It is alleged that its chief Vice-Admiral SK Sinha has a chequered service career and the conditions at Mumbai harbour are said to be among the worst in the world.
India's Kilo-class subs were inducted over 30 years ago. The life expectancy of these vessels is around 15 to 18 years, including 10 years after retrofitting. Using them beyond their shelf-life has resulted in parts constantly needing repairs. Even in procuring spares, the government has not acted with urgency. Within defence circles, it is widelyacknowledged that submarines are in urgent need of replacement batteries. India's Kilo-class subs are diesel-electric models and the battery is their heart.
Experts said timely replacement of fresh batteries - even indigenously sourced ones - will make them reasonably seaworthy.
Such avoidable mistakes have resulted in India's Kilo-class fleet getting depleted. India's fleet strength is now down to the level of, say, Pakistan. India, in all, has 17 submarines. To put things in perspective, China has 70. "We had a total of 12 to 13 (Kilo-class) submarines," said PK Ghosh, senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation. "With these accidents, we have come down to Pakistan's level, which is about five to six subs. And with the Scorpene deal going nowhere, we are ill-equipped operationally."
It is not just the subs where the navy's problem lies. Its reconnaissance aircraft have been around for 30 years. All of its anti-submarine aircraft were set to be decommissioned years ago. But with no replacement in sight, the navy has been forced to flog whatever is left of them.
The only silver lining is the indigenously built INS Vikrant, but that will not be ready for induction till 2018.
Sources said it is not that the defence ministry does not have the budget to fix these problems — the Navy gets 18 per cent of the defence budget, yet, the ministry has dithered on allocating these funds. Then there is the shortage of officers. The armed forces are short of around 13,000 officers, of which 1,400 are in the Navy. There has been no urgency in filling these posts. Analysts hold the bureaucracy responsible for postponing key decision-making. They also point to the fact that this period of inactivity has coincided with the tenure of the country's longest serving defence minister AK Antony (2006-2014).
Experts said the bureaucracy and Antony are both worried only about remaining without taint, and put off taking any decisions. As a result, the Navy has been forced to get by with quick fixes, even at the risk of putting the lives of its highlytrained officers in danger.
Sources said that in the recent months, the navy put in two urgent requests — immediate dredging of the Mumbai harbour, and procuring a new set of batteries. Neither was sanctioned. As a result, a submarine ran aground last month at the harbour. While there were no casualties in that incident, the Sindhuratna fire claimed two officers.
Unquiet on the western front
"Mumbai is a very congested harbour and many accidents have happened within the harbour," said retired Admiral Arun Prakash. A serving commander said the explosions on board INS Sindhurakshak last year caused a fire in a submarine berthed next to it. Other sources confirmed to this newspaper that that submarine was Sindhuratna. Though a full-fledged base is ready in Karwar down the coast, officers are reluctant to move base, chiefly because Karwar lacks amenities they have come to take for granted in Mumbai. The navy is even looking at acquiring land in Elephanta to berth smaller vessels.
"Shifting to Karwar has been delayed over the years," said Admiral Prakash. "There is a dearth of maintenance facilities in Karwar. These accidents will accelerate the process of shifting base to Karwar, whether officers like it or not."
Admiral Joshi's resignation has not only given the navy the moral high ground, but it has also united officers against the civilian leadership. Sources said Joshi had, some months ago, initiated a proper correspondence with the government on the quality of submarines and procurement of spares.
"The government delayed the process and when disaster struck it shifted the blame to the navy," said a top officer. "Admiral Joshi is a loyal soldier and was not scared to quit. But it is time for the people in the ministry to be held accountable."
Senior BJP leader and defence minister in the NDA government Jaswant Singh — himself an ex-serviceman — said the blame entirely rested at the defence minister's doorstep. Experts said the hurried manner with which Joshi's resignation was accepted smacked of political motives.
"I directly blame the PM and the defence minister for the current scenario, which is directly impacting morale of the personnel," said Singh. "The defence minister's statements only betray the casual manner in which he sees the navy chief and the country's security. One more thing I would like to know from the minister is whether he discussed Joshi's resignation with the President, the supreme commander of the armed forces, and the Cabinet Committee on Security."
SK Sinha, the head of the Western Naval Command, is the seniormost vice-admiral around and is set to retire in August. In case he becomes the naval chief, he would get a tenure of two years.
But there is a lot of opposition to Sinha's candidature. Sources said those close to retired admiral Nirmal Verma have already rallied against Sinha. Verma's brother Bimal is also a vice-admiral. There are already murmurs demanding that Sinha also should immediately resign, taking moral responsibility like Joshi.
"When the time to promote Sinha to the viceadmiral rank came, Admiral Nirmal Verma pointed out that he had adverse remarks in one annual confidential report," said a source who did not want to be named. "Sinha then went in appeal to Antony, who expunged the remark and promoted him to vice-admiral. When it was time for Sinha to be given a command, Verma again refused. But since his tenure was drawing to a close, the opinion of his successor DK Joshi was sought. He recommended Sinha to head the western naval command in Mumbai."
Sources added Sinha is unlikely to get the post, and it will be interesting to see if he would be willing to continue under a junior officer. But as a source pointed out quite cynically, "The navy's state will soon be forgotten. Soon, it will all be about who becomes the next chief."