Monday, March 31, 2014

“A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.”

Last one year has been very bad for the Indian navy. The good image of the navy took a beating due to a series of accidents involving ships at sea and in harbour – some minor and some major. It culminated in the resignation of the Chief of Naval Staff. The media went to town tom-tomming the incidents. TV anchors saw a pattern where none existed. Facts were sidelined and replaced by innuendoes and bizarre theories. Some anchors become more vocal then necessary. Some appeared to be indulging in audit. Momentarily, TV reporting lacked credence. Not to be left behind, defense experts of all hues and colours added their bit to explain to the nation what was going on.

Now that the din has subsided, let us take a closer, professional look at these accidents.

Naval warships and submarines are exceedingly complex military platforms. To talk about a warship with any degree of authority, one needs to understand its mission. The fundamental mission of any warship is to float, move and fight.

The ship has numerous air and water-tight compartments spread over many decks. Scores of alleyways, ladders and hatches interconnect this labyrinth. As a midshipman on board INS Vikrant, I took nearly a fortnight to get to know my ship. Even after a year, I had not visited all the compartments. Below the water line, there are no ‘Port Holes’ or Scuttles’ – the sun never reaches there. The entire ship is provided with fresh air through a ‘forced ventilation system’ 24x7. A ship may have up to 600 km of wiring, taking electricity to every nook and corner. Side by side there are pipes carrying CO2, hydrogen, oxygen, air, fresh water and steam. Salt water for flooding and fire fighting and the list goes on. Sea water is extremely corrosive.

The ship requires enormous propulsion and power generation machinery to keep the ship afloat and move. Nuclear reactors and high performance batteries for submarines provide the propulsion. Ships require hundreds of tons of furnace fuel oil, diesel, petrol and aviation fuel for aircraft and helicopters. The platforms carries enormous amount of paint on its body. Three months of provisions is stored to feed the men.

Finally what makes warships and submarines unique as compared to any other military platform, is the fact that men live and fight on board. Equipment required to fight is another story. Missiles, gun ammunition, torpedoes, depth charges, rockets and numerous types of small arms ammunition is carried on board. On our missile boat, the detonators and flares were stored below my bed. During the war we all lived on board with live missiles for months on end. Strange and explosive bed mates! Fire and flooding are the greatest enemies of any sea warrior.

Ships and submarines operate in water. A small secret I wish to share with the general public. There are no breaks to stop the ship. In narrow horbours with ever increasing ship traffic, navigation is a nightmare. Sometimes things do go wrong when we go to sea. The famous quote by American Theologian William G T Shedd, A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for, is unquestionably relevant here. Sailing in rough seas is an extremely daunting task. Man and machine take a severe beating when the sea becomes uncontrollable. To be caught in a storm is a frightening and hellish experience. The sea can be cruel and merciless.

The reason these platforms stand apart from the rest is the fact that it is alive day and night. A ship does not shut down after 5 p.m. The element of risk is omnipresent throughout its life cycle of 20 to 30 years. ‘A ship never sleeps’. The galley is open throughout the day and night feeding hundreds of sailors.

To operate in this demanding environment we require a trained body of men. The Indian Navy’s most important activity in peace time is training. These complex platforms are manned by professionals with zeal and dedication. There are checks and balances at every stage of any naval operation. Standard operating procedures, check off lists, do’s and don’ts are the order of the day. A thread of accountability runs through the entire lot of activities. Responsibility and ownership are our watchwords.

A Board of Enquiry and Court Martial sets the house in order. Lessons learnt become doctrines.

Collisions, running aground, man overboard, fire and flooding are occupational hazards. An aircraft cannot crash on ground.

The Navy will continue to go ‘in harm’s way’ and has all our understanding and good wishes as it does so.

I will end with a quote:

“The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.” – Vincent van Gogh


  1. C S ChandramouliJune 2, 2014 at 7:27 AM

    A very educative and informative post indeed! Keep such posts coming.

    C S Chandramouli

    1. Thanks CSC. It was a small effort to put the navy in the correct perspective.