INS Sindhurakshak Tragedy: Navy should Strengthen and Safeguard its Submarine Fleet
Radhakrishna Rao

Even as the Indian Navy, the youngest of the three services, had every reason to rejoice over India’s home-grown nuclear powered submarine INS Arihant attaining criticality and the launch of the indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant in the first fortnight of August, a massive blow in the form of the wrecking of the INS Sindurakshak submarine in a devastative explosion on August. 14, turned the” mood of celebration” into a “moment of sorrow and introspection”.

The death of eighteen Indian Navy personnel on-board the ill fated Sindhurakshak, considered the key, frontline conventional submarine in service with the Indian Navy, made the tragedy all the more painful and shocking. Evidently, Sindhurarkshak was a sort of prized possession for the Indian Navy as it had come back from Russia after an extensive refurbishment. Incidentally, Sindhurakshak was deployed at the Mumbai dockyard following a US alert about the possible LeT(Lashkar-e-Toiba) attack along India’s coastline.The 2,300-tonne Sindhurakshak was, by all means, the operationally best submarine at the command of the Indian Navy since it got new sensors and underwent structural modifications which extended its lifespan by almost a decade .Following its midlife refit programme at Russia’s Zvezdochka shipyard at an estimated cost of US$80-million, Sindhurakshak, originally built in 1997, was equipped with the tube launched Club-5 cruise missile effective against the surface vessels and submarines at a range of about 200-kms. Sindhurakshak is one of the ten kilo class submarines that India bought from Russia between 1986 and 2000.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, Defence Minister A K Antony informed the Indian Parliament that “The navy has ordered a Board of Inquiry (BoI) and it has started with all the seriousness. Its terms of reference are to look into all aspects of causes of this incident. Nothing is ruled out. All likely aspects would be examined by BoI” said Antony. In a way, Antony’s statement implies that sabotage angle could not be ruled out.

Antony also revealed that the entire operational submarine fleet of the Indian Navy is currently undergoing extensive checks on the weapons related safety system and an audit of the current standards operational procedure has also been ordered. But then a serious question that begs answer is as to why the political dispensation in New Delhi slept over for more than a decade over a proposal for the acquisition of the submarine rescue system. Naval warfare experts point out that the timely deployment of the state of the art Deep Submergence Rescue Vessel (DSRV) could easily save the lives of the sailors on-board the submarine under disintegration. Naval forces of Russia, USA, China, UK and Singapore all have deep sea rescue systems in place. It may be recalled that in August 2000, more than 100 Russian sailors on-board the nuclear powered submarine Kursk, which sank in the Barents Sea, had to pay with their lives on account of the failure to deploy DSRV on time. The moral of the story is that by deploying a submarine rescue system, India could have easily managed to save the lives of the sailors on-board Sindhurakshak.

And in what seems to be the case of bolting the stable after horses have left, just a week before the Sindhurakshak tragedy, an RFI (Request for Information) was issued for a “Submarine Rescue Bell System with LARS”(Launch and Recovery System). Whether it is the procurement of the much needed artillery systems for the Indian armed forces or the acquisition of submarines for the Indian Navy, dithering and delay reinforced by a “deadly indifference” seems to have become the order of the day. And the country and its defence forces ultimately pay a very high price for the painfully slow decision making process of the poorly motivated bureaucracy associated with the defence acquisition programme.

On the other hand, India as a country has not exactly covered itself with glory in so far as ensuring safety in all its manifestations is concerned. It is high time that the Indian Navy took steps to decongest its facilities at Mumbai and Vishakhapatnam. To begin with, quickening impetus should be given to the completion of the phase two of the “Sea Bird” project at INS Kadamba at Karwar in Karnataka to help relocate some of the ships and submarines from Mumbai. It is in the fitness of things that it has been decided to berth the retrofitted aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya at Karwar naval base. In Vishakhapatnam, where the nuclear submarines are stationed, a refinery and a fertilizer plant are in close proximity to the naval facilities. What’s more, the harbour here with its narrow entrance can easily be blocked by sinking trawlers. As such, there is a need for a new green-field naval yard somewhere on the eastern coast. The principle that one cannot put all the eggs in one basket should be the guiding force of the Indian Navy.

Becoming wiser after the event seems to have become a norm rather than an exception for the Indian ruling elite. Antony has now directed for according a top most priority for sustaining the “operational efficiency” of the thirteen conventional diesel electric submarines left with the Indian Navy after the Sindhurakshak tragedy. Of course, an overwhelming majority of them are already into the evening of their lives .And only half of them will be available for deployment at a given time since the ageing submarine fleet is being forced to spend much of their time for repairs and maintenance. Further, Antony had made it clear that there should be no more delays in the construction of the six Scorpene submarines with the technology to be provided by the French firm DCNS. Antony has also asked for expediting the thirty year submarine building project which was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) way back in July 1999.

By all means, submarines constitute the sinew of under-sea warfare strategy for they play a key role in neutralizing hostile naval vessels and blockading enemy harbours by laying mine fields. And now it looks as if India’s under sea combat arm stands compromised. Indeed, a fact filled CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) report tabled in the Indian Parliament in 2008 had raised the alarm bells by stating that due to “ageing fleet and prolonged refit schedules, the average operational availability of the Indian Navy submarine was as low as 45%”. The report had also pointed out that the “the availability of the submarines with the Indian Navy is much below the envisaged force level and a large number of submarines in the existing fleet have become due for decommissioning in the immediate future.” Indeed, the grim ground reality is that Indian Navy has not been in a position to boost its sub-sea patrol by acquiring new submarines after the year 2000.

To make the matter worse, Indian Navy is yet to acquire air independent propulsion (AIP) system driven submarines which can stay under-sea for longer periods in comparison to the conventional diesel electric submarines which are required to surface once in a few days for recharging their batteries. In the context of the expanding responsibilities being thrust upon it, the Indian Navy would need a minimum of 24 submarines to take care of the security on both the eastern and western coasts of the country. In comparison, China has about 60 submarines of which ten are nuclear powered. China is also into building ten more nuclear powered submarines.

Indeed, India’s ambitious plan for building six new generation conventional submarines under Project 75I stands behind schedule by three years due to the delay in decision making and finalizing the purchase of equipment to be fitted into the submarine including sensors and propulsion. As things stand now, the first of the six Scorpene submarines will be delivered only by 2015 with 2022 as the deadline for the delivery of the entire lot. Under Project 75I, two of the six submarines will be delivered in ready to use condition by the French firm DCNS. The DCNS will transfer the technology to India for building the remaining four submarines. The Indian part of the project will be executed by Mazagon Docks Ltd (MDL) in Mumbai and Hindustan Shipyard at Vishakhapatnam. These submarines will come equipped with the advanced AIP system. This project forms a part of the thirty year plan to boost the under- sea capability of the Indian Navy and strengthen the indigenous base for the design, development and production of the submarines. As part of the thirty year plan, it is envisaged that 24 new submarines will join the Indian naval fleet.

Currently, the only operational nuclear powered submarine at the command of the Indian Navy is INS Chakra which was launched in 2012. It was acquired on lease for a period of ten years from Russia. This Akula-II class “Nerpa” submarine has a maximum speed of 30 knots and can go to a depth of 600-metres.Chakra armed with four 533-mm and four 650-mm torpedo tubes is, by all means, a formidable undersea combat system .Of course, under the lease terms, Chakra cannot be equipped with nuclear weapons. But then Chakra would substantially strengthen the Indian Navy’s capability for power projection in the Indian Ocean region and beyond.

Indeed, India’s home grown nuclear powered submarine Arihant going critical on August 10 as a first step towards its extensive sea trials was a landmark event for the Indian Navy. Unlike the conventional diesel driven submarines, the 6,000-tonne Arihant will remain submerged in water for months on end, thus making its detection a really difficult task. Powered by a compact, indigenous Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) capable of generating 83-MW of power, Arihant has catapulted India into the elite league of a handful of countries which have mastered the technological complexities involved in building a nuclear powered submarine. Incidentally, India happens to be the only nation in the IOR (Indian Ocean Region) to possess a nuclear powered submarine.

On its part, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is planning to induct BO-5 medium range nuclear missile into Arihant. It is also planned to equip Arihant with K-15 nuclear tipped missile which has a range of 700-km.Further into the future, Arihant can serve as a formidable platform for launching the under sea version of the Indo- Russian supersonic cruise missile BrahMos. Three more nuclear propelled submarines would be constructed under Indian Navy’ high profile Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) programme.

Clearly and apparently, Arihant and its follow on submarines including Aridhaman will substantially strengthen India’s nuclear strike capability. In the context of India’s national policy of “no first use of nuclear weapons”, the submarine arm of the nuclear triad will provide India a “credible second strike capability” to inflict “unacceptable damage” on the adversary. By all means, the submarine based ballistic missiles are considered the most effective and difficult to detect nuclear weapons delivery system.

But then it would be sometime before India’s fully home grown nuclear powered submarines go operational and become a part of the under sea arm of the Indian Navy. As such, with a view to beef up the rapidly dwindling submarine capability of the Indian Navy in the immediate future, India is now negotiating with Russia for the lease of the another nuclear powered submarine. All said and done, ensuring the safety of submarines is as critical as acquiring and maintaining them. For not long back, a US navy lieutenant who chose to remain anonymous through his blogs had expressed his unhappiness over the poor empowerment of Indian Navy personnel in terms of enforcing safety measures at all levels in a professional manner. Evidently, the US Navy blogger is known to have spent a few days with an Indian Navy ship in the Arabian Sea under the exchange programme.

Because the entire submarine fleet with the Indian Navy is both old and obsolete, the problems associated with ensuring their safety are too many and complex. For example, the fighting equipments past their designed life span are prone to mishaps and accidents. And the delay in procurement of new systems to replace the older ones only adds to the problem of ensuring safety. As is the case with the proposals for the procurement of battlefield hardware for the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF), the plan for the acquisition of submarines for the Indian Navy has been hanging fire for many years now. Unless our defence bureaucracy develops a vision and motivation for fast tracking the battlefield hardware in a time bound, transparent and cost effective manner, accidents like the Sindhurakshak tragedy is bound to repeat time and again. It may be recalled that the diesel electric driven submarine INS Sindhughosh had run into collision with a fishing boat in 2006 followed by a merchant vessel in 2007.

India should also probe thoroughly the observation of the Russian side that the violations of safety regulations could be the most likely cause of the explosion that wrecked Sindhurakshak. But here again, it would also be appropriate for the Indian Navy to evaluate the quality of Russian workmanship as well as the integrity of the systems and weapons forming part of the submarine. Of course, Indian Navy has in place well formulated and time tested procedures for ensuring the safety of submarines. But then to what extent they are implemented with all the seriousness they deserve, no one is sure as yet. And in particular this angle should be probed in depth.

For the navy personnel, living and operating in an undersea environment of the submarine, makes for a demanding and unforgiving task, for they lead a check by jowl existence with a bank of chemical batteries requiring periodic charging, inflammatory and dangerous gases as well as highly explosive warheads. This implies that even a small “mistake or lapse” could be dangerous and could cause a huge explosion leading to a certain catastrophe. Especially, while working in a submarine acquired from overseas source, the Indian Navy sailors should display a greater level of circumspection and caution as there are many “grey areas” in the safety measures and principles devised for them. There is no denying the fact that only a home grown system could ensure a greater level of safety and security in comparison to imported hardware. For here Indian naval personnel could have access to the entire range of data—starting from design phase to the level of integration and final assembly. In case of doubt, they can always go back to the original source. And this advantage would not be available with an imported system. This is one more major argument that goes to boost the case of indigenization from the word go.

Coming to the Sindhurakshak tragedy, greater stress should be placed on the safety of the propulsion system of a submarine. For it is speculated that the failure of the safety system related to the propulsion module of Sindhurakshak was responsible for the explosion. Because the diesel electric powered submarines are run on chemical batteries requiring occasional charging, the chances of their being subjected to explosion cannot be ruled out. By going in for the air independent propulsion system, the chances of submarine accidents could be minimized. All said and done, the argument of Uday Bhaskar, former Director of the National Maritime Foundation that “the zero error safety tenet will have to be reemphasized and internalized” should be the guiding principle of the safety procedures being implemented for the Indian submarine fleet. In the ultimate analysis, the security aspects of the mechanism of man machine interface should receive utmost priority to obviate the Sindhurakshak type tragedy. Under no circumstance should the safety principles be compromised. And the Indian Navy should lose no time in insulating its submarine fleet from “mishaps and accidents” by implementing safety rules and regulations at every stage of the operation.

Published Date: 4th September 2013, Image Source:

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