Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Navy must reclaim its ethos

In resigning after the INS Sindhuratna accident, Admiral Joshi has shown a sense of morality that his supporters have lacked

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 4th March 14

The resignation of the navy chief, Admiral DK Joshi, has stirred a bitter debate even in circles that do not normally follow defence. Critics of Defence Minister AK 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 ten 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 15-20 years. A service life of 30-40 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 30-35 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 DK 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 includes 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, crewmembers 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. 


Vibha Singh said...

Dear Ajai
Its good to have a counterview on such issues, but in the instant case Naval Chief's action probably reflects extreme helplessness at the highest levels. One needs a peep into the apathy and callousness with which MoD handles cases pertaining to the forces before raising questions on Indian Navy's operational capabilities. To say the least, even a desk officer in the ministry is empowered to raise observations and return a file back to service HQ's without it being perused by his superiors. It’s a challenge if any Defence officer dealing with MoD is able to produce one case file which has been sanctioned/approved without the babus raising repeated queries. The malice lies in the way MoD functions and inability of the service HQ to get rid of the “subordinate tag”. Accidents do happen and will continue, however, the same occurring due to the mere obsolesce and pathetic state of maintenance of equipment is what will frustrate any upright service Chief in future also. One has to be fair to Indian Navy while drawing parallel with other see going Navies. When comparing second hand cars manufactured in the same year, don't we check the KM done and the servicing schedule of the vehicle? It will be prudent to compare the Submarine accidents based on hours spent in sailing, overhauls done and how much money was spent by other Navies in maintaining similar equipment? Maybe, MoD headed by inept Mr Antony will emerge as the clear cause, while Admiral Joshi’s resignation and loss of brave lives the effect.

Unknown said...

This is the best analysis I have read on the incident as also on the resignation of the CNS. The RM or Defence Secretary are not responsible for the day to day administration and safety procedures of the Navy or any other service. In fact the Fleet Commander FOC in C of the Western Naval Command could have docked the submarine fleet if serviceable batteries were not available. There is no threat of war. He must also take responsibility or be removed from his command.

Ranjay said...

sir, with due regards ...
Navy is going to reclaim it's ethos!
But what about ARMY?
it is the largest force...
max compromises have been made by the Army
you being an Armoured Corps Officer will be aware about Ajeya tank (Ex-HVF Avadi)or the Great ARJUN...

Fact is Equipment are not fit...Troops morale are not at the peak ...politicians & Babus have created havoc ; and it's difficult to immune the soldiers in the world of Internet

Anonymous said...

Dear Ajai,

CNS Admiral Joshi has resigned and thus set a precedent. I agree that this will set into motion a series of efforts which will make Navy better.

But there is another angle to you article...you are trying to absolve Congress, PM, Defence Minister and MOD from any responsibility.

Why don't you write another article which dwells upon the roles MOD, Defence Minister, PM and Congress have played in ensuring this chaos and how best to deal with them. This will ensure your readers that you are also a hidden Congi.

Anonymous said...

Very well said sir !

Anonymous said...

well said Ajai, I was waiting for you to publish your view when all media & ex Naval strategist pointing the gun on AK. They might be right, but you are more right

Anonymous said...

As a former Naval officer. I do find merit in the article. As an operational soldier, to say 'no' is always associated with cowardice and indiscipline. So the majority of uniformed personnel shirk from using this word. I my self can give many examples of compromise solutions arrived at during operations. Ultimately it is a fine line between commitment to achieve objectives and foolhardiness. I believe it is good for all serving personnel to understand that there are no rules worth breaking in peace and none worth following in war.

Anonymous said...

This is one of your better stories. I just enjoyed the balance and reasoning contained in it.

Please keep it up. Oh and surprisingly you and one other popular blogger seem to be on the same page with the versatility and life of these submarines.

Good to know they are more than sea worthy. Now up to the IN to fix the problem.

The problem with the RM will anyway be fixed in the coming election.

Anonymous said...

Every body in the MOD needs to be bribed right from clerk for any defence deals to go through.

amit2992 said...

In a hall filled with clamour and dissidence, noise that drowns sanity, you have by this insightful exposition, drawn the line right.

The last bastion can't fall counting on complacancy of the political class. The best welfare that one can do for him men, is to train them well, said Patton. And you second this view with this article sir.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

An analysis that takes blame beyond politicians and civilian MOD employees?? ..thats just flame bait

on the other hand good to know that the response has also decided to look @ the SOPs themselves as possible contributing factors. Any establishment willing to look at such factors and not just blame the people who didnt follow the SOPs is an intelligent one.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, most other articles are emotionally led, with little rationale.

Anonymous said...

His Masters voice !

Who is the Master ??

Some Babu in MoD !!

anoop2534 said...

some one has tried his level best to cover his tracks of being a paid analyst, for absolving the dirty babus...

Jean Luc Picard said...

A brave and well written article.
I agree. Today, the services have two cancers which it must rid itself off :

1. Its own complacency. In a time of economic leaps it is difficult to keep up morale and improve. This is a problem that the serving personnel must fix themselves particularly the senior officers. Spartanic qualities in Serving personnel must be encouraged. So they remain "addicted (enjoyably)" to the tasks of their service. And have little interest in other non military matters.

Time to bring back rigid traditions and senior officers who are sticklers for discipline, detail and operational effectiveness.

2. Babudom. This is a also an equally big threat as its unprofessional-ism, corruptness and increasingly inscrutable position sucks out the morale of senior officers and corrupts the minds of those who come in contact with it, which trickles down to right upto the rank and file.

The veterans and ex serviceman community and have the time, visibility, vocal chords and skills to fight against this cancer. The soldier has to be one to one basis with the statement and the bureaucrat must be made to go back to being a public servant. The ex servicemen community can fight this by uniting and forming a vote bank, a currency which the politicians understand and value.

Both issues need to be checked. A half fix is no fix in the long run.


Anonymous said...

While it is true that it's the hierarchy of the armed forces that is responsible for the administration and running of the organisations it must also be clearly brought out that the politicians and bureaucrats are also responsible for not providing the required equipment. The kilo class submarines may well be within their operating service life but this does in no way justify the inordinate delay in induction process of other submarines like Scorpene etc. The same is the case in both the Army and the Air Force. While almost everyone is now aware about the lack of artillery guns, tank ammunition, induction of Arjun tank or the Tejas aircraft etc. even non-glamourous programs like F-INSAS and precision bombs for the Air Force is nowhere close to completion.