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Wanted, a sub task force

- Former Navy chief seeks salvage plan

Mumbai, March 2: Former chief of naval staff Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat has called for setting up an “empowered task force” with full powers and accountability to Parliament on the lines of the space commission or the atomic energy commission to execute a long-term submarine building plan.

In an exclusive interview to The Telegraph yesterday, Bhagwat, the 13th chief of naval staff who was removed unceremoniously by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 1998, lamented that a comprehensive 30-year submarine building plan he had mooted when he was the service chief was never allowed to take off by the defence establishment.

“Now we have no time left. But, if we have to salvage the submarine building plan, there is no other way but to set up an empowered task force like the space commission or the atomic energy commission which will have administrative and financial powers and be fully accountable to Parliament or a special defence committee,” Bhagwat said, speaking at his south Mumbai residence.

The comments came in the context of the recent fire on the INS Sindhuratna and other submarine mishaps.

Bhagwat said a national commission for building submarines should also have representatives from government auditor CAG on the administrative board to ensure there was no misuse of funds.

“It requires an integrated financial adviser who can report anything adverse. The commission must be headed by someone who will serve continuously for 10 years, subject to his delivering at every goal post. We can take inspiration from America’s Admiral (Hyman) Rickover, the father of the nuclear submarine, who remained in active list till the age of 84,” Bhagwat said.

He said it was no secret that India’s submarine fleet was ageing. As Western Naval Command chief, Bhagwat said, he had written an official letter to the then chief of naval staff, specifying the year-wise position of the submarine fleet and their “write-off” dates.

“So the writing on the wall has been clear from the day you got the first submarines that you have to write them off in the 1990s, and the batch that you got in the 1970s, you have to write them off in the 2000s. So the picture is very clear,” Bhagwat said.

“This letter highlighted the fact that our submarine force levels were really going down drastically and that unless we took very urgent, very substantive and very major steps to find replacements for these submarine, we would soon be turned into a toy submarine power.”

He said when it was pointed out to the defence ministry that by 2010 India would have “unacceptably low” numbers of submarines for frontline deployment, it was said that two would be imported and two assembled under what is called a completely knocked down and semi knocked down approach.

“But we said how could we plan a submarine force for a maritime nation astride the Indian Ocean. It means astride the major sea routes of the world, astride the major oil and energy arteries of the world, and then you don’t take advantage of your peninsula position. And this approach of importing and assembling here could never lead us to become a genuine submarine building nation.”

Bhagwat said the 30-year submarine building plan he had mooted in 1998 was approved by the then defence minister, George Fernandes, and a month later by the cabinet.

“It was supposed to start operating from 2000. It was to operate within the navy budget. What it was going to avoid was the approval at every step from the defence ministry or the finance ministry. Instead, it had cabinet approval for a series production for a type of submarine that we selectedů and to proceed with this design till we met the aim of 24 force-level submarines, which was the force level approved by the 1964 emergency committee of the cabinet.”

The plan was never allowed to take off. India went for the Scorpene deal, which was initiated by the NDA regime, and the final contract was signed by UPA I in 2004.

“The contract for Scorpene was signed in 2004, and now we are in 2014. They say the first one could be commissioned in 2016, but whenever it will be commissioned, it will not cost less than Rs 6,000 crore. During my time as the chief, we acquired two submarines at Rs 100 crore each. Though we did pay a little more, it was economical. Scorpene doesn’t even have a powerful weapons system with a missile strike range of 50km, whereas the naval staff recommendation was for a submarine with a missile range of 300-400km,” he said.

Asked about the status of the 30-year plan, Bhagwat said: “Nothing has been implemented.”