Kargil Vijay Diwas – Five Questions for the Silent Service
The focus here is on the the Indian Navy (IN), which since Kargil, has seen spectacular peacetime losses.
(This story was first published on 27 September, 2019. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives to mark/on the occasion of Kargil Vijay Diwas.)
Kargil Vijay Diwas brings up the 20-year milestone of the Kargil War. The aggression that initially went undetected – trivialised as a ‘minor incursion’, that then took two weeks to wake up to, and then took over two months to neutralise – came at a huge cost and sacrifice of 474 military personnel (another 1,109 wounded).
The Kargil Review Committee (KRC) set up in the wake of Vijay Diwas rendered a comprehensive account of the war and made significant recommendations.
While we continue to celebrate our heroes who turned around an almost impossible situation, the harsh reality that exists today, even 20 years later, is the abject inaction on the KRC’s recommendations to prevent a recurrence.
The focus here is on the ‘Men in White,’ the Indian Navy (IN), which since Kargil, has seen spectacular peacetime losses like the INS Prahar, that sank at sea after a collision, or recent incidents of fire on aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, and flooding on nuclear submarine Arihant.
Five Questions for the Silent Service
On Kargil Vijay Diwas, I have a few questions for our Men in White who played a small but significant role in that victory. As always, such questions are best addressed in the spirit of ‘let’s attack the problem’ rather than ‘let’s attack the messenger.’
1. Do We Have a Number-Based Force Structure or a Capability-Based One?
Having two operational carriers, maybe three, sounds very lofty. Have we accounted for the huge number of ships, helicopters, submarines and logistical tail that accompanies this monster and how it will chew up your capital budget? We recently had the Navy chief stating that the next indigenous aircraft carrier may come with electric/hybrid propulsion.
This came not a day too late from another ‘milestone’ that was celebrated via Twitter – HAL handing over the first of 8 Chetaks to the Indian Navy. For the record, we are the only nation who buys these anachronisms in this day and age – and celebrates it on official media handles.
2. What Is the State of Our Armament, Particularly Naval Air Armament?
At the last appraisal, CAG had rendered a scathing indictment of naval aviation and put on record the abysmal state of armament, particularly air armament. Have we outsourced air strikes to the IAF altogether? If no, how can we get a good night’s sleep with such gaping voids, even as we continue to add carriers to our fleet?
3. What Is the State of Our Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Damage Control and Fire Fighting (NBCD) in Real Terms?
For a force that has not been tested out at sea in a real war, it is easy to pour water over such fears. But bear in mind the peacetime losses suffered on account of faulty NBCD, both at the design and implementation level. Do hatches and doors seal shut like they are meant to? Is NBCD State 1 Condition Zulu implementable across the fleet?
4. Do Our Ships Conform in Letter & Spirit to Stability Criteria That Are Laid Down During Specification Stage?
Apart from a brief overview during Sub-Lieutenant’s courses and Pre-Commissioning Training (PCT), the officers who man the bridge (equivalent of cockpit for aviators) are hardly trained or equipped with knowledge or tools to compute the ship’s stability. These are the people who are eventually held responsible for ‘accepting’ newly-commissioned ships or those out of refit. Have these stability criteria been tested from time to time, say, through the occasional ‘inclining experiment’?
If yes, what explains the keeling over of INS Betwa and the sinking of Prahar, Agray and Vindhyagiri? If no, isn’t that a serious matter? Are we waiting for the first shots of war to expose these vulnerabilities?
5. Has the Air Anti-Submarine Warfare (Air ASW) Capability of the IN Been Rendered a ‘Force in Being’ Today?
With a handful of vintage Seakings (with obsolete weapons), Kamov-28 helicopters (just one squadron, returning from an upgrade that comes too little too late), and 24 MH-60 Romeos to come (only a third of which may ever line up on the frontline), how do we intend to give 24/7 ASW cover to a blue water navy?
Any nation serious about its naval capabilities either inducts potent submarines and ASW capability, or builds alliances to plug the gaps.
We seem to be straddling a middle path that invests in bottomless pits that devour the lion’s share of capital outlay, while reserving the small change for assets that will win us real wars. Is this the right approach?
As the closing lines of KRC report reads: “There is both comfort and danger in clinging to any long-established status quo.”
Such a status quo has been prevailing in the ‘silent service’ for close to four decades. It is easy to lose focus on long-term capability-building versus measures that provide instant gratification (such as clearing lower decks for International Yoga Day). Then again, how all this soft and hard power comes together during a time of crisis should not be left a burden to be carried on the back of the indomitable Indian soldier, sailor or air warrior.
The sea, like the icy heights of Kargil, is an unforgiving medium. And like the infiltrators of Kargil, many threats can remain hidden from view until it’s too late. Some of these threats may emanate from our own delusions of intoning ‘blue water navy’ ad infinitum while doing precious little to develop real capabilities and get the best bang for our buck.
To revisit some of these threats would be an apt tribute to Kargil’s heroes.
(Capt KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and blogs at www.kaypius.com. He can be reached at @realkaypius. He has flown over 24 types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft and holds a dual ATP rating on the Bell 412 and AW139 helicopters. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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