Tuesday 4 March 2014

That Sinking Feeling

New carrier Vikamaditya

The Indian Navy is a curious beast.

Now, as a glance at the map will show, the southern half of India thrusts out like a tapering finger into the ocean, the tip almost touching Sri Lanka. It is, therefore, a maritime nation, and with several major and a great many minor ports, its commerce lifeline is by the sea.

Of course, there is a very large chunk of India with land borders, but as far as overland trade goes, this country has almost zero. To the west is Pakistan, and with Pakistan India has a grand total of one road crossing – at Wagah in Punjab – and a railway service which runs only when the respective governments are in a good mood. To the north are the Himalayas, and across them the Tibetan plateau. Even if India didn’t have a running sore of a border dispute with China, the practical limitations of trade routes across the hills seal off that as well. And to the east are Bangladesh and Myanmar – corrupt, poor, embroiled in strife, and with infrastructure crumbling on both sides of the border.

So, yes, the only viable trade routes remaining are from the sea.

Considering this, you would imagine that the Navy would be very important in India’s strategic calculations. Perhaps not quite as important as the other two services, but at least with a clear operational role and trained and equipped to fulfil it.

You would be wrong.

The Indian Navy is, basically, a ceremonial force. It’s just about capable of green water operations. That’s not something to condemn, actually, because a green water navy can be perfectly good at its job if it’s clear what the job is and is focussed on it.

But the Indian Navy seems not to have the slightest idea what role it’s supposed to fulfil. Is it basically a coastal defence force, a glorified coast guard committed to defending against attacks by enemy military forces rather than fighting smugglers? Or is it a blue-water force in the making, capable of projecting power over oceanic distances? And if it is the latter, just what kind of strategic objective would be fulfilled by building a blue-water navy capable of projecting force over said oceanic distances? What Indian interests could possibly be served by owning the ocean off, say, South Africa or Tasmania?

There doesn’t seem to be an answer.

If anything, the Indian Navy is marked by a strange vaingloriousness for a ceremonial force. It has three aircraft carriers at the moment – an ancient British light carrier which had fought at the Malvinas in 1982; a refurbished Russian medium carrier; and a third indigenous medium carrier in building. I’ve asked in the past just what these floating airfields are supposed to achieve in case of a war in the Indian situation that can’t be done more easily and cheaply with land based aeroplanes, and I never found an answer. They are prestige platforms, nothing more. [And that means, as well, that in case of an actual war, the carriers are almost certainly not going to be used. The possible loss of a prestige weapon is a major loss of prestige.]

Even in the past, the Navy has never exactly covered itself in glory. It had no role to play, of course, in the Himalayan wars of 1947 and 1999 (against Pakistan) and 1962 (against China). It sat out the 1965 war against Pakistan in harbour, apparently because the government of the time was afraid that to risk a sinking would affect national morale.

Only in 1971 did it emerge from harbour, and even then its success was mixed. In the East, the then lone aircraft carrier, the old INS Vikrant (the new carrier being built is the new INS Vikrant) was kept hidden in the Andaman Islands out of fear of the Pakistani Navy’s sole long range submarine, the PNS Ghazi. The Ghazi, however, obligingly blew herself up on the eve of hostilities while trying to mine Visakhapatnam harbour, freeing the Vikrant to launch a few air raids on the East Pakistani ports of Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong. These too were prestige raids, since the Air Force had knocked out the Pakistani Air Force and was already bombarding those towns.

Meanwhile, missile boats from the Western fleet made a daring night time assault on Pakistan’s Karachi harbour and sank a couple of ships, but after the frigate Khukri was sunk by the Pakistani submarine Hangor, the Navy spent the rest of the war staying out of the way.

The recent scrapes the Navy has been in have involved “anti-piracy” operations off the Somali coast and the Gulf of Aden in 2008, in the course of which it sank a trawler it thought was a pirate mother ship . Meanwhile, terrorists from Pakistan hijacked a trawler off the coast of India, immediately after a major naval exercise to boot, sailed it to Bombay and then launched an amphibious assault which shut down the city for three days...all without the Navy being able to even detect, let alone stop, it.

So, it would be accurate to say that the Navy is more a decorative force than a practical one. As such, it does not need the same level of professional leadership as the air force or navy, and it does not, emphatically, have the same level of professional leadership. Unlike the other two services, the naval top brass is comparatively politicised. The nadir was reached in 2000 when the then chief, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, was dismissed from service by the then Hindunazi government acting on the complaints of one of his subordinates. Among the charges against Bhagwat was that his wife was an alleged “card-carrying Communist”. According to the media, one major reason for Bhagwat’s dismissal was that he was pressing for indigenous design and production of equipment rather than go for expensive foreign purchases which didn’t ultimately do the job they were supposed to do.

 Not only is the Indian Navy, indecisive of its role, improperly equipped for any realistic situation it can be expected to handle, and politicised at the top, it is also appallingly accident prone. Especially in the last few months, the accident graph seems to have shot through the roof. It started with the sinking of a submarine in Bombay harbour, which blew up and went down with the loss of eighteen sailors. Since then, the navy has had several instances of ships running aground, fires, and one instance where a ship had actually shelled the Western Command naval headquarters by accident. And in the latest incident, another submarine had a fire while under water, resulting in the deaths of two officers and injuries to seven sailors. It’s anyone’s guess whether they’ll ever return to active duty. [A list of some of the recent accidents is here.]

A most curious thing happened as a sequel. The naval chief, Admiral DK Joshi, at once quit, assuming “moral responsibility” for the spate of accidents. Just how this resignation is supposed to help, I’m sure I can’t tell you. Will ships stop catching fire or running aground just because the top man quit? Obviously not. So just what did this resignation achieve, except get Joshi out of the line of fire before even more accidents happen?

Even more curious was the government’s response. The Defence Minister, a political hack named AK Anthony who has no military background, accepted Joshi’s resignation immediately and with suspicious haste. At the moment of writing, the navy has an interim chief; a replacement for Joshi is yet to be named.

Why was the government in such a hurry? This is speculation, of course, but I believe the answer lies in the fact that elections are imminent – elections which the current Congress Party-led regime is almost certain to lose. The last army chief, General VK Singh (check that link for some interesting information) has just entered politics on the side of the Hindunazis, and asked all veterans to do the same. I think that the Congress may well try and put up Joshi as a candidate to show that the military is not against it, and hopefully draw away some support from the Hindunazis.

And meanwhile, the navy will keep getting that sinking feeling.

Ex-Admial DK Joshi on the carrier Viraat

Note: I will be writing about the situation in Ukraine – which I am watching closely – in a couple of days. No prizes for guessing on which side my sympathies lie. So far, by the way, every prediction I have made about it has come true; there has been no fighting, the Ukrainian armed forces have fallen apart, the Europeans have balked at taking any actual action against Russia, and Obama’s threats have been treated with the contempt they deserve. The only remaining predictions pertain to the situation if Russia makes a full-scale invasion of Ukraine – and that is almost certainly not going to be necessary. Anyway, watch this space.


  1. they might want to rethink their naval defense with the upcoming turmoil ...

  2. and i thought their navy was really dangerous.

  3. Bill, As always, very interesting. BTW, love your new photo, you handsome devil! Also, speaking of having that sinking feeling, that must be about what Obama and the dreary Kerry are having about now. Looking forward to your upcoming post.

  4. Those poor sailors and junior officers. I feel for them as they seem to have little or no support from the higher ups in the chain of command and seem to be ignored or, at best, as an after thought by the politicians running the show.
    Looking forward to your Ukraine analysis Bill. Great new photo also.


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