The August 2013 Sindhurakshak and the February 2014 Sindhuratna submarine tragedies are stark reminder of the absence of a deep submergence rescue vessel in Indian Navy.
Since the first accident occurred on the harbor, the navy was saved from the responsibility to perform mid sea rescue. Though the Indian Navy possesses one vintage submarine rescue system which is capable of rescuing the crew at depths less than 150 metres, the requirement for the present era is to have a deep submergence rescue vessel.
To meet an emergency situation an agreement has been reached with the US Navy to facilitate the rescue of sailors in distress through US navy rescue equipments. Called the Indo-American Rescue Flyaway kit, this will be flown to India for rescuing the submariners in distress. To familiarize Indian naval personnel with the functioning of a DSRV, a joint Indo-US exercise was conducted in October 2012 off the West Coast. A US made DSRV took part in the exercise in which a few Indian submarine crew members were actually transferred from two Indian submarines which were sitting on the bottom of the sea to simulate distressed submarines. The Flyaway kit would be taking a maximum time of 72 hours to reach the accident venue, which in most of the cases would let the distressed submariners meet their watery grave.
In view of this, Indian naval observers contend that Indian Navy also needs to consider the NATO Submarine Rescue System(NSRS), which recently, May 2014, participated in the Dynamic Monarch 2014 exercise, held off the coast of Poland .
This exercise was designed to test the interoperability of various navies, whose warships may get disabled in any part of the world. In fact the Russian Kursk disaster in August 2000 caused the naval officials of major navies to realize that due to differences in national egress systems, systems incompatibility would make it difficult for other navies to engage in submarine rescue with their rescue ships.
NSRS is said to have a very safe and proven system to rescue the sailors of a stricken submarine. The Submarine Rescue Vehicle (SRV) component of NSRS is called NEMO. This is capable of rescuing 12 sailors at a time during stable emergency. It may rescue 15 submariners during the time of constrained emergency. The NEMO is only 30-ton ship and can be placed on duty to any part of the world within hours by air or by ship and has the capability to operate in excess of depth of 610 metres.
This submersible is owned by the navies of Norway, France and United Kingdom. This was developed in 2007. The NEMO’s crew can be launched from the surface, reach the submarine in distress, latch upon the submarines egress hatch and then sailors can be transferred to the sea surface. According to NATO officials the NEMO can operate underwater for up to four days.
According to retired naval officials Indian Navy should engage with the NATO authorities or with French or British navies, with whom India has very friendly ties, for acquiring the NEMO which offers excitingly cheap and effective option.
The need for a locally available submarine rescue kit has been felt for a long time but it could never acquire priority because of funds crunch. However after pressure from the naval headquarters and strategic community and the constant reminder of its need through the media, the Manmohan Singh Government had in mid- December last year cleared a proposal to acquire two deep-sea rescue vessels. The Defence Acquisition Council under the then Defence Minister A K Antony had cleared the Rs 1500 crore proposal for acquiring two DSRVs.
Though the kind of accident that happened with the Russian origin Sindhurakhsak submarine, in which all the 18 crew was killed, the DSRV would not have been of any assistance, but the small fire accident that happened in the battery compartment of the INS Sindhuratna, in February, this year might have developed in a major catastrophe, but the Indian navy managed to bring the accident under control and bring the submarine to the harbor , which was towed with the help of another ship. The Sindhurakshak submarine incident happened when it was berthed at the dockyard, otherwise it would have required a DSRV to recover the dead sailors.
In fact before the Sindhuratna accident, the Indian Navy was already making a comparative evaluation of two rivals Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicles (DSRV) from the United Kingdom and Russia. The Navy experts have already completed technical evaluation, but the process is being looked afresh under the new regime in the MoD. However, naval officials hope that DSRV will be available with the Indian Navy by the end of 2015 or early 2016. Now with the UPA government giving formal clearance to the acquisition proposal, the NDA government should not sit over the files for long, as most of the Indian naval fleet has aged and any more mishap cannot be ruled out.
The process to acquire DSRVs was initiated almost five years ago and the RFI was issued in 2010. According to naval officials the navy requires a 3000 ton category DSRV.
There was also an alternative proposal to acquire a single Submarine Rescue Bell System (SRBS) with a launch Recovery System called LARS for installation onboard its 2160 ton submarine rescue vessel Nireekshak. The RFI for this was actually issued last year in September by the Indian Navy’s special operations and diving directorate. On the basis of the responses the naval headquarters will firm up the staff requirement for issuing the final RFP.
The new SRBS will replace the Rescue Chamber which was acquired from Russia and deployed on the Nireekshak. According to the RFI The Submarine Rescue Bell (SRB) would have to be STANAG 1297 compliant and be able to allow the recovery of escapee crew in up to Sea State 3 at depths of 300 meter of sea water (MSW) in the dry method and 140 MSW in wet method. The SRB should have a crew of two and space for ten passengers.
The Indian Navy presently operates 15 submarines, mostly around two decades old. The Sindhuraskhak had just returned from Russia after midlife upgrade. Besides nine such Kilo class submarines, the navy possesses four German HDW diesel electric submarines which are also two decades old. The Navy is also operating one Russian Akula class nuclear submarine.
Since six French Scorpene submarines are to enter service from September 2016 to 2022 and one more Indian made nuclear submarine Arihant will enter service by the end of next year after completing sea trials, there will be pressing demand on Indian Navy to acquire a Deep submergence Rescue Vehicle. Even if a minor problem happens to the nuclear submarine INS Chakra or INS Arihant, it will attract world attention and will highlight the absence of a rescue vehicle in world’s one of the most powerful navies.
The navy had cleared a 30 year submarine building programme in 1999 to build 24 submarines, but after assessing the current induction trend and future acquisition plans it does not seem to be meeting its deadline by 2030. The RFP for six more submarines are lying in cold storage since the first term of the UPA government and the present NDA government has not given any indication on this to expedite its acquisition process.
After the six Scorpenes by 2022, the submarine strength would go up to 21 but by that period, the six Kilo class Russian submarines would be in retiring phase, so the effective strength of the Submarines in the Indian Navy would once again go down to 16 or 17 as by that time, another Indian made nuclear submarine may be expected to join the fleet.
There are plans to handover the construction of submarines to private sector, but Indian private sector has no technological expertise in manufacturing submarines hence they would be required to depend on foreign partners.
With this saga of Indian submarine acquisition programme, the lack of a DSRV adds to the woes of the submariners who need critical life support systems and vehicles when they are in deep distress in high seas.