Seven sailors are believed to have suffered serious injuries and two officers remain "unaccounted for" in an accident early on Wednesday on board Russian-built submarine, INS Sindhuratna, putting Indian Navy's dismal safety record under further scrutiny and underlining its inability to maintain its dwindling kilo-class fleet.
The mishap took place 50 km off the Mumbai coast while the boat was on a routing training exercise.
A navy officer said the sailors became unconscious after smoke started to fill the boat and were airlifted to a naval hospital in Mumbai. Fire in one of the battery compartments, triggered by a short circuit, could have caused the accident, a source said.
"The deputy electrical officer (a lieutenant commander) and the watch keeping officer (a lieutenant) are missing. Compartments get sealed automatically when the fire-fighting system kicks in," the source said.
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Senior navy officials, including Commodore Commanding Submarines (West), were on board the submarine when the accident took place.
The submarine had undergone a refit at the naval dockyard in Mumbai barely two months ago, raising serious questions about the quality of upgrade it underwent.
The accident has taken the navy's mishap tally to 11 since INS Sindhurakshak, also a kilo-class boat, blew up and sank at a Mumbai harbour last August, killing all 18 men on board.
The navy has ordered a board of inquiry and the submarine's commanding officer is likely to be relieved of duties.
This is the third accident involving the navy's kilo-class (Type 877 EKM) boats in less than six months. INS Sindhughosh had hit the seabed last month, prompting the navy to order a probe.
Incidentally, one sailor was killed and another two injured in an explosion on board INS Sindhurakshak when the warship was docked in Visakhapatnam in February 2010.
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The kilo-class boats have been involved in accidents at a time when the navy is grappling with fast deteriorating underwater force levels. Its submarine fleet is currently "in a highly precarious state."
The INS Sindhurakshak accident occurred barely six months after the 2,300-tonne warship was overhauled at the Zvezdochka shipyard in Russia at a cost of more than Rs. 815 crore.
A baffled parliamentary panel had last week asked the navy to explain how could INS Sindhurakshak explode and sink within months of undergoing the costly upgrade.
Even as China is scaling up its underwater capabilities swiftly, the Indian Navy's submarine force levels would be at its lowest in history by 2015, as first reported by HT last April.
The navy will be left with barely six submarines, as it begins phasing out the Russian kilo-class and German HDW Type 209 submarines next year. The "viable strength" of its submarine arm is even less, factoring in the operational availability of the boats.
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China operates about 45 submarines, including two ballistic missile ones. It is planning to construct 15 additional Yuan-class attack submarines, based on German diesel engine purchases.
The Yuan-class boats could be equipped with air-independent propulsion systems to recharge their batteries without having to surface for more than three weeks, a capability currently unavailable with the Indian Navy.
In what is extremely worrying for the navy, the size of India's submarine fleet will roughly be the same as that of the Pakistani navy in less than two years.
Six Scorpene submarines are currently being built at the Mazagon Dock Ltd in Mumbai with technology from French firm DCNS under a Rs. 23,562-crore project codenamed P-75. But the first of these boats will not be ready before 2016-17.
The Sindhuratna is one in a series of 10 Sindhughosh-class submarines bought from the erstwhile Soviet Union in the mid 1980s. Defence minister AK Antony has acknowledged limitations in the country's ability to deploy its entire submarine fleet.
The Sindhuratna accident comes weeks after Antony asked the navy to clean up its act, saying he wasn't satisfied with the force's functioning. He had directed the navy to "strictly follow" standard operating procedures to combat preventable accidents that have tarnished the force’s reputation.
The defence ministry may ask the navy to carry out a "safety stand-down," a designated time for crews to focus on safety-related matters and training to deal with the daunting challenge of reducing mishaps.
The navy's failure to keep its main harbour channel navigable in Mumbai may have risked operations and may also led to some of the recent accidents involving ships running aground, as first reported by HT on February 2.
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An unreasonable delay in awarding a crucial dredging contract to keep the approach to the naval base clear had raised serious concerns about safe passage of boats in the shallow waters.
After the INS Sindhurakshak accident, Antony had asked the navy brass to "optimally operate" the country's assets and ensure these were not "frittered away."
The navy surely needs to take that advice seriously.
The chief of navy's Mumbai-based elite western fleet was last month summoned and asked to explain a series of recent mishaps involving warships that have blemished the navy's safety record under his watch.
In a rare action against an officer of his rank, Rear Admiral Anil Chawla, who heads the crucial naval formation, was summoned by the Western Naval Command chief Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha and made to report in a ceremonial uniform, called "dress No. 2" in naval parlance, which signifies displeasure on part of his superiors, as first reported by HT on January 29.
The captains of three frontline warships have been stripped of their positions in less than two months, with the navy blaming them for disturbing lapses that led to accidents under their command.
Also, India's largest and most-expensive warship, the INS Vikramaditya, faced embarrassing glitches during its home-bound voyage from the north Russian shipyard of Sevmash to the Karwar naval base in Karnataka, causing jitters in the defence ministry.
The $2.33 billion (Rs. 13,980 crore) aircraft carrier, bought second-hand from Russia and delivered five years behind schedule, reportedly suffered a boiler breakdown during its 42-day journey. The vessel has a history of boiler problems with 2012 sea trials failing due to a design problem in the ship's boilers.
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(With inputs from Presley Thomas in Mumbai and PTI)