Indian Navy's 2-Star Submarine Chief Faces Veteran Fire

As Defence Minister A.K. Antony continues to be the object of simmering anger within the navy over what has been a traumatic week with Admiral DK Joshi's resignation, there's parallel fury freshly raging against the navy's serving 'Submarine-in-Chief', the officer currently investigating the INS Sindhuratna accident.

Flag Officer Submarines (FOS) Rear Admiral Soonil V. Bhokare's personal Rediffmail inbox has been invaded by angry e-mails from retired veterans who believe the officer should follow his chief's example and quit service. While veterans, including former submariner Rear Admiral (Retd.) K. Raja Menon believe Antony to be the worst Defence Minister in independent India, others now believe that anger must be directed at those who call the shots within the navy. With Admiral DK Joshi out, that anger is now focused on Western Naval Command chief Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, and now, Rear Admiral Bhokare.

A particularly angry e-mail from a retired Commander-rank submariner to Rear Admiral Bhokare, currently being posted on naval veteran forums says, "I write to you in extreme anguish at the very sad and sorry state of affairs of a once proud and most professional arm of the Navy. Today we hang our heads in shame, both serving and retired submariners, thanks to  the legacy left behind by illustrious people like you and a few others who have followed you."

The officer, who has preferred not to be identified, writes, "Today in the Navy sporting a 'Dolphin' [insignia of the submarine service] on your chest is a shame. The mood amongst the men in the arm is absolutely militant and young officers, the leaders of tomorrow are absolutely depressed and disgusted at our dilution of standards and safety norms. (Sindhuratna was sailing with 94 people on board. Were there enough IDA sets on board for all 94.)"

That last point is the subject of Rear Admiral Bhokare's investigation now, and is an aspersion on naval standard operating procedures, adherence to safety protocols and basic training. Part of the buck, angry veterans feel, stops with senior officers in the Indian Navy, whose job it is to ensure laxity never for a moment creeps into daily duties. Several e-mails of a similar tenor to the one quoted above are understood to have been shot off by veterans to those currently making sense of the INS Sindhurakshak and INS Sindhuratna incidents.

The navy sought to dispel anger against the MoD over reportedly expired batteries on the INS Sindhuratna by stating today that, "There are no signs to indicate any initiation of fire from the battery pit. The batteries appear to be clear of any damage and would now be put through normal checks and maintenance routines prior operationalisation. The preliminary inspection of third compartment indicates that the fire has emanated from the third compartment mess deck (sailor's accommodation). The batteries which were being exploited by Sindhuratna at the time of incident were operationally in-date."

While the MoD gets to duck any damage over batteries, at least for the moment, it continues to evade questions over modernisation of the submarine arm at large. As HEADLINES TODAY reported last week, the MoD has sat motionless on a 2010 classified naval report literally pleading for high-level intervention to save the submarine service from a crisis.

Questions over procedure, protocol and training within the navy are likely to take centrestage, with deeply uncomfortable questions emerging. Perhaps in an effort to deflect the adverse publicity playing out in the media and veterans community, the navy yesterday published a statement saying, "The fast pace of operations, accentuated by increasing complexities often puts men and material under strain, thus requiring stringent adherence to safety procedures. The Indian Navy is sensitive of the fact that all naval evolutions need to be effectively undertaken within a well defined safety operating envelope. Accordingly, 'safety culture' as a way of life, amongst personnel, traditionally forms a part of naval ethos, and several initiatives have additionally been introduced based on emerging requirements."

First published here.

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