Indian Navy setbacks show defence challenges facing next government

Indian Navy setbacks show defence challenges facing next government
Ships and submarines belonging to the Indian Navy are seen docked at the naval dockyard in Mumbai February 27, 2014.

NEW DELHI - For a country aspiring to be a modern military power in a volatile region, a sequence of fatal accidents aboard its submarines has demonstrated why India's next government needs to straighten out its defence priorities.

The resignation of the naval chief of staff, weeks before a general election, reveals just how far the outgoing government's failure to equip its forces has eroded the trust of top commanders.

Admiral D.K. Joshi, 59, quit on February 26, the same day that two officers were killed by smoke that engulfed a part of the INS Sindhuratna. The Soviet-built Kilo class submarine was commissioned in 1988 and, officers say, should have been scrapped long ago.

Joshi took "moral responsibility" for a series of recent operational incidents, the government said when it accepted his resignation, but he has not commented since.

"It's a culmination of frustration in the navy that Admiral Joshi represented," said Bharat Karnad, a senior fellow in national security studies at the Centre for Policy Research, explaining the admiral's resignation.

"The chief's patience just snapped."

Seven months earlier, a dockside blast in Mumbai killed 18 submariners on board the INS Sindhurakshak.

One naval officer, who requested anonymity, described the danger of using worn-out equipment so prone to failure as being like "treading on a minefield".

Defence procurement has been haunted by the 1980s bribery scandal linked to an artillery order from Sweden's Bofors, that helped bring down the government of then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, whose Congress party has held power since 2004.

Allegations of bribery also lay behind India's cancellation of a 560 million euro helicopter deal with AgustaWestland in January. The government said it did not believe the Anglo-Italian firm's denial it paid bribes to win the order.

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