Major setback

The tragic accident and end of INS Sindhurashak

At a time when the Indian Navy was celebrating the launch of India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant and the activation of the reactor of the indigenous nuclear powered submarine INS Arihant, the explosion and the devastating fire incident on India’s frontline attack submarine INS Sindhurakshak came as a big blow to the morale of Indian naval and strategic community.

The tragic incident on the night of August 13, 2013 on INS Sindhurakshak, the Kilo class Russian submarine will be remembered in strategic arena for years to come.

The 18 submariners inside the Sindhurakshak met their watery grave and a shocked nation mourned their death. The tragic destruction of the submarine happened when it was berthed in the Mumbai naval dockyard and was instructed to sail for surveillance and patrolling duty in the waters near Pakistan maritime area.

The submarine was well armed with 300 km range 3M-14 E land-attack variant Klub cruise missiles and Torpedoes and was getting ready for sailing in the high seas. As reported the submarine’s battery was being charged and during the process hydrogen leak ignited fire in the armament compartment.

Internal explosion

As confirmed by the defence minister A K Antony in the Indian Parliament, the initial assessments indicate that an internal explosion occurred in the forward compartment of the submarine, where ordnance was stored, resulting in further near-simultaneous explosions, and major fire onboard INS Sindhurakshak.

After the incident the Navy has ordered extensive checks on weapon-related safety systems and audit of standard operating procedures (SOPs) on all operational submarines.

The submarine had just returned from Russia after more than two and half years refit, for which the Russians gave a warranty till 2014 and charged over US$ 150 million. After all security checks the Russians had also issued the safety certificate and thereafter confirmed by the Indian Navy inspection team.

Hence, there are speculations over the possible reasons for explosion and fire inside the submarine. It was just a coincidence that the incident happened during night time and only 18 submariners were aboard. If the incident had happened during the day almost all the personnel would have been on duty.  

The incident will have a deep impact on the morale of the Indian naval community. The submarine arm of the Indian Navy was considered to be safe, especially in view of the many incidents that happened on the Russian submarines in recent years.

The incident has focused on India’s depleting underwater fleet. Though the untimely demise of Sindhurakshak has reduced the strength of conventional submarine to 13, the  actual operational submarines would not be more than eight, as two of the Kilo class and two of the HDW submarines are undergoing long refit and one has been sent to Russia for mid life update.

The Kilo class submarines began joining Indian Navy fleet in 1988 and the last tenth Sindhushastra submarine arrived in 2000.  

While managers of Indian defence are still dithering on the acquisition of next six planned submarines, India’s rivals are getting equipped with much more advanced fleet. The Pakistani Navy is armed with three Agusta Class submarines equipped with Air Independent Propulsion technology, which gives the submarines the near nuclear powered capability.

Lack of planning

The present Indian submarines lack this capability. India had the option to convert the last two of the six Scorpene submarines with AIP capabilities but the MoD did not show interest. The one nuclear Submarine INS Chakra is on ten year lease from Russia and cannot be armed with any nuclear tipped missile and the other indigenous nuclear Sub INS Arihant will not be able to be combat ready before mid 2015. The Chinese have 51 conventional and 11 nuclear submarines. The nuclear subs have the capability to sit in the Indian Ocean for months without getting noticed.

The naval circle is hoping that the latest incident on Sindhurakhsak will prompt the Cabinet Committee on Security to grant the approval to go ahead with the issue of RFP for six advanced submarines, which will be equipped with AIP technology.

Considering the very long induction process in Indian defence establishment, the six advanced submarines will not be able to join the fleet before 2022- 2025 period. Till then the Indian Navy will have to manage with present 13 plus six new Scorpene conventional and possibly four nuclear submarines. Question mark will remain on the deployment status of the present conventional submarines if somehow maintained till early next decade.

The INS Sindhurakshak had returned from Russia last April and was considered to be most powerful of the Indian submarines as it was armed with 300 km range Club land attack missile. The submarine which originally cost India US$ 115 million was retrofitted with a cost of US$ 150 million and was converted into most lethal of the Indian submarines. The submarine was also fitted with the Sonar USHUS, a CCS Mark-II communication suite, air-conditioning plants in the machinery and control rooms etc among other things, which has now gone down the drain.

INS Sindhurakshak had earlier met with a minor accident on February 26, 2010 in which one sailor had died and another two injured during an explosion in the battery pit of the submarine at Vishakhapatnam when its batteries were being re-charged. The hydrogen problem had also emerged then when the accident happened due to high concentration of hydrogen gas in the third compartment of the battery. Immediately after this incident the Sindhurakshak was sent to Russia for the upgrade.

After the midlife medium refit cum upgrade the Sindhurakshak had the stamina to traverse the Arctic Ocean and the naval authorities were rejoicing over its new found capabilities.  The rest of the Kilo class submarines were also planned to undergo similar refits. Some are already undergoing this modernization.

In an era when the Indian Ocean is once again emerging as a zone of maritime rivalry between big powers and Indian strategic planners are worried over the development, the depleting submarine strength is causing concern among strategic community.

The last six Scorpene submarines were ordered from France for assembly in Indian Mazagaon dockyard, Mumbai. The MoD had accepted the necessity of acquiring six more advanced submarines way back in 2007. But six years later, the government could not decide till last August on the issue of RFP for these six submarines under the Project-75 India.

The projected acquisition estimate of the six new submarines would be around US$ 11 billion, while the Scorpene submarines will cost the nation around US$ 4 billion. The MoD wants at least two submarines made in a private shipyard and two in the Public Sector shipyard, but going by the Scorpene experience one does not feel confident that the six new submarines will join the Indian Navy within stipulated time.  

The Scorpene submarines are already running four years late and now the first submarine is expected to join the fleet by the end of 2016.  Almost a decade ago the MoD had cleared the Indian Navy perspective plan to have a very modest submarine strength of 30 by 2030. But this seems improbable to achieve going by the current on hand acquisition plans and the lethargic manner in which they are executed.