“The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep”

Over a decade ago, I was the Executive Officer of a frontline warship – the missile corvette INS Khukri. Widely acknowledged as one of the most challenging ships to serve as “EXO”, these ships are well known for their compact size and formidable firepower. Bristling with weapon systems, they partake in all fleet exercises with the same gusto as capital ships albeit with one-fourth the manning. My situation during that assignment mostly resembled that of Al Pacino in Christopher Nolan’s 2002 movie Insomnia.

Recently, I had the opportunity to reflect over my tenure through rose-tinted glasses of an aviator accustomed to the privilege of elaborate rules and regulations covering “fatigue” and “flight duty time limits”. I pondered over how fatigue and insomnia is hardly acknowledged as an issue on our warships. Often, aviators posted on ships become the subject of jokes centred around their mandatory “8-hour beauty sleep” requirement.

High-profile accidents

In the last decade, Indian Navy has seen several high-profile accidents with many lives lost.

A little past midnight of August 13/14, 2013, INS Sindhurakshak, a Kilo-class submarine exploded into a huge fireball, while being prepared for an early morning sortie on Independence Day, killing 18 personnel.

INS Vindhyagiri, a Leander-class frigate sank in Mumbai harbour on Monday, Jan 31, 2011. The frigate commissioned in 1981, hit a merchant vessel near Sunk Rock lighthouse on Sunday Jan 30, as it was entering harbour after a “day at sea” for families of sailors and officers.

In 2010, a crew member onboard INS Mumbai was instantly killed when a close-in weapon system went off in harbour during drills. Having known key officers on that ship, I am aware of an explosive mix of crew fatigue and relentless operational pressure that was surging in the run up to that accident which was ultimately blamed on violation of standard operating procedures and human error. Nobody acknowledged fatigue, publicly at least. We seldom drill beyond the surface, content as we are with the finding of human error.

On Dec 5, 2016, INS Betwa, a 3850-ton guided missile frigate keeled over during undocking post medium refit at Mumbai with loss of two lives. This is the latest in a series of accidents that have plagued the Navy, showing no signs of waning, despite the resignation of navy chief Admiral DK Joshi in Feb 2014.

Tired and fatigued

While all the inquiry reports submitted till date have assigned blame on ageing platforms, technological obsolescence, all-encompassing human error et cetera, the likely contribution of fatigue has been understated or completely brushed under the rug. Not surprising in a navy that is numerically smaller than other services but prides itself on working harder than others to stake claim to a greater proportion of the defence budget.

Life on our ships is hard, made ever harder by the mounting national and international engagements as we play a greater role in shaping events beyond our shores. Unfortunately, in our culture, safety and comfort become easy casualties in the 24/7 operational tempo.

Working over weekends and holidays, sailing out on Fridays and returning to port on Mondays, disproportionate balance of work between afloat and shore agencies, poor habitability on ships – the list goes on. We have no doubt improved habitability on our ships compared to the 1980s and ‘90s. But have we allowed our officers or men to soak in these modern luxuries for rest and recreation ? I think not.

As a Commanding Officer or operations staff at Headquarters, it is taboo to even acknowledge that people on our ships and submarines may be way too tired.

While exercising with foreign navies, it is not uncommon to find sailors lazing around in their trunks on the upper deck on a holiday. Our sailors will usually be hanging down the ship’s side, applying an extra coat of paint to improve the ship’s appearance under the Nelson’s eye of senior officers who have been groomed under the same culture. Quite a few officers may be working on infructuous PowerPoint presentations or curating functions.

As an example, imagine the number of things running in the minds of officers and sailors as they prepare to embark on a two-month, cross-coast deployment early next morning. Who wouldn’t want to spend an extra hour with families or hang out in the bar? On the eve of your departure, how would you like to be tasked with hosting a grand farewell party onboard your ship for some visiting dignitary with the Fleet Commander and Commander-in-Chief in attendance? I have been through this. So have many others. When we would sail early next morning, more than 75% of the Ships Company and officers would have hardly slept a wink. Soon after leaving harbour, we would be consumed by the relentless orgy of exercises that have come to define our fleet deployments.

Who is keeping account of fatigue and its unseen hand in errors of judgment that may arise in such situations, only to be classified as human error in subsequent inquiries?

No rest or recreation

Ships undergoing maintenance refits have a different bag of woes. Since refits are mostly dockyard responsibility (on paper at least), the ship is an easy target for communal duties that operational ships cannot fill. Ships in dockyards work under immense stress caused due to extremely poor habitability conditions, extraneous secondary duties, poaching of manpower by higher formations, and finally “inherited” tasks which are actually the responsibility of dockyard and its civilian workforce (who incidentally are unionised and governed by more elaborate and protectionist rules).

Added to this is the fact that tenure spent on a ship in refit does nothing to your career and is a thankless duty as far as promotions and annual confidential reports go. If all this doesn’t cause fatigue and propensity for errors, I don’t know what will.

In a recent article, Girish Shahane draws some interesting inferences from the work-sharing equation between dockyard and refit ships and timing of the Betwa accident, lunch hour on a Monday. This from his experience of filming a documentary two decades ago in the same dockyard. I couldn’t help but relate to his plausible but as yet unproven hypothesis. But sadly, even after two decades the Service will be loath to acknowledge fatigue as a factor in this or future accidents.

Navies do not work Monday to Friday. Or 9 to 5. Neither does the adversary. That is not my case. Watch systems, manning plans and degrees of readiness were all formulated to ensure an equitable distribution of work and rest. But at play is a serious disorder where “one-year syndrome” and “zero-error syndrome” have contrived to ensure that personnel on our ships are often fatigued and sleep deprived to insane levels.

The hierarchical structure and “yes boss” culture doesn’t allow for rest and recreation in the true sense that our predecessors ordained while framing the rules. “Make & mend” – an age old naval routine where sailors are allowed an afternoon off to attend to their clothing or as a period of leisure without set duties, is observed more in the breach today.

As we aspire to become a blue water force, a change in mindset at all levels is perhaps in order. Weapon firings, overseas deployments, multilateral exercises, docking, undocking, annual reports – it’s all very well. But let us also give our officers and men time and freedom to put on a hat, extend a fishing rod over the side and read their favourite book as often as we can.

The manhours “wasted” in these idle pursuits may well reap unimaginable payback by way of accidents averted by alert crew members – just like in aviation.

Material fatigue can cause dock blocks to collapse and keel-over ships. So can human fatigue. Who is measuring the latter?

Capt. KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and blogs at www.kaypius.com. He can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com. The views expressed in this article are personal.