Admiral DK Joshi, chief of naval staff for the Indian Navy, has resigned in response to the latest submarine accident which is the latest incident to drag the poor safety record of the navy into limelight. He has been replaced by Vice Admiral RK Dhowan. Early Wednesday morning, a fire broke out in the Russian built INS Sindhuratna that was docked off of the coast of Mumbai for an exercise. 94 crew members were evacuated safely. Seven crew members have been reported to have suffered from severe suffocation, of which only five were airlifted to seek immediate medical help after being found unconscious. Twelve hours after the incident, two crew members were initially reported to be missing and several hours later were confirmed to be dead.
The smoke from the fire which is believed to have begun in the battery compartment of the submarine is toxic. The exact reason for the fire has still not been determined. It will be several hours before the smoke has completely cleared off and investigators can gain access to every compartment of the submarine. Rahul Sinha, a commander for the Indian Navy and spokesman has stated that the source of the fire has been cleared away. Despite the fire, the INS Sindhuratna has been declared sea ready and will not be decommissioned.
Indian Navy Admiral Joshi who claimed “moral responsibility for the accidents and incidents which have taken place during the past few months,” in his resignation statement offered a rare and honest assessment of the reputation of the Indian Navy for safety, which has been mired in controversy for a poor record. Six months ago, an explosion on board another submarine, the INS Sindhurakshak claimed eighteen lives before it crashed into a Mumbai dock and damaged another submarine the INS Sindhughosh. This accident was after a $69 million upgrade and retrofit in Russia before it was returned to India’s shores that had followed a minor fire in 2010. The sinking of the INS Sindhurakshak last year has already reduced the striking power of the Indian Navy and this incident is the most serious maritime loss since the 1971 war with Pakistan.
Almost a month ago, the INS Sindhughosh had narrowly escaped danger when it tried to turn around after entering the Mumbai harbor during low-tide. Back in 2008, this submarine had collided with a merchant navy vehicle and had sustained minor injuries. India operates about a dozen submarines, many of which require urgent upgrades. Delays in procurement have only made the situation worse and India’s domestic arms industry suffers from decades of poor growth. Older submarines are often retired without replacement or repair. The top brass in the military and lawmakers are largely silent about this trend, despite the fact that India is the world’s largest importer of weapons.
Many Indian defense officials have claimed poor training standards for new naval cadets joining the Indian Navy as a root cause for many of the recent mishaps. These accidents often have fatal consequences. These young officers are not given adequate training time on smaller vessels before they begin working on larger vessels such as the INS Sindhuratna which is a kilo class vessel that was commissioned in 1980. The Indian Navy has participated in training exercises with many countries including the United States. Hopefully when a member of the country’s military top brass such as the admiral of the Indian Navy resigns, the important issues such as a poor safety record will be dealt with quickly.
By Unni K. Nair