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Loss of personnel in Sindhurakshak mishap is anguishing

August 19, 2013 14:56 IST

There are some larger policy issues related to the submarine as a platform and the modernisation programme of the navy that merit brief recall and review, says C Uday Bhaskar

The unprecedented explosion on board the INS Sindhurakshak on August 13, when the submarine was berthed in Mumbai’s naval dockyard, is the most severe peacetime tragedy for the Indian Navy.

The worst fear -- that the 18 personnel trapped on board may not have survived -- has come true. The loss of colleagues who were irreplaceable and were precious human resources is anguishing.

A statement released by the navy on August 16 noted that while divers had managed to find the bodies of three crew members, it was unlikely that there would be any survivors.

It added, "The state of these bodies and conditions within the submarine leads to the firm conclusion that finding any surviving personnel within the submarine is unlikely, The damage and destruction within the submarine around the control room area indicates that the feasibility of locating bodies of personnel in the forward part of the submarine is also very remote as the explosion and very high temperatures, which melted steel within, would have incinerated the bodies too."

The retrieval of two more bodies has only confirmed this.

Earlier, Naval Chief Admiral DK Joshi, when asked about the possibility of finding survivors, had cautioned that while he “hoped for the best, one had to be prepared for the worst”. That sad exigency has come to pass.

The navy has constituted a Board of Enquiry which is expected to submit its findings in four weeks, which would offer a more informed assessment about the causal factors that led to this catastrophic incident.

In the interim, it may be possible to arrive at some reasonable assumptions about the contours of this unprecedented accident, based on the preliminary information that has been made available. The nature of the fire and multiple explosions that led to this colossal damage resulting in the flooding of the submarine, which is now partially submerged, are indicative of high explosive ordnance having been triggered.

Why and how this happened is for the Board to infer but prima facie, the visual imagery of the ball of fire that was captured on camera and its orange sheen is indicative of HE and hence the tentative conclusion about ordnance.

The fact that the heat generated was so intense that it melted steel -- thereby leading to a buckling and fusion of metal and the divers coming upon boiling water in the submerged boat even 12 hours after the accident -- provides for a tentative reconstruction of what may have happened to those trapped in the ill-fated INS Sindhurakshak.

Even as it is advisable to wait for the facts in respect of Sindhurakshak to be established and analysed before applying the correctives, there are some larger policy issues related to the submarine as a platform and the modernisation programme of the navy that merit brief recall and review.

The Indian Navy acquired its first 'boat' -- the Foxtrot class diesel electric submarine INS Kalveri -- in December 1967 from the former USSR.

In subsequent years, the numbers increased and the Foxtrot was succeeded by the Kilo class -- also from the USSR. In the late 1980s India expanded its submarine supplier-base and acquired four HDW boats from the former West Germany.

Currently the IN has 14 diesel submarines -- 10 of the Kilo class and four HDW-s.

However, for any navy that wishes to maintain a credible submarine profile, it would be reasonable to expect that there would be an induction of a new platform every two to three years depending on the available resources to ensure that block obsolescence does not reduce operational capability.

Regrettably, the last submarine to be commissioned in the IN was the INS Sindhushastra in June 2000. In other words, there has been no new boat inducted for 13 years.

Consequently, the tasking of the front-line submarines has progressively increased even as these age. This directly results in higher down time for maintenance which reduces the availability of operational submarines.

India's attempts at building submarines within the country have not been consistent and peremptorily scrapping the HDW line during the late 1980s has proved to be very costly.

Currently India is contracted to acquire the Scorpene class of submarines from France and the first vessel is now expected to be ready by 2015 -- a gap of 15 years from the induction of the last of the Kilo class submarines.

The submarine as a platform is becoming a coveted and preferred option in the Indian Ocean region. Both China and Pakistan have identified and invested in this capability and the cooperation between the two nations to augment Pakistan’s submarine inventory is of critical relevance to India.

While the shrinking conventional submarine force-levels of the IN is cause for concern and calls for a determined policy review, the Indian track record apropos nuclear submarines is more encouraging. The lease of the first SSN (INS Chakra) from the former USSR in 1988 gave the navy valuable experience. The investment in the Advanced Technology Vessel now christened the Arihant and the success of the reactor going critical is illustrative.

The contribution of submarines to the nation's overall maritime military capability is distinctive. The politico-diplomatic leverage it provides in the interests of the country and the flag, are varied and nuanced. And, the core of this capability is formed by a highly motivated, very professional and thoroughly competent human resource.

The loss of 18 intrepid submariners is indeed anguishing and the nation prays for them to rest in peace. If the appropriate policy relevance of this colossal loss is objectively internalised, then the sacrifice of the duty-watch on the INS Sindhurakshak that fateful night would not be in vain.

Commodore Uday Bhaskar (retd) is a former director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and the National Maritime Foundation