The acceptance of a “restrictive clause” in the contract for the ship — it cost about $50 million (around Rs 202 crore) — is political dynamite in India. The Left has been suspecting that India is bending, if not breaking, convention to accommodate US interests as it pursues closer military relations with the Pentagon.
By the navy’s definition, a warship is a “sovereign piece of territory in the seas”. But the US has been granted the right to embark the ship even after selling it to the Indian Navy.
In accepting the Pentagon’s condition that the ship should not be used for “offensive deployment” but only for relief — such as after the Tsunami of December 2004 — the Indian Navy has given up its right to use the vessel for the purpose for which it was built by the US Navy itself.
This damning capitulation of the Indian Navy to conditions imposed by the Pentagon was revealed in a close reading of a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CA 5 of 2008) tabled in Parliament today. The report does not name the ship, identifying it only as ship ‘X’ before its induction into the Indian Navy and ship ‘Z’ after it joined the fleet.
It, however, describes it as a “landing platform dock commissioned in a foreign navy in 1971”. The Jalashva — called the USS Trenton when it was in service with the US Navy — is the only vessel that fits the description. It joined India’s eastern fleet in September 2007 and is based in Visakhapatnam, the headquarters of the Eastern Naval Command.
“These issues are all valid and have been raised before,” Admiral (retired) Arun Prakash, who was the Chief of Naval Staff when the Jalashva was contracted, told The Telegraph this evening.
A landing platform dock is used for evacuation — like the Trenton did during the Israeli-Hezbollah war of 2006 in the Mediterranean — and for offensive action like landing Marines from the sea to attack an enemy and capture hostile territory. The ship is a troops-carrier and is capable of taking within its hold armoured vehicles and tanks.
The Jalashva’s six embarked SH-60 helicopters are capable of being used both for surveillance and attack. The Indian Navy intends using its small landing craft to transport its marine commandos (Marcos) in stealthy offensive and sabotage missions.
The CAG report is explicit on India’s acceptance of the restrictive clause, however.
“Restrictive clauses raise doubts about the real advantages from this deal. For example, restrictions on the offensive deployment of the ship and permission to the foreign government to conduct an inspection and inventory of all articles transferred under the End-Use monitoring clause of the Letter of Agreement (LOA). Given that the ship is of old vintage, Indian Navy would remain dependent upon foreign-based support,” the auditors wrote.
The Indian Navy also bought the ship without physically verifying its state even though it had run its life and was being de-commissioned by the US Navy that found no further use for it, the CAG report has highlighted. The Indian Navy’s biggest ship is the Viraat.
The CAG report’s focus is on the irregularities in the purchase of the Jalashva. The CAG’s remit does not include an examination of the political circumstances of a defence deal.
Last month, six of the Jalashva’s crew died after a gas leak on board the vessel during a drill in the Bay of Bengal. A naval board of inquiry is investigating the cause of the leak but prima facie reports have pointed to a defect inherited by the Indian Navy.
The US offered the ship to India in September 2004 under its Excess Defense Article (EDA) programme through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route. The USS Trenton was due to be de-commissioned in September 2006. The Indian Navy was convinced “on the basis of a joint visual inspection with the foreign navy (September 2005) that the LPD would meet its requirements for the next 12 to 15 years”, the CAG report noted.
But it pointed out that the non-negotiable offer of the US was accepted without a rigorous technical evaluation.