The explosion on India’s Russian-built submarine INS Sindhurakshak that caused it to sink early on Wednesday has dealt a severe blow to the Indian Navy’s fast deteriorating underwater force levels.
Trapped inside the diesel-electric submarine are 18 sailors, including the warship’s second senior-most officer or XO in naval parlance.
The tragedy — one of the worst to hit the Navy since the sinking of INS Khukri in the 1971 Indo-Pak war — couldn’t have come at a worst time for the Navy as its submarine fleet is currently “in a highly precarious state”, a covert defence ministry report states.
Navy chief Admiral DK Joshi has already reached Mumbai.
This is not the first time that an incident has happened aboard Sidhurakshak: there was a similar explosion when the warship was docked in Visakhapatnam in February 2010 which killed a crew member was left two injured.
Top Navy officials are flabbergasted that the latest disaster comes barely seven months after the 2,300-tonne warship was overhauled at the Zvezdochka shipyard in Russia at a cost of more than $80 million (R480 crore).
Even as neighbour China is scaling up its underwater capabilities swiftly, India’s navy’s submarine force levels would be at its lowest in history by 2015, as reported by HT in April, quoting from a confidential defence ministry report.
The Navy currently operates 14 submarines, including a nuclear-powered attack submarine leased from Russia. However, the “viable strength” of its submarine arm is much less, factoring in the operational availability of the boats.
The Sindhurakshak tragedy has dented the Navy’s undersea capabilities majorly, a top Navy official said.
The Navy will be left with only six to seven submarines, including India’s first and only nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine INS Arihant, as it begins phasing out the Russian Kilo class and German HDW Type 209 submarines next year.
The report warned that India had “never before been poised in such a vulnerable situation”.
In contrast, 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 two years.
“As this critical (undersea) capability is eroded, there is an inverse increase in both capability and strength of the Chinese and Pakistani navies,” the report states.
Six Scorpene submarines are currently being built at the Mazagon Dock Ltd in Mumbai with technology from French firm DCNS under a R23,562-crore project codenamed P-75.
But the first of these boats will not be ready before 2016-17, though it should have been commissioned into the Navy last year.
The Sindhurakshak, inducted in the Navy in 1997, was docked in Mumbai when the accident took place. Details are still sketchy as to what triggered the explosions that led to a massive fire, even as the Navy has ordered a probe to figure out what went wrong.
“This explosion on board the INS Sindhurakshak took place when the submarine was docked. Imagine the scale of the disaster had something gone wrong during operational deployment,” a top Navy official said.
Some reports suggest that the explosion could have been caused by the build-up of volatile hydrogen gas during a battery charging, but Navy sources insisted that it was too early to speculate.
The Sindhurakshak is the ninth of a series of 10 Sindhughosh class submarines that were bought from the erstwhile Soviet Union in the mid 1980s.
Defence minister AK Antony had in May acknowledged limitations in the country’s ability to deploy its entire fleet. “There are some operational constraints regarding conventional submarines,” Antony had ten told top Naval commanders.