Sunday, January 19, 2014



File:INS Sindhughosh (S55).JPEG
Official U.S. Navy Photo of Indian Kilo Class submarine

 There are times when masters, commanders, and pilots ground a vessel. For example in amphibious war fare at least the bow of a landing craft is run aground on or close to the beach. Mississippi River pilots will sometimes ground the fore part of a tow or towboat to wait out a fog. When a grounding is intentional there is often assurance of a soft bottom. An unintended grounding is always the subject to an investigation even where little or no damage occurs. The common belief is that the conning officer had to  have  made a serious navigational error for such a thing to happen. Professional mariners know otherwise. 

 Sometimes due to orders,schedule, impending weather and many other reasons the envelope has to be pushed..Given soft bottom conditions to protect against catastrophic loss for a good enough reason an unintentional grounding may be risked. Charts are examined, tide tables consulted, and bottom conditions researched. But the bottom line is that a passage is undertaken with less than the standard margin of error for water under the keel.

 Last Friday, January 17, 2014 there were some conflicting reports that an Indian Kilo Class submarine ran aground. The report in the TELEGRAPH (Calcutta) indicated that the ship was fully armed at the time. Frankly. that seems normal and there is little in the way of submarine weapon's systems that a soft grounding will harm. The TELEGRAPH article that we read indicated that an unnamed naval officer had stated that "a chill ran down our spine" on receiving the news. That would not be an untypical feeling in a command and control center upon immediate receipt of such news. We have to wonder what else the officer said that the news account didn't quote. We're sure the incident was professionally handled but that wouldn't be a news story.  

 We note that there were no injuries among the crew. and the damage to the hull and sonar gear was minimal. The submarine was re-floated in a matter of hours. The  news  coverage paraphrased Indian naval sources as speculating  that misjudgment of the time of the tide and depth of the water caused or contributed to the accident. To some degree or other that is a given but that's not the question. In a forensic inquiry into an unintentional grounding any question of misjudgment has to be decided under a circumstantial test. Some of the questions that have to be asked are.

  • Why was the envelope pushed, why didn't the commanding officer wait on the tide and a greater safety margin? Sometimes pushing the envelope is not entirely a ship commanders decision alone. Only the higher levels of the Indian navy know all of the factors in the decision to push the envelope.
  • If the decision to push the envelope was at least defensible, if the passage making failed and ended in a soft grounding, was the "miscalculation" in any way contributed to by unknown and unknowable factors?.
  • During the risky passage were  such damage limitation tactics as could be employed , in fact employed?
 It appears to us that the answer to the last question is the only answer pretty much evident by the known facts, Damages were extremely light. It seems a safe conclusion that the envelope was being pushed but precautions were being taken. Frankly we can see no signs of a reckless commander in the facts as known. The other questions have to be answered by Captain Subhash Chandra's naval superiors. That Captain Chandra attempted the passage under difficult circumstances at all indicates that he cam accept risk, this is a good thing in a naval commander. This is not something that naval authorities should want to suppress, but sometimes a commander's risk calculus may need some fine tuning. If after through investigation the navy determines that the risk should not have been taken in the first place and Captain Chandra was solely responsible for undertaking the risk; he may face some adjustment to his risk calculus that even might result in his loss of this particular command. But we see that in the light damage and apparently easy grounding that this was a commander attempting to manage the risk of the risky passage. If Captain Chandra is demonstrated solely responsible for undertaking an unnecessary risk it looks to us like this should not be a career ending episode. 

 Here at AAB we literally are a collection of old sailors. We know great navies when we see them. We call the Indian Navy "the Tigers" because we think they are a great navy. Some times daring needs to tempered with experience. If there was an excess of daring here it is up to the higher command to help adjust attitudes, but let us heartily advise the Indian naval authorities, don't let your navy fall into a "zero defect" culture. When you find a competent commanding officer who may be a little lacking in risk adversity and he makes a fairly harmless error 
make a mid course correction and get him back up on that horse again soon. There will come a day when you must have the risk takers.

 To the TELEGRAPH, and all Indian news media we say try not to strike an alarmist tone when these things happen. Your Navy faces tremendous challenges. As professional naval outside observers we have seen them over come the adversity of acquiring a fleet from non standardized sources and whip it into a crackerjack performing fleet. We are now watching with great interest as the Indian Navy begins to move into an era of increasingly domestically produced quality ships, weapons, and planes. 

 The next generation of Indian sailors will be standing on the shoulders of two generations of giants both in the commissioned officer corps and in the Petty Officer ratings. The next generation is being trained by those who have set a standard of technical proficiency, tactical skill , and Esprit de Corps not exceeded anywhere, but they will eventually have the advantage of standardized equipment. India needs it's Navy, the world needs the Indian Navy as the Guardian of the Indian Ocean. The Indian media should take a deep breath before sounding an alarmist tone and seek some expert opinion before publishing premature or speculative opinion. Let the Indian Navy handle this, don't let their decisions begin to be influenced by manufactured negative public opinion. Good luck to Captain Chandra and his entire bridge navigation team. May we see you all returned to sea soon. We'd also like to express confidence in the naval forensic team that will examine this incident. To the Indian free press and news media we simply say..... Stand back! Tigers at work! 



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