It is heartrending to see Indian Navy, which had earned for itself an enviable reputation of being forward looking-as seen in the lead it too in indigenization and production of ships based on Indian design- becoming embroiled in incompetence, bad seamanship and tragic accidents like the INS Sindhurakshak explosion inside Mumbai harbour.
One wonders under which slot one should place the failure to plan and create a submarine rescue vessel given that the entire submarine fleet is being described as obsolescent and hence vulnerable.
In the early 80s evidence of early farsightedness and commitment to get the best from abroad was seen in the negotiations for the four HDW submarines from Germany.
These four (two built in Germany and two in India) were to supplement the Foxtrot class of submarines available with the Indian Navy. The Germans offered certain additional options that could be incorporated in the Indian version of the submarines.
One of these options was an escape bubble in which the entire crew of 50 could escape in one lot and survive on rations and water stashed in the bubble. Indian Navy negotiators saw great advantage in having an inbuilt facility that will save the whole crew and ensure several hours of oxygen supply and external communication facility.
It would have been a fraction of the cost of a separate Deep Submergence Rescue Vessel (DSRV) which would take the better part of 24 hours to reach the submarine in distress.
The later acquisition of Kilo class submarines from Russia has no such facility and they constitute the largest segment of submarines of the Indian Navy. It is not possible to incorporate such innovations except at the drawing board stage.
Even there the requirements of hydrodynamics and the incorporation of stealth features could make it very difficult to add the bubble to the hull especially if the whole crew strength of 52 is to be rescued in one ascent.
But it would be worth trying having such a facility especially in the remaining Arihant class and follow-on of nuclear submarines for the very obvious reason of ensuring escape at short notice.
The possibility of incorporating two bubbles, one at each end of the submarine, to evacuate the entire crew in one go ought to be examined by the Naval Design Bureau. This should ensure that the space for the launch tubes for missiles and torpedoes is not reduced. It would, of course require a massive redesigning of the hull and upgrading the engines to take the additional weight and still retain its combat speed. If a complete new hull is to be designed for the next generation of submarines especially the nuclear powered ones, so be it.
In the meantime, the Indian Navy has floated tenders for DSRV and shortlisted two likely suppliers one British and the other Russian. The contract should become operative this year and hopefully the Indian Navy will have two Deep Submergence Rescue Vessels in its fleet within two years.
In the meantime it will continue to depend on the US for the deployment of its Mystic and Avolon DSRVs for which “interoperability” exercises were conducted off the coast of India recently.
Acutely aware of the growing obsolescence of the Indian Navy fleet of submarines the Ministry of Defence has agreed to the appointment of a special officer to oversee the acquisitions. His first duty would be to expedite the completion of what is known as Project 75-six Scorpene conventional submarines being built under license from a Spain-France joint venture.
The last two of these vessels would very likely incorporate the air-independent propulsion (AIP) which extends the submerged range of the submarine substantially. The Defence Research and Development Organisation is working on an indigenous AIP to install in the later Scorpenes. Project 75 is the victim of a double whammy. In the first instance the dockyard lost precious skilled manpower that had been trained to construct the West German HDW class of hunter-killer submarines. But the controversy over kickbacks paid to Indian agents stalled the project and prospects of acquisition by indigenous construction stopped at two after which the manpower and the infrastructure became redundant.
By the time the Scorpene tender was signed the infrastructure had to be renovated considerably and new manpower trained to the French way of constructing submarines. The acquisition of building material from special steels to fittings took time and costs rose as the project languished. Hopefully the new officer will be able to put it on high gear and ensure that no more deadlines are lost.
In a continuum program described as the Project 75 I (India), a second lot of six Scorpenes are to be constructed by the fully trained manpower at the Mazagon Dockyard Ltd.
Hopefully timelines will be kept sacrosanct and the submarines join the fleet on schedule. These will make a total of 12 Scorpenes (about eight fitted with the long-range AIP system) even as the ten Russia supplied Kilo class submarines reach obsolescence.
Currently, they have been modernized during midlife refits with introduction of latest sensors and weapons.
The Sindhurakshak had just returned from such a refit in Russia and it appears possible that inexperience in handling the weapons on board could have led to mishandling and the series of explosions that caused the deaths of 18 sailors. The episode indicated that the level of training will have to be raised to ensure that equipment is handled correctly and the number of adverse incidents is reduced to zero.
The Indian Navy is waiting with great expectations for the induction of the nuclear powered and armed INS Arihant into the fleet as soon as it clears the sea trials which are expected to begin by the end of the year. In about 18 months the submarine will be commissioned into the Indian Navy and be ready for operations.
Meanwhile, submarine crews are being trained and familiarized with nuclear propulsion on the former Russian Nerpa submarine now renamed INS Chakra II which is on a ten year lease with the Indian Navy. Since the Russians have not allowed nuclear weapons to be mounted on the vessel, the complete minimum nuclear deterrent will have to wait till the Arihant joins the fleet with its full complement of weapons inclusive of the nuclear-tipped Brahmos cruise missile and the 750 km range Sagarika missile which has already been tested several times and is ready for operations.