This boy came into my life as a young cadet at a volleyball court in the navy’s engineering college at Lonavla… My dream of my boy living my dream to commission a new destroyer better than me was shattered by a valve that drenched him in CO2. The valve that came lose to suffocate and kill Kuntal Wadhwa could be a creation of bad design, shoddy workmanship, inadequate quality assurance, unwieldy procurement methods, callous system, inordinate shipbuilding delays, unwise utilisation of funds or even downright corruption. Or it could be a combination of all these. It could even be fate. What do I tell Sandhya? Kuntal could not giggle them off?” -Capt. Ramesh Babu, IN (retd), writing about Commander Kuntal Wadhwa, chief engineer-designate, INS Kolkata, who was killed on 07 March 2014, in a piece titled ‘Suffocated Giggle’.
One cannot but help beginning this column with this excerpt. This accident occurred nine days after Admiral D.K. Joshi resigned as the Navy Chief upholding moral responsibility, on February 26, when a fire broke out on board submarine INS Sindhuratna around 40 nautical miles off Mumbai, killing two officers and injuring seven sailors.
On March 14, 2014, Supreme Court agreed to hear a PIL seeking a courtmonitored probe into the fire on board INS Sindhuratna and a compensation of Rs 1 crore each for relatives of the two officers who died. Claiming that the officers died allegedly due to technical and maintenance failure of batteries in the submarine, the petition sought a courtmonitored probe to ascertain whether there was a timely provision of batteries and other safety equipment and also sought a direction for producing the communication between the Defence Ministry and the Navy relating to the maintenance of submarines, particularly Sindhuratna.
Former Naval Chief Admiral Sushil Kumar speaking to me stated: “There has always been an uneasy relationship between the armed forces and the defence ministry. The crisis in the Indian Navy brought out two contrasting perspectives. On one hand there is the binding ethos of our armed forces, and on the other is the disconnect between the ministry of defence and the armed forces, which are its constitutional responsibility. Admiral D K Joshi’s decision to resign was an imperative of honour. Accepting moral responsibility for the operational mishaps that occurred during his tenure was laudable, but whether he needed to put in his papers is debatable. By accepting the navy chief ‘s resignation with surprising readiness, defence minister A K Antony appears to have not only distanced himself from the problems that plague the navy but has passed the buck down the line.”
Interacting with me, Bharat Verma, Editor, Indian Defence Review stated: “Antony, possibly the longest serving and the most ‘honest’ defence minister will probably be remembered for the unprecedented number of scams that happened during his tenure and nothing more. For all the professed honesty that Antony touted on taking over, should have made him clean up the rampant existing corruption in defence public sector units and ministry of defence. Under his leadership it appears that the primary national objective is not to add military capabilities to ensure the nation’s security but to find ways to guarantee maximum kickbacks. Antony is unable to control the babus in the MoD and the result is unbridled corruption inside the ministry. The Defence Procurement Procedure created by Antony and the babus of the MoD and often claimed by them to have been improved, continues to be a huge obstacle course in procurement, which is difficult to fulfill by foreign vendors.”
It is not only the political leadership, which is apathetic to defence preparedness, but bureaucracy too. Forget about sanctioning and expeditingacquisitions, there was the great bogey of an attempt at a military coup. “Antony has not ordered a retired Supreme Court judge to investigate the ‘fake military coup’ that former Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma tried to create, to malign the Indian Army. Responsibilities need to be fixed as to why the MoD was hell bent on demoralising its own army”, reminded Bharat Verma.
Military might and firepower levels of all three services are at an all time low. The holdings of India Air Force (IAF) are far from sufficient to tackle the emerging China-Pakistan combo on multiple fronts. A parliamentary panel was informed that IAF is critically deficient of trainer aircraft and simulators, fighter squadrons are depleting and some airfields do not have certain landing facilities. The IAF has 34 fighter squadrons against the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons and the number is likely to reduce further to 31 during the 12th plan period. Induction of new or upgraded aircraft has not been commensurate with the de-induction. IAF requires 181 Basic Trainer Aircraft (BTA), 85 Intermediate Jet Trainers (IJT) and 106 Advanced Jet Trainers (AJT). It does not have a Basic Trainer Aircraft as HPT-32 fleet has been grounded after a fatal accident on July 31, 2009.
The submarine fleet of the Indian Navy is at an alarmingly low tally which not only gravely affects its underwater warfare capability, but is also taking a toll of officers and sailors lives in peacetime. Over the past eight years or so the Navy’s operational commitments have substantially increased owing to terrorism and piracy on high seas and more so after the 26/11 Pakistani terrorist attack on Mumbai. With the extent and categories of threats India faces, an effective full- strength submarine arm is of vital importance.
For the Army there has been no purchase of artillery guns for 27 years since the Bofors scam. Anti-aircraft guns are ancient. 333 infantry battalions have not been modernised and seriously lack mobility and sufficient firepower. Defects found in 5.56 INSAS rifles necessitate their replacement.
Following former Army Chief Gen V.K. Singh’s letter to the Prime Minister on critical deficiencies in equipment much concern was expressed by the parliamentary committee. In its report tabled in Parliament the panel stated: “The committee is alarmed over the way the deficiencies have been allowed to persist leading to criticality in the Army aviation and ammunition in the country. The issue of critical gaps should be addressed without any further delay”. The report said acquisitions should be put on the fast track mode. “There are huge gaps between the sanctioned and the existing machines with Army aviation. If the sanctioned and the existing strength are compared, there is shortage of 18 Cheetah, 76 advanced light helicopter (ALH) and 60 ALH with weapons system integrated (WSI).
Tank ammunition is another critical area having shortages… Another area affecting the Army preparedness is requirement of guns for our Army. The up gradation of the Bofors guns is taking a long time. The committee disapproves of the way the deficiency of gun systems has been allowed to reach to the criticality,” the report noted. It also stated how blacklisting of certain companies like the Rhinemetals Air defence and Israel Military Industries had hit the acquisition of air defence guns and tank ammunition. The report says, “The committee deplores the way the ministry has dealt with the issue of weight of Bullet-proof jackets (BPJs) whereby it has been stated that the soldier is not required to wear the BPJs at its maximum weight under low threat levels.” Cross border terrorism by Pakistan not only continues, with unprecedented kind of attacks in 2013, but is expected to increase with the drawdown of US coalition forces from Afghanistan this year. That only raises the possibility of another war.
Lt Col Anil Bhat is the Associate Editor