In 2005, almost seven years after the 1998 nuclear tests, the Indian Navy quietly sent 52 officers and over 100 sailors to Russia to induct INS Chakra, a Nuclear Submarine on lease. It would provide escort to INS Arihant, the indigenously-built nuclear submarine carrying strategic nuclear missiles on board.
Trained by Russians
A critical component of the almost $100 million training programme was a group of 11 officers who were to be trained by Russian experts for operating nuclear reactors on submarines.
This group was to play a critical leadership role as India’s nuclear submarine capabilities reached the maturity to launch nuclear missiles.
In a bizarre twist to that pioneering effort, all the senior reactor operators, nine of them, have been denied promotion to the rank of Captain, despite their expensive and exclusive skills in commissioning, operating and maintaining nuclear reactors on submarines.
Two of the nine who were refused promotion have now alleged in written complaints before an Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) that a Vice Admiral overseeing the Navy’s strategic programme manipulated the promotion system to ensure that his son-in-law had a smooth ride up the ladder, by removing all competition.
In the process, the entire lot of nuclear reactor operators were denied their due, they alleged.
These officers would have pioneered policy and decision making in nuclear submarine operations and safety, as India begins to complete its nuclear triad — ability to launch nuclear missiles from land, air, and sea. Just two junior commanders, whose promotion board has yet not come up, are still hopeful of elevation.
The Navy did not respond to a detailed questionnaire sent by The Hindu on August 22.
Of the total 17 technical officers, including the 11 reactor operators, on board INS Chakra when it was commissioned, one officer has already left the Navy, four have put up papers to leave, and indications are that more of the officers among them would be putting up papers on completion of 20 years of pensionable service. At least two of those have moved the AFT, alleging that nepotism had resulted in the promotions being denied to the entire lot of nuclear reactor operators.
While India was leasing the nuclear submarine from Russia, it was also undertaking development of the indigenous nuclear submarine Arihant, which would carry nuclear missiles.
In Arihant, of the senior-most four reactor operating officers considered for promotion to the rank of Captain since 2014, two made it. Though both are trained to operate nuclear reactor, they do not have any practical underwater experience, the petitions allege.
Of the two promoted Arihant officers, one is the son-in-law of the Vice Admiral who oversaw both the sensitive projects for the past many years, the petitions have alleged.
The INS Chakra Story
Almost a decade ago, India decided to complete the nuclear triad. It was already into developing Arihant, an SSBN (ballistic missile submarine) which will fire nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. To protect the slow-moving SSBN, like other nuclear powers India also needed SSNs (nuclear-powered attack submarines), and India turned to Russia to lease SSNs and concluded the lease for INS Chakra in 2005. At present, New Delhi and Moscow are engaged in negotiating for leasing of a second SSN.
A team of select officers — executive officers for command and administration of the submarine, and technical officers to look after the operation and maintenance of the reactor and other propulsion systems — was sent to Russia for training not just to operate INS Chakra but also to imbibe the philosophy of a nuclear submarine-operating Navy. The reactor operators were put through 40 months of training that was among the most expensive military training ever undertaken by the Indian military.
They were to train and guide a future generation of officers and also provide guidance to those on board Arihant, which too has a Russia-assisted nuclear reactor.
In their petitions before the Armed Forces Tribunal — filed in November and December of 2015 and in which hearing is on now — Commanders Ajay Zadoo and S.S. Luthra have alleged that Vice-Admiral P.K. Chatterjee, who was the Inspector-General Nuclear Safety during 2010-12, has blatantly used his official capacity to “systematically reduce ACRs (annual confidential reports) marks of technical officers having superior profile and indirect reckoning with his son-in-law.”
With his action, he has finished off the careers of the first generation of technical officers who were trained in Russia on INS Chakra, the petitions have alleged. This means that no nuclear reactor operator trained in Russia in the same seniority as his son-in-law was promoted to the rank of Captain.
The officers have detailed how Vice-Admiral Chatterjee has ensured during four postings that his son-in-law remains under his ‘official zone of influence’, in a position where he could influence the reports of Captain A.V. Agashe.
In his case before AFT, Commander Luthra has alleged that Vice-Admiral Chatterjee was the Senior Reviewing Officer (SRO) for officers serving in both INS Chakra and Arihant from 2010 to 2012 as the Inspector-General Nuclear Safety.
Vice-Admiral Chatterjee “has manipulated the naval system in such a way that he has been either RO (Reviewing Officer)/SRO for his own son-in-law on various occasions. Due to this relationship, other officers who were being considered for the same promotion board as his son-in-law stand to be at a disadvantage.”
According to the two petitions — the second one by Commander Ajay Zadoo — this was proved in the results of Promotion Board 2B/14 “where no reactor operator other than his son-in-law Cdr AV Agashe, was promoted.” Most importantly, in that board and the subsequent board (2/15), no reactor operator from INS Chakra was promoted, the petitions allege.
The petition by Commander Luthra has alleged that the navy chief has suppressed the findings of RACAB (Redressal and Complaints Advisory Board), an internal navy board, which found merit in his representation against denial of promotion and was of the opinion that injustice has been done to him.
In its response to the tribunal, the navy has admitted that Vice-Admiral Chatterjee was the SRO for his son-in-law on one of the reports. It has also admitted that he was the SRO for Commander Luthra in three reports.
However, the Navy does not respond to the allegations by the two officers that Vice-Admiral Chatterjee had direct administrative control over the commanding officers of both submarines.
“The contention of the applicant that V Adm PK Chatterjee has manipulated the Naval system in such a way that he has been either RO or SRO for his own son-in-law on various occasions is a figment of imagination and hence denied,” the Navy reply says.