The accident on board an Akula II class Russian nuclear submarine last Saturday, which killed 20 people and injured several others, is a major embarrassment for Russia as it tries to rebuild its once mighty military forces. From all accounts, the mishap was caused by Freon — a poisonous gas that puts out fires by removing oxygen from the air — which leaked from fire extinguishers when they unexpectedly switched on in the submarine’s nose. For India, this couldn’t have happened at a worse time, as this submarine is earmarked for transfer to the Indian Navy next year, and Indian Navy personnel are going through their paces to train aboard the vessel.
Since the mid-80s, India has been trying to develop a nuclear submarine based on the Soviet Charlie II-class design. But very little progress has obviously been made in the Indian Navy’s secretive Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) project to provide nuclear propulsion for Indian submarines. The biggest technical hurdle is the miniaturisation of a nuclear power plant that could be mounted on a submarine’s hull. Hopefully, the recent success reported from test centres like the Indira Gandhi Centre For Atomic Research, Kalpakkam, will help the ATV project gather some much-needed steam. The Navy is keen to gain first-hand experience in the operations, deployment, and maintenance of its three nuclear submarines being built at the Mazagaon docks in Mumbai before they are operationalised. The last time the Navy operated a nuclear submarine was in the late 1980s — on a leased Russian Charlie class vessel.
Last Saturday’s accident, however, puts question marks over the new submarine’s reliability and Russia’s attempts to jack up its price. Cash-strapped Russia is obviously eager to promote its weapon sales to developing countries, and India, as one of its oldest customers, is a key market. But that is no excuse for Moscow to raise costs midway in its defence deals with New Delhi. This happened earlier in the Sukhoi-30MKI fighter contracts, and more recently with the Gorshkov aircraft carrier. While cost escalation is an inarguable factor, sudden price revisions like these smack of iniquity. Not that India is in a position to bargain, as nuclear submarines form a crucial component of New Delhi’s ‘minimum credible deterrent’ posture. India has no choice when it comes to projecting its sea power effectively in the Indian Ocean region, which has become strategically even more important after 9/11.