The Indian Navy in a Royal Mess


Indian Navy Submarine Sindhuratna (S59) was berthed alongside Sindhurakshak (S63) on 14 Aug 2013. It very narrowly missed being put out of commission that fiery night. On 26 Feb 2014, it very narrowly missed its appointment with the Davy Jones Locker. While the sub escaped in one piece, there were a few unfortunate victims. Two Officers are dead, a half a dozen sailors injured and the Navy’s Top Boss has abandoned his South Block Office in Delhi.

In my last post I had mentioned that the Navy (including the Army and Air Force) continue to be run in a whimsical manner by two Bollywood Terms “Chalta Hai” and “Ram Bharose”.

In the last six months, the Navy has not changed at all. The safety stand-down in the immediate aftermath of the S63 incident has not produced the desired results. It was not meant to. For if it had, heads would not be rolling.

The Navy is now in “Mayday” status. A weak and dishonest political leadership begets a frail and spineless military leadership. Cover up is the norm. Statements like – Pass your time buddy, I’m here another 3 months, Let the next bugger sort it out is the new standard operating procedure.

The Chiefs have a direct responsibility for the welfare and safety of the men under them. Pray, why are old systems and platforms still in use. Why is the Air Force still flying the MiG-21? What is the Navy doing with a 50 year old carrier that spends more time in port than at sea? What happened to Gen VK Singh’s letter to the PM about shortages in the Army?

These are serious issues. Why jeopardise the lives of soldiers and colleagues in peace time? The notorious flailing by Gen VP ‘Kargil’ Malik – “we will fight with whatever we have” was actually a one-way ticket for our brave jawans. Who in the Army Headquarters, was taken to task for the shortages. None. But the Brigadiers and Colonels in the field got it in the neck.

The Navy is in a Royal Mess. The other two Services are not far behind. The current culture of this Blue Water Navy is destroying the fleet in Brown Waters without having fired a single shot since 1971.

There is no doubt that the responsibility lies with the Officer Cadre, especially the Flag Rank. While serious issues with the political leadership can be sorted out when the Navy gets its dream four star Admiral one day, the in-house spring cleaning can start right away.

The More Privileged: It is well known that certain prized appointments are the sole preserve of the kith and kin of Senior Officers. ADC’s, Flag Lts and Staff Officers of Admirals move in directly as Commanding Officers without have done sufficient sea time as Lt Cdrs or as Executive Officers. Most of these Officers are in Command for 365 days and are back to serving their bosses only to make way for the next lot of personal staff. Where is the loyalty to the sailor or the ship? In this regard the Navy can learn from the Merchant Navy, where to become a Master; the officer would have done a tour as a Chief Officer. None of the present day three star C-in-C’s have been Executive Officers of ships. Not surprisingly, almost all have poor leadership qualities.

New vs Old: The Navy has the latest ships and also some of the oldest in its inventory. Commonsense demands that the intelligent and more experienced hands run old ships. Instead, what the Navy does is to put those in Command of these ships who are lower in merit and the guy who “dared to request for being wet listed”. Old ships and obsolete engines cannot be run by Officers just seeking to mark time. It requires patience and dedication followed by rewards. None of those who Command these miserable ships get promoted to the next rank.

Lessons Learnt: The Navy almost never seems to learn its lessons. Adm DK Joshi proudly announced at the Sindhurakshak press conference that the Board of Enquiry would be completed and findings disclosed in 4 weeks. Has anyone heard of them? Have the procedures been revised and implemented? Are there any auditors to check? Quite unlikely. Therefore, we get to hear of incidents at regular intervals and the poor tax payers get to foot the expensive bills of the insufficiently trained crews.

Incompetent Dockyards: The technical leadership and the naval dockyards are in strong competition with the DRDO for ineptness and inefficiency. The Sindhuratna had just been refitted and repaired at the Naval Dockyard. Were all systems given the “Green” before she was pushed out to sea for trials? It was most probably a hurried job with a wily Admiral breathing down the submarine Captain’s neck. Despite a massive overtime bill for dockyard employees, almost no refits are completed to the satisfaction of ships’ Captains. The dockyards need a complete overhaul.

Rat Race: Hardly had the CNS resignation news been flashed across the TV screens, the three star stalwarts started promoting themselves. Some used their proximity to defence correspondents with one dumb journalist even stating that a particular C-in-C was not only a very fine officer but also a very intelligent one. The Navy has such officers even at the Sub-Lieutenant level. But the Service, unfortunately, at this moment needs a Leader. The root cause of the “lineage” and “line of succession” as some call it, is the date of promotion and the date of birth that decides the date of retirement. While nothing much can be done about the date of birth, the promotion depends entirely upon a piece of paper called the Annual Confidential Report. So, given the right connections, it is quite possible for a grounded land lubber to move into the flag rank seamlessly. There are many Admirals who have less than 10 years of sea time in a service spanning 40 years. The Navy would do well to split itself into two groups – “Wet” and “Dry”. The Wet Group (at least 20 years at sea) could be expected to occupy all the star billets. The Dry Group (less than 10 years) could hope to go up to Commodore level at best and be responsible all activities in support of the Fleet. Merit should precede seniority at all levels. If this is done, the ubiquitous publication called Navy List will cease to be the most popular book in the Indian Navy.

Admiral DK Joshi should be commended for having called it a day in the middle of his innings. He has set a high standard. It’s a clear hint for the other Senior Officers to follow suit. If one can’t run the Navy, please don’t run it. Admirals must remember – their mistakes and pusillanimity costs lives and ships.

Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way.

Read other posts by Shailesh Ranade:

(Shailesh Ranade is a Guest Blogger with the Canary Trap. The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Canary Trap or any employee thereof)