An orange-tinted ball of fire atop a damaged submarine, the ill-fated INS Sindhurakshak dominated TV screens last week in the run-up to Independence Day. Disbelief gave way to shock and sorrow as the news trickled in.
A frontline Kilo-class submarine of the Indian Navy that had just come back after extensive refurbishment in Russia lay gutted at the Naval Dockyard, Mumbai with 18 crew members trapped in a horrific situation.
The richly-deserved pride of the preceding days — over the reactor on the indigenously designed and built nuclear submarine, the INS Arihant, going critical, and the launch of the indigenously designed aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant — was sullied. The tragic contours of August 14 slowly emerged as doubts grew about the fate of the 18 submariners trapped aboard the vessel.
The intensity of the explosions that ripped through the double-hulled boat and the nature of the fire that led to melted steel suggested that there was little chance of there being any survivors.
This was confirmed in a suo motu statement by Defence Minister A K Antony who informed the Rajya Sabha on August 19 that the “rapidity and intensity of the explosions and the resultant damage to the submarine indicate that the 18 personnel on board would not have survived.” Seven bodies have since been recovered.
The orange that was discernible in the first visuals suggested a fire that involved HE — high explosive — the principal ingredient in the ordnance on board the submarine.
This was confirmed by the minister who added: “Preliminary investigations indicate that the explosion was due to the possible ignition of armament. The cause of ignition is, however, yet to be established.”
A board of inquiry constituted by the navy is expected to submit its report in four weeks. Pending those findings, it may be premature to speculate about the sequence of events that led to this tragedy — but as in all such cases, material failure, human failure and the black swan exigency will be probed.
Inadequacies in safety protocols and procedures have been alluded to and the Navy will have to review the entire ordnance and ammunition handling spectrum. The zero error tenet will have to be re-emphasised and internalised.
Ironically, the navy’s submarine arm has always prided itself on having a safety record that was the envy of its peers from the time it acquired its first boat — the Foxtrot class INS Kalvari in December 1967.
Still, there was a slender silver lining on August 14 that testified to the resilience and professionalism of the navy and dockyard staff. Amidst the fire and explosions, another Kilo class submarine that was berthed alongside the Sindhurakshak was quickly moved away to safety. This merits the highest commendation.
While the loss of lives is a severe tragedy, the immediate fallout is the depletion of the navy’s submarine force levels.
With 10 Kilo class and four HDW conventional boats, the numbers were already modest. The loss of the Sindhurakshak will make a serious dent in those numbers and call for innovative utilisation of available platforms.
Induction of the six Scorpene submarines from France and access to nuclear propelled boats (SSN) for training purposes from Russia will provide a much needed infusion of new platforms — but all this is a few years away.
The deeper strategic issue that warrants scrutiny is the manner in which the submarine as a capability has been perceived by the national security apex. The trajectory from 1967 to 2013 is illustrative of a plan that has gone awry — and the deleterious effect of short-sighted, impulsive political compulsions on national security.
The Navy did well to acquire valuable submarine experience and competence by way of the Soviet-origin Foxtrot and Kilo class boats in its first two decades. And in the late 1980s, India embarked on an ambitious program to acquire more advanced HDW boats from West Germany, as well as to build them within the country as part of a technology transfer agreement. Taken to its logical conclusion, this would have enhanced India’s overall military profile and industrial base in a significant manner.
Regrettably, the HDW deal was marred by a corruption scandal similar to the one that afflicted the Bofors artillery gun — and the nation paid a heavy price when this deal was peremptorily scrapped by the Rajiv Gandhi government.
A full-fledged submarine building line that had been developed in Mumbai with an investment that was close to US $ 100 million at today’s prices was closed down — and the valuable human resource that was trained at considerable expense was allowed to waste away.
Three decades later, India is back to square one and is now seeking to resurrect conventional submarine building in the country. The Scorpene project has been marred by delays and contractual wrangling; this will hopefully be resolved soon.
However, to its credit, India has been able to overcome multiple challenges and stay the course in bringing to fruition its nuclear submarine building program initiated by former PM Indira Gandhi in the early 1980s. The Arihant, when it is formally inducted, will effectively complete the country’s strategic deterrent.
Viewed holistically, the submarine is emerging as a critical platform in the contest that is shaping up in the Indian Ocean region. The nature of the naval and nuclear-cum-missile cooperation between Pakistan and its benefactor China adds to the complexity of the challenges that India is likely to face in the years ahead.
The tragic accident of the Sindhurakshak should serve as a catalyst for the Navy and the higher defence establishment of the nation to review and introspect over the institutional inadequacies that need to be redressed — and to implement the policy corrective. India can ill-afford episodic attention to national security imperatives only when a major setback occurs.
The writer is former director of the National Maritime Foundation