MAY­DAY

INS Sind­hu­rak­shak’s de­struc­tion un­der­lines a grow­ing trend of naval warship losses, pri­mar­ily due to hu­man er­ror

India Today - - NATION - By San­deep Un­nithan

In Novem­ber 2011, the In­dian Navy was par­tic­u­larly in­censed with what a US naval lieu­tenant had posted on a blog. The un­named lieu­tenant, who spent four days on de­stroyer INS Delhi in the Ara­bian Sea as part of an ex­change pro­gramme, called the In­dian crew “gen­er­ally clue­less”, with “al- most zero sea­man­ship skills”. It was a long, harsh cri­tique of what he saw on the front­line warship. At the be­hest of the In­dian Navy, the blog was re­moved soon af­ter.

Did the blog touch a raw nerve? Just 10 months ear­lier, the naval fri­gate INS Vind­hya­giri col­lided with a mer­chant tanker in Mum­bai har­bour and sank. It was the fourth time a warship was com­pletely writ­ten off in 23 years. Since 1990, the In­dian Navy has lost one warship in peace­time ev­ery five years. Since 2004, it has lost one naval com­bat­ant ev­ery two years. Few global navies have such a du­bi­ous record.

Five days af­ter the Au­gust 14 ex­plo­sion de­stroyed INS Sind­hu­rak­shak, killing 18 crew mem­bers, De­fence Min­is­ter A. K. Antony told Ra­jya Sabha that “pre-

lim­i­nary probe in­di­cated the blast was due to pos­si­ble ig­ni­tion of ar­ma­ment”. Armed with tor­pe­does and mis­siles, the sub­ma­rine was fully fu­elled and ready to sail for patrol early next morn­ing.

For­mer south­ern naval com­man­der Vice Ad­mi­ral K. N. Sushil ( re­tired) says it is too early to con­clude it sank due to neg­li­gence. Ev­i­dence points to a blast in an oxy­gen- fu­elled tor­pedo, he says. “The Navy must do a foren­sic ex­am­i­na­tion to pin­point the cause,” he adds.

What is wor­ry­ing is that with each warship loss, key mar­itime ca­pa­bil­i­ties are be­ing lost. Sind­hu­rak­shak had re­turned from Rus­sia four months ago, and af­ter a two- and- a- half year re­fit, was the Navy’s most po­tent con­ven­tional sub­ma­rine. The fri­gate INS Vind­hya­giri was the only warship that could con­trol spy drones far out at sea.

Peace­time losses of war­ships are not un­com­mon. Since the World War II, the US Navy has lost 16 war­ships in ac­ci­dents. Rus­sia’s nu­clear sub­ma­rine Kursk sank in Au­gust 2000 af­ter a faulty tor­pedo ex­ploded dur­ing a train­ing ex­er­cise. But in case of the smaller In­dian Navy— it only has 30 front­line war­ships and 14 sub­marines— they point to a far dis­turb­ing trend, of hu­man rather than tech­ni­cal er­ror. Pra­har and Vind­hya­giri col­lided with lum­ber­ing mer­chant ves­sels. INS Agray was cut into half in 2004 when a crew mem­ber tossed a mis­fired an­tisub­ma­rine rocket over­board ( see box).

The spate of ac­ci­dents comes at a time when the fleet is ex­pand­ing in both size and com­plex­ity. Last year, the Navy ac­quired INS Chakra, its first nu­cle­ar­pow­ered at­tack sub­ma­rine, from Rus- sia. It is set to in­duct its largest ship, the 44,000- tonne air­craft car­rier INS Vikra­ma­ditya, from Rus­sia this year. For­mer eastern naval com­man­der Vice Ad­mi­ral A. K. Singh ( re­tired) slams the Govern­ment’s ap­a­thy. “The Navy is us­ing ves­sels long past their ser­vice years of 25 and 30 years as the Govern­ment doesn’t sanc­tion new ones in time,” he says.

Age­ing ships alone do not ex­plain other ac­ci­dents and col­li­sions. Naval of­fi­cials say there are a se­ries of smaller mishaps that point to Stan­dard Op­er­at­ing Pro­ce­dures ( SOPs) not be­ing fol­lowed. The Au­gust 2009 col­li­sion of the mis­sile corvette INS Kuthar with de­stroyer INS Ran­vir in the Bay of Ben­gal was traced to a rud­der fail­ure, com­pounded by a flawed ma­noeu­vre. In 2010, three crew men on de­stroyer INS Mum­bai were in­stantly killed when an AK- 630 Gatling gun went off as safety drills were not fol­lowed. The sub­ma­rine INS Sind­hughosh col­lided twice; once with a fish­ing boat in 2006 and once with a mer­chant ves­sel in 2007. “The Navy has put in place mul­ti­ple, in­sti­tu­tion­alised meth­ods and pro­ce­dures to­wards en­hanc­ing safety,” a naval spokesper­son said, re­spond­ing to a ques­tion­naire. “Each type of unit has a Safety Class Au­thor­ity that over­sees safety as­pects and guides safety re­lated pol­icy. On com­ple­tion of ma­jor re­pairs, all units un­dergo a safety au­dit, prior to join­ing re­spec­tive for­ma­tions.”

“The prob­lem is that we aren’t em­pow­er­ing our young of­fi­cers,” ad­mits a se­nior naval of­fi­cer, echo­ing what the US navy blog­ger said. Ex­pe­ri­ence lev­els have suf­fered as there is a mis­match be­tween num­ber of war­ships and of­fi­cers. Each year, 60 cap­tain- ranked of­fi­cers vie for the com­mand of 15- 20 war­ships. “A decade ago, a cap­tain got two 18- month- long sea tenures, al­low­ing him to build up ex­pe­ri­ence; to­day he gets only one,” says a naval of­fi­cer.

In 2006, then de­fence min­is­ter Pranab Mukher­jee pulled the Navy brass up af­ter a spate of ac­ci­dents. Ac­ci­dents have how­ever con­tin­ued de­spite ‘ safety stand down’ pro­ce­dures per­formed on all war­ships ev­ery quar­ter, and court-mar­tials. INS Sind­hu­rak­shak’s tragic loss is an ur­gent wake- up call.

MIS­SILE CORVETTE

INS KUTHAR ( RIGHT) COL­LIDES WITH DE­STROYER

INS RAN­VIR IN THE BAYOFBENGALIN

AUGUST2009

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