By Vishnu Makhijani, New Delhi, Feb 27 IANS | 10 months ago

The government should also shoulder "responsibility" for a series of accidents involving Indian Navy vessels and should be more "involved" in the functioning of the armed forces, noted strategic experts said Thursday, a day after navy chief Admiral D.K. Joshi resigned following the latest mishap, this time involving a submarine, that claimed two lives and left seven injured.

They also thought that "some good" could come out of the episode if the defence ministry introspected on the corrective measures required - for instance, why was the Indian Navy operating submarines that were a quarter-of-a-century old.

"The ministry should also take responsibility and take remedial measures," former Indian Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash told IANS by phone from Goa, calling for the "greater involvement" in the functioning of the armed forces.

"At the moment, they are quite far apart. In spite of the recommendations of various task forces, their dealings are only through letters and files," he noted.

"In spite of repeated suggestions for integrations, the bureaucracy has steadfastly refused to act," Admiral Arun Prakash said, adding: "They are treated as two different bodies as the government doesn't want to get involved."

He also felt that the entire episode could have been "handled better".

"It could certainly have been handled better if the ministry was involved in the functioning of the armed forces," Admiral Arun Prakash said, responding to criticism that the defence ministry acted with undue haste in accepting Admiral Joshi's resignation.

"If the chief resigns, it suits everyone," he added.

However, Defence Minister A.K. Antony on Wednesday defended the ministry's action, saying Admiral Joshi personally requested that his resignation be accepted and "I consented".

"I am very sad about the whole development. Admiral Joshi met me yesterday (Wednesday) and handed over the resignation letter and requested me to accept the letter with immediate effect, so I consented to it," Antony told the media.

"He (the navy chief) was disturbed by the whole incident and claimed responsibility for the incident," Antony added.

On Wednesday, the submarine, INS Sindhuratna, was undergoing sea trials 50 nautical miles (80 km) off Mumbai in the Arabian Sea when smoke suddenly filled one of its compartments.

Seven sailors were airlifted for treatment to the INHS Asvini naval hospital in south Mumbai, while two officers were reported missing. Their deaths were confirmed Thursday.

While this is the first time an Indian Navy chief has quit, the government on December 30, 1998, sacked Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat for airing his differences with the defence ministry in public.

Speaking about the future, Admiral Arun Prakash called for a thorough probe into the spate of recent accidents to discover whether there was a "common thread" or they were a "series of unfortunate mishaps".

"The immediate task is to choose a new chief and then hold a wide ranging examination. Is anything really wrong, is there a common thread or are they just a series of unfortunate mishaps. Is there a cause and how do we fix it," he said.

On Wednesday evening, the defence ministry said the navy vice chief, Vice Admiral R.K. Dhowan will discharge the functions of the chief till a regular appointment of a new chief is made.

Rear Admiral (retd.) Raja Menon wondered whether the defence minister would bring about accountability, adding that ties between the services and the ministry had to improve.

"The question is, does he want to put in place a system of holding accountability," he posed while speaking to IANS.

"The relationship between the services and the government has to improve," he added.

Admiral Menon also hoped that Admiral Joshi's resignation "will lead to introspection. This was an act of despair and it would be a great tragedy if he just goes away on pension and is forgotten".

"If the government will only look at all the reports (on defence reforms and greater coordination), then some good will come of this," he added.

Admiral Menon also questioned the tardy pace of the armed forces' modernissation programmes.

"There is also the question of why we are running such old submarines. This one was 26 years old. This is because we have a defence minister that took six years to finalise the Scorpene project and once having done so, delayed it another three years. That's a delay of nine years and is certainly not acceptable," he contended.

India inked an accord in 2005 to produce at Mumbai's Mazagon Docks Limited six French-Spanish Scorpene diesel-electric submarines, with an option for six more, under the transfer of technology route. Nine years later, not a single submarine has taken to the water.

C. Uday Bhaskar, distinguished fellow at the Society for Policy Studies, said Admiral Joshi's action was "in keeping with the highest tradition of the services where, when things to wrong, the top man takes it on the chin".

"At the same time, does the buck stop there? There are many issues on which the ministry has developed cold feet. For 20 years, we have been saying we need new submarines."

"The health of the ministry is not receiving the attention it should, and so we have eruptions like this. This is an opportunity for a holistic review of all that ails the military," Bhaskar contended.

The Indian Navy has been hit by a series of accidents in the past few months, raising concerns about its safety standards and operational preparedness.

The biggest accident involved fire on the INS Sindhurakshak and the subsequent sinking of the submarine in the Mumbai harbour Aug 14 last year. All the 18 personnel who were on board were killed.

Defence Minister Antony had, earlier this month, expressed concern over the accidents.

Antony said that even one accident was "serious" for him and there was need to strictly follow standard operating procedures and draw proper lessons.

(Vishnu Makhijani can be contacted at vishnu.makhijani@ians.in)

(Posted on 27-02-2014)

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