2013-09-29 By Commodore (Retd) Ranjit B Rai
The Indian Navy has operated eight Foxtrot, ten Kilo, four HDW-1500, and two nuclear submarines, a Charlie (1988-91) and an Akula (from April 2013) both named INS Chakra on lease, for five decades, and has fired hundreds of torpedoes and dozens of missiles and taken part in armed operational patrols in wars and peace, with no major submarine accident.
The indigenous nuclear propelled nuclear armed (SSBN) Arihant is progressing well and only on August 10, its nuclear reactor was activated, a major step towards its journey forward for sea trials and deployment.
The 82.5 MW nuclear reactor for submarine was designed at Kalpakkam by PRP Centre – PRP originally stood for Plutonium Reprocessing Project under the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC).
The Navy’s safety record was broken on August 14 when two large white and orange explosions were seen, heard and photographed from the nearby Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai just after midnight, when India was getting ready to celebrate its 67th Independence Day.
The explosions led to the sinking of the 2,300-ton Kilo class conventional submarine, INS Sindhurakshak (protector of the seas), berthed in Navy’s Dockyard in the heart of Mumbai.
Sindhurakshak in fact was transported to Severodnsik in Russia on board a heavy lift ship from Vishakpatnam in June 2010 only, for refit and modernization.
It had returned a few months ago fully operational, torpedo and Klub missile capable.
Hence the accident shocked the nation and surprised the Navy’s submarine community, which is a close, knit professional arm.
The submarine arm is a ‘silent service’ and very little is written about the service’s operational roles.
It may be recalled that Captain Alexander Ivanovich Terenov, the Russian safety captain of the Project 670 K-43 nuclear submarine INS Chakra from 1986 to 1991, who initially trained the Indian crews at Vladivostok, and then served alongside the three successive Indian captains for four years, has praised the Indian submariners for their professionalism in his book, “Under Three Flags, The Saga of the Submarine Cruiser K43/Chakra.”
The nuclear propelled Charlie was taken on a three-year lease from 1988 from the Soviet Union. The deal was facilitated by Admiral of the Fleet Sergie Gorshkov, who was impressed by the Indian Navy’s Styx missile attacks off Karachi in the 1971 war and employment of Soviet supplied warships and submarines.
He reposed confidence that the Indian Navy could operate nuclear submarines effectively. The then Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, had initiated discussions with Soviet leaders for leasing a nuclear submarine.
The Indian crew under Captain Ravi Ganesh took over the K-43 and named her INS Chakra. Around then, US President Ronald Reagan asked Moscow not to transfer the boat. The crew had completed training by December 1987, but was kept waiting in Vladivostok and not allowed to go on board for some time.
The book indicates that it was Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who then managed to swing the transfer by approaching President Mikhail Gorbachev. The submarine was hurriedly commissioned and christened INS Chakra by T.N. Kaul, India’s Ambassador to Russia, who hosted a lunch and sailed out of Vladivostok on January 5, 1988 when the temperature was minus 25 degrees C.
The Chakra was ordered by NHQ to dive and proceed till the Malacca Straits underwater to avoid detection.
Jane’s Defence weekly photographed her off Singapore from where a naval warship escorted her to home waters.
On February 3, 1988, Rajiv Gandhi personally embarked the INS Chakra off Vishakapatnam to welcome her into the Indian fleet.
The submarine dived, and the PM and his entourage had lunch with the Officers and the Coxswain, an important key senior sailor whilst under nuclear power underwater.
The Indian crew handled the reactor well after the Russians put the officers and sailors through the paces of nuclear operation. INS Chakra was operated for 72,000 nautical miles (133,000km), and her reactor was active for 430 days.
Five missile and 42 torpedo firings were executed under the Indian command with Russian supervision on board for safety, which speaks volumes of operational capabilities over four years.
An accident and fire on board the Chakra in 1989 saw her lose electric power and descend from 40 feet to 200 feet. The crew expeditiously ordered ‘emergency blowing of the tanks’ to surface the boat. The fire was contained and put off by joint heroic action of the Indian crew and the few Russians on board including Terenov.
There was no radioactive leakage and the submarine returned to Vishakapatnam on her own, possibly under diesel power, or with assistance of tugs as the reactor must have been scrammed (emergency shut). A Russian support team and the naval dockyard took three months to put her back to the sea.
Submarine accidents nonetheless have happened worldwide including in the US, UK and, the Soviet Navies; each equipped with major submarine arms.
There are lessons to draw from them.
It would be imperative for the Indian Navy to examine the causes of all submarine accidents– technical or human failures– and do the needful as preventive measures.
Many dangers lurk when operating submarines.
Therefore the question whether the explosions in Sindhurakshak were caused by a systemic, a human or material failure or due to sabotage is haunting those who have served in the Indian Navy, and will be speculated, as all the 18 on board including the First Lieutenant and two Lt Commanders and five Under Water Control (UCs) sailors who deal with anti-submarine warfare perished.
The evidence of the three sailors on the casing who jumped to safety will be vital, as they would have been aware of what was going on ‘down below’.
The revelations of the night orders that the Commanding Officer had left for the duty crew of Sindhurakshak will be crucial as the submarine was to sail that morning for an operational patrol possibly with armed torpedoes and missiles which normally entails the critical drill of inserting primers and detonators into the weapons.
The submarine has six torpedo tubes in the bows which can be loaded with torpedoes or missiles, and can carry 12 additional torpedoes/missiles in racks. As Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in most navies, operational submarines and ships invariably proceed on patrol with torpedoes and missiles, and some are armed in the tubes, which have watertight front covers and are considered very safe. The saying goes the ‘weapons in the tubes are safer than the weapons in the racks’. The weapons in the racks are open to view and touch.
Defence Minister AK Antony and CNS Admiral DK Joshi held a press briefing in Mumbai and mentioned the bow part of the submarine was mangled and had suffered large damage. That is where the torpedoes and missiles are housed in the 21-inch torpedo tubes.
A Naval Board of Inquiry (BOI) is looking in to the causes of the sinking of Sindhurakshak, and the contract to salvage the submarine is being awarded for the hull to be lifted up.
The damaged weapons and hull should offer pointers but the direct evidence will be scanty as all those working in the boat perished.
But notwithstanding this accident, the record of the Indian Naval Submariners deserves lauding.
The Indian Navy is ready to operate new generation submarines, both nuclear and conventional over the coming years.
Published courtesy of our partner India Strategic from their September 2013 issue.