New Delhi, Jan. 29: A frisson of fear has gone down the officer cadre of the navy after the commander of the Western Fleet — the “sword arm” — was marched-up by the flag-officer-commanding-in-chief, Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, in a reprimand last week.
Marching-up is a form of reprimand rarely meted out to officers as senior as a rear admiral. It happens more frequently at sea where the authority is vested with the captain of a warship.
A navy source confirmed that Rear Admiral Anil Chawla was asked to present himself in his superior’s office in ceremonial dress, as is required in a march-up.
Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha — also known as the “Grey Eagle” for being the most senior naval aviator — was also in ceremonial dress. The ceremonial dress signifies the formality and gravity of the occasion beyond the everyday uniform. Sinha is next only to the chief of naval staff, Admiral D.K. Joshi, in seniority.
But the source would not state the reason for the reprimand.
In marching-up the rear admiral, the navy has drawn attention to recent deficiencies in its most operational fleet. But the reprimand is also likely to discourage senior commanders from vesting responsibility on those under their command.
Rear Admiral Chawla, a navigation and direction expert, has a meritorious service record. He was the assistant chief of naval staff (foreign cooperation and intelligence) in New Delhi before being assigned to command the Western Fleet, the most heavily armed wing of the navy.
“It is like the best boy in a boisterous classroom being expelled by the school to teach the others a lesson,” said one officer.
Earlier this month, the ships under his command escorted the INS Vikramaditya aircraft carrier to Indian shores. For the first time in 20 years the navy began operating two aircraft carriers – the ageing INS Viraat was also in the battlegroup that escorted the Vikramaditya.
One officer said there was annoyance in naval headquarters over photographs of the INS Vikramaditya and the fleet warships posted by the crew on social websites. But official sources said “it is not fair to draw conclusions.”
The top echelons of the service have been under pressure since defence minister A.K. Antony told senior commanders in a conference last October the navy should be wary of “frittering away national resources”. The navy was upset by, not only the insinuation in that phrase, but also its use in a press release put out by the defence ministry.
In August, the navy’s Russian-origin Kilo-class submarine, the INS Sindhurakshak, sank in Mumbai after a suspected explosion, killing the 18 crew on board. The submarine is yet to be salvaged. The salvage is likely to cost tens of crores.
Even before the shockwaves of that incident have died down, two frontline ships of the Western Fleet were involved in mishaps. Two officers were removed from command.
The INS Talwar, a stealth frigate, hit a fishing boat during manoeuvres at sea on December 23. Navy sources explained that the Talwar was heading for an operational deployment.
For such manoeuvres, warships often sail close to the coast to avoid detection by potential enemy submarines that operate in depths of 30 metres or more. Maritime traffic — especially of fishing vessels — is thickest near the coasts. But every commander is expected to have a map of coastal waters embossed in memory.
In early January, another frigate, the INS Betwa, returned from another deployment with a crack in the dome of its HUMSA sonar. The Betwa is equipped for anti-submarine warfare and the sonar is its chief submarine detector. Navy sources said the dome has been repaired and the ship is operational now.
But what has left the navy completely aghast is an incident in December for which it does not hold itself responsible. Trainees on board a Coast Guard ship, the Sangram, were said to have accidentally fired a 30mm shell during practice. The shell went through two floors of the Western Naval Command headquarters. Fortunately, it was after office hours and no one was inside.