By Seema Mustafa, The Statesman/ Asia News Network
The Indian Navy has received a major setback and jolt with an explosion sinking the Russian-b submarine at the Mumbai harbor, with at least 18 sailors, including three officers, feared killed. This is one of the worst tragedies to hit the Navy since the sinking of INS Khukri during the 1971 India-Pakistan war and has left the navy particularly vulnerable with just six or seven of the remaining 14 submarines operational. The disaster hit the Indian Navy after a particularly good week, in which the first home-built aircraft carrier INS Vikrant was launched, and the reactor in the first indigenously built nuclear submarine INS Arihant went critical. Within three days, INS Sindhurakshak became a ball in the sky, with the blaze gutting a submarine capable of firing cruise missiles at a range of 125 miles. This was the second fire in the Russian-Kilo class sub, the first from a defective battery in 2010 in which a sailor was killed and others injured. Built in St Petersburg, the submarine was sent back for a massive upgrade, and had returned only seven months ago from the Zvezdochka shipyard. It is early days yet, but the explosion seems to have been triggered yet again by a defective battery. And as naval officials have pointed out to the media, it was fortunate that this happened while the submarine was docked and most of the sailors were able to save their lives by jumping into the waters. The scale of the disaster would have been far greater had the sub been on operational deployment. But while the navy copes with the disaster, and the nation awaits the results of a probe that will no doubt be ordered into the incident, the Indian Navy’s ambition to emerge as a “blue-water navy” is being seriously undercut by its diminishing submarine fleet.
In fact, the entire military seems to be suffering from a dire want of equipment with the government dragging its feet on this for a while now. Defense Minister AK Antony has slowed the pace of procurement considerably with his inability to take quick decisions, and his poor understanding of defense vision. The submarines provide a case in point. On the one side, the government and its strategic advisors make much of Chinese incursions into India, with media stars on prime-time television insisting on “action.” On the other, this big talk is not matched by true action with India’s reducing submarine force set to equal Pakistan’s in another two years, while China forges ahead with its current 45 submarines, and plans to build at least another 15 Tuan class attack submarines based on German diesel engine purchases. Delays are inbuilt into Indian plans, with the six Scorpene submarines being built at the Mazagon Docks in Mumbai expected to be ready only by 2017, when according to the initial plans the first should have been commissioned in 2012. The armed forces are clearly being shackled by the civilian wing, namely the Defense Ministry, which retains the last word on procurements. The conservative bureaucracy that ultimately influences the political masters is clearly not impressed or concerned with the vision documents prepared regularly by Defense chiefs. The vision is necessarily linked to weaponization, and over the last ten years in particular, nothing has moved to close the gap between the two. Instead, the gap has increased with the apathetic bureaucracy and weak or corrupt Defense ministers, for whom procurements are inextricably linked to commissions, and not necessarily to the military’s urgent requirements.