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AK Antony's hallowed bubble finally bursts

Sunday, 2 March 2014 - 10:50am IST | Agency: IANS

It takes just five minutes to pour cold water on a reputation built up in a political career spanning over half a century. Defence Minister A.K. Antony has had to learn this the bitter way with the resignation of Admiral D.K. Joshi as the Indian Navy chief, the immediate provocation being an incident aboard INS Sindhuratna that resulted in the deaths of two officers and injuries to seven sailors when smoke filled the battery compartment of the submarine, 80 nautical miles off Mumbai.

Having taken "moral responsibility" for this accident and a string of others in the past seven-odd months, everyone agrees that Admiral Joshi has gone out in a blaze of glory while Antony has been shamefacedly left holding the wooden spoon.

That Admiral Joshi was an upright, highly competent and no-nonsense officer with a hitherto blemishless record who would never hesitate to call a spade a spade is also not in doubt. Matters came to a head last November when Antony asked the navy to clean up its act and ensure that its valuable assets were not "frittered away".

But then, Antony chose to not look within, where the fault actually lay -- there were repeated reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General that procurement delays were resulting in the Indian Navy losing its blue water capabilities. Antony, it must be remembered, is the chairman of the Defence Acquisition Committee (DAC) that clears the purchases of all military hardware.

In its report of 2008-09, the CAG said: "The process of procurement of battery monitoring system urgently needed for submarines witnessed inordinate delays".

This report must now come to haunt Antony. On INS Sindhuratna, there was a smoke build-up in the battery compartment. In the case of INS Sindhughosh, a hydrogen build-up in the battery compartment resulted in a massive explosion that killed 18 officers and sailors and caused the submarine to sink in Mumbai harbour on August 14, 2013.

Interestingly, the two vessels were anchored virtually alongside and an astute operation by personnel of the Indian Navy and the Mumbai Fire Brigade manged to remove INS Sindhuratna to safety.

Now, let's look at the Scorpene project under which six French-Spanish diesel-electric submarines were to be built at Mumbai's Mazagon Docks Limited with an option for another six. The deal was signed in 2005, but nine years later, not a single boat has hit the water due to procedural and bureaucratic delays.

Originally slated for delivery from 2012, which has now been pushed back to 2016, the Scorpenes were meant to replace the ageing Soviet-era Kilo-class vessels -- which INS Sindhughosh and INS Sindhuratna were -- of the Indian Navy, all of which are ending their normal 25-30-year service life.

But why focus on submarines alone?

As recently as Feb 24, the DAC failed to clear the navy's proposal for four amphibious warships and 16 multi-role helicopters with ASW (anti-submarine warfare) capabilities, among many other items also on the wishlists of the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force.

Okay, it's been argued that since 10 accidents in seven months occurred during Admiral Joshi's watch, he should take the rap. In that case, under whose watch has the Indian Navy struggled to keep itself afloat and what penalty should this individual incur?

But then, politicians say different rules apply to them. As a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader famously said the other day: "Why should Narendra Modi be held responsible for the (2002) Gujarat riots? There were other officers to control the situation."

There is one other aspect of defence acquisitions during Antony's watch. The tender for purchasing 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) was floated in 2005 and six manufacturers short-listed in 2007. The Dassault Rafale got the nod in 2012 but the contract is yet to be inked, apparently because of protracted negotiations on issues like the cost of transferring technology and life-cycle costs.

It must be remembered that the MMRCA was meant to replace the IAF's fleet of the 1960s vintage MiG-21 combat jets that have been dubbed "flying coffins" due to their propensity to crash with maddening frequency.

Does the DAC care for the lives of the IAF's young pilots? Apparently not, because what it has cleared is the purchase, among others, of three B-737 BBJs (Boeing Business Jets) for the IAF's Air Headquarters Communication Squadron that ferries dignitaries like the president, the vice president, the prime minister - and Antony himself.

This purchase was on a single-vendor basis, meaning there was only one contender in the fray. India's Defence Procurement Policy expressly states that this route should be adopted only in exceptional and emergent situations.

India also purchased three Phalcon AWACS (airborne warning and control systems) mounted on an IL-78 heavy-lift aircraft. This too was on a single-vendor system. Many wonder whether this system was needed at all!

Then, a contract was signed for the purchase of 12 Agusta Westland VVIP helicopters, again for the Communication Squadron. This contract, which was cancelled last year on graft charges, also took the single-vendor route.

Given Antony's track record on the armed forces' need for modernistion, the tactful thing for him to do was to persuade the admiral to stay and to promise to address his concerns.

Instead, what did he do? He promptly accepted the resignation. As Admiral Arun Prakash, a former Indian Navy chief, succinctly put it: "If the chief resigns, it suits everyone."

What this has also done is to puncture Antony's holier-than-thou halo.




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