April 6, 2001


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Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

Who cares if Soviet ships were new or old?

Obviously the three services and the ministry of defence are on a major image mending exercise. Aided and advised by the media's elder statesman B G Verghese, the army and navy recently held public confessionals, justifying purchases and trying belatedly to inject a bit of transparency to the business of arms imports.

The Indian Navy held a press conference in which two senior naval officers defended the purchase of the Barak missiles from Israel. Unfortunately, the headlines next day talked more of Russian arms and spares than those from Israel.

In probably an unguarded moment, the naval spokesman let out that the Soviet Union has been possibly flogging us secondhand ships in the past. How true are these charges and what effect has this had on the state of the Indian fleet?

India's arms purchases from the Soviet Union began in the mid-sixties. As a result of India's refusal to join any of the military alliances, Western powers, especially the US and the UK, refused to supply us with our requirements in weapons and other military hardware, leaving defence minister Yashwant Chavan with no alternative except to seek them from the Soviet Union.

Beginning in 1965, the Soviets supplied India's armed forces with nearly 70 per cent of its weapons, tanks, ships and aircraft. The Indian Navy received Petya class patrol vessels, Foxtrot class submarines, mine sweepers, landing craft, a submarine tender and a submarine rescue vessel.

The switch over from west to east required a great deal of sacrifice and adjustment from the navy and its personnel. Up to that time India's principal supplier had been the United Kingdom. There was a close association between the Indian Navy and the Royal Navy. Most of the senior officers had been trained in the UK and on board British ships. Indeed, for nearly 15 years after independence the navy was headed by a Royal Navy officer on loan.

Each country builds its warships according to its own peculiar philosophy. The ships are designed around equipment which that country produces. The Royal Navy gave a lot of importance to habitability, sea keeping qualities, neatness and good looks. The Soviets on the other hand believed in stuffing their ships with weapons and equipment resulting in crammed accommodation and poor habitability.

Indian officers and sailors, brought up on western propaganda, believed the Soviet ships to be badly designed, with inferior equipment and poor sea keeping qualities. Only after the first lot of crews had got used to the Soviet ships did they realise that not only were the ships not in any way worse than their British counterparts but in many ways superior to them. The Soviet Petyas, for example, which we acquired in the mid-sixties were fitted with gas turbines which the west only began to fit on their ships in the seventies.

In the latter acquisitions, such as the Kashins and the Kilo class submarines, which we acquired in the early eighties, there was a vast improvement in accommodation and habitability. The Soviets, who had little clue in the early years about operating ships in the tropics, began to accede to our requirements. Air conditioning capacity was enhanced and ships made a little more comfortable.

Did the Soviets palm off secondhand ships to India? There is strong circumstantial evidence to indicate that this might have been true. Prior to the Soviet purchases, India had acquired eight new frigates from the UK. In every case of building a new ship the process starts at the builder's yard.

Right from the start, technical representatives of the buyer are present and oversee the construction. They have even the right to reject a part of the construction, as indeed did happen at the yard of HDW in Germany when a major assembly of the submarine was rejected by Indian overseers. The keel laying and the launching of a ship are ceremonies which are undertaken with a degree of pomp and publicity. The ship is named during launching by a VVIP.

None of this happened with the Soviet purchases. From the start the Soviets had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. They refused permission for Indian officers to be stationed at the building yards, even as observers, leave alone as overseers. Indeed, no one knew where the ships were being built and launched. The crew would be asked to come to a particular port where the ship would be handed over for commissioning.

In the initial purchases the Soviets even refused to admit Indian personnel to be present during sea trials. It took nearly twenty years of haggling and persistence for the Soviets to agree to Indian presence during sea trials. The recent launch of the Krivak class frigate Talwar was the first occasion that Indians have performed a launching ceremony at a Russian yard.

All this led to a deep suspicion among India sailors that the Soviets were not building ships anew for the Indian Navy but pulling out ships from their vast reserve, refurbishing them and passing them on as new. A large number of telltale signs emerged after Indians had commissioned the ships to indicate that they were in use before. Some commanding officers even lodged complaints about their ships. An Indian delegation went in the seventies, to "inspect" a mine sweeper which was reportedly second hand. The inspection was an eyewash and the delegation gave a clean chit to the seller.

The Kashin was a 1960 design which had been modified to fit it with surface-to-surface missiles and a helicopter deck. The Soviets had built a large number of these ships and it is unlikely that they would have built this old design afresh. The Kilo class submarines, on the other hand, was a contemporary design and in all probability were built new.

Why did the Indian Navy put up with such humiliating and one-sided conditions when purchasing ships from the Soviet Union? To start with we were beggars, not choosers. Rejected by the west, we had no other source of supply except the Soviet Union. We were thus prepared to put up with conditions which would have been unacceptable in a buyer's market. To the navy's credit they put their foot down in crucial matters. The Soviets wanted to indoctrinate the crews by making them attend "ideology" lectures. Nothing doing, said the navy.

Secondly, politically, the Soviet Union was our only ally in the Security Council. Soviet vetoes had saved India the embarrassment of a Kashmir debate. Buying secondhand ships was a small price to pay for the political support.

Thirdly, the Soviets gave us the ships at dirt cheap prices. Both the Kashins and the Kilos were bought at Rs 80 crore a piece when the international price was close to Rs 300 crore. Why would the navy look such gift horses in the mouth.

Finally, secondhand or not, the ships gave the navy excellent service. The Kashins have been with the navy for twenty years and have been the backbone of its fleet. Some of the Petyas and the F class submarines purchased in the seventies are still around, thirty years after arrival in India. So who cares if they were new or old when we got them. They have served their purpose and tided over the navy during the crucial years of the Cold War.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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