Sindhurakshak: Sixth body recovered

The resignation of the navy chief, Admiral D K Joshi, has stirred a bitter debate even in circles that do not normally follow defence.

Critics of Defence Minister A K Antony's handling of the defence ministry, and of his glacial decision making, insist the admiral has been sacrificed to hide the ministry's slothfulness in procuring new equipment.

According to this line of argument, two naval officers died, seven sailors were injured and a frontline submarine, INS Sindhuratna, was disabled because delayed procurement had forced the navy to operate obsolete warships.

Mr Antony, bay his critics, should have resigned, not the navy chief. The near unanimity of this view amongst serving and retired officers, just days after the government courted them by okaying a longstanding demand for "one rank, one pension", shows how completely the Congress has lost this constituency.

Yet this stand is misplaced - it tries to mask the navy's carelessness by citing the defence ministry's ineffectiveness. True, Mr Antony has much to answer for in how he has run his ministry, and good reasons exist separately for demanding his head.

But the navy alone is responsible for a safety culture so poor that 10 warships and submarines have suffered mishaps since last August, when another submarine, INS Sindhurakshak, had a catastrophic explosion that killed all 18 sailors on board.

Three out of India's 10 Russian Kilo-class submarines have suffered mishaps, while two out of six state-of-the-art Russian stealth frigates have had collisions. These are alarming figures.

It is fallacious to argue, as some have done, that India's Kilo-class submarines are inadequate or obsolete. Some 50 Kilo-class submarines serve in navies worldwide, including those of Russia, China, Vietnam, Algeria, Poland, Romania and Iran. Algeria's are older than India's, but have suffered no mishaps.

INS Sindhurakshak, which sank last August, had been in service for just 16 years, and had recently returned from a mid-life refit in Russia that made it good for at least another 15 to 20 years.

A service life of 30 to 40 years is quite normal for submarines. Our Foxtrot-class submarines performed yeoman service for over 35 years. The US Navy's Los Angeles class attack submarines, the mainstay of its underwater force, are 30 to 35 years old. It is plain wrong to argue, as some have done, that India's Kilo-class submarines have outlived their utility; the navy itself envisages many more years of service for these potent fighting platforms.

To retire the Kilo-class submarines would be to strike a hammer blow to the navy's Maritime Capability Perspective Plan, which lays out the future fleet. India simply cannot afford that.

Admiral D K Joshi knows this, which is why he resigned. Sailors had died as a result of operational laxity and more would die if the trend were not reversed. While the chief was not personally responsible for this, an eroding safety culture within his service was.

In resigning, the admiral has kick-started a corrective process that is essential for the navy. Years down the line, he will be seen as having done far more good for the service than many of his predecessors, and certainly more than those who currently seek to make a martyr of him by passing the buck to the ministry.

The military's most insidious enemy is a strident new breed of public advocates, who argue in print, television and social media to cover up functional and ethical lapses by the defence services, howsoever inexcusable.

From the old soldiers' community there is less insistence that the military upholds the high standards that it has always delivered. Instead, this brigade of cheerleaders forgets a simple truth - India loves and respects its military because it is professional, reliable and (mostly) wins the wars that it fights.

They would do well to remember that real loyalty to the military tradition is not just about demanding "one rank, one pension" and complaining about how bureaucrats and politicians marginalise the services. It is more essential to demand performance standards and upholding a culture of leadership and personal example. Admiral Joshi understands that even if his supporters do not.

To argue that there is little accountability elsewhere in public life is to state the obvious. Is it anyone's case that the navy chief should shelter behind this broad-based lack of accountability? Generations of soldiers (which include sailors and airmen) have proudly adopted a code of conduct that sets them above the common citizenry.

This exclusivism underlies their readiness to die for izzat, as Indian military tradition terms the potent motivational mix of country, comrades, regiment and self-respect. In resigning, the navy chief has bolstered the notion of izzat and command responsibility. Only the extraordinarily short-sighted would suggest that he should have passed the buck to his boss.

That Admiral Joshi's resignation will shine the spotlight on operational safety is already apparent. In warships and submarines, like in tanks and aircraft, crew members live and operate cheek by jowl with large quantities of fuel and weapons.

A single deviation from rigid safety procedures can have explosive consequences. To prevent that, the navy has announced a wide-ranging review of standard operating procedures, and audits of weapon-related safety systems.

It has ordered that an analysis of all safety-related incidents must be circulated to naval schools and combat units to ensure that everyone absorbs the lessons. It is for the navy to ensure that the painful cost that it has already paid benefits those who continue to serve.

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