In an incident that proved to be a dent on the Indian navy’s submarine capabilities, INS Sindhurakshak sank after being rocked with three consecutive explosions off the Mumbai dockyard in the early hours of Tuesday. The diesel-electric submarine, built in St Petersburg in 1997, had undergone a two-year upgrade in Russia at a reported cost of $80 million after a battery on board gave trouble in April 2010.
The incident occurred at a time when the Navy was celebrating two breakthroughs in the past week in its quest to emerge as a ‘blue-water navy’, capable of operating across vast stretches of ocean. Its first home-built aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, was launched on Monday, though it will not be battle-ready until 2020. And on August 10, the reactor in India’s first indigenously built nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, went critical.
But such was the intensity of Tuesday’s explosions that the sailors on board had little time to run to safety; all 18 members of the Indian Navy are feared dead as per the Ministry of Defence. Six bodies had been recovered till Sunday. The Navy officials said they were charred beyond recognition and bodies have been sent for DNA tests to confirm the identity of the dead.
The Indian media initially toyed with the idea of sabotage as the incident took place at a time when the country was on high alert for terrorist activities ahead of the Independence Day. The Navy also did not rule out the idea initially while a shocked Defence Ministry ordered an inquiry to seek possible causes for the explosions. It later emerged that the operations of the submarine, capable of firing cruise missiles at a range of 125 miles, was battling defective battery issues, leading it to be termed as an accident. Nonetheless, the incident has caused an irreparable loss to the Navy and reignited the debate around its shrinking as well as dilapidating strength. It is important to note that eleven of 24 Navy submarines are older than 20 years even as it seeks to counter a build-up by an increasingly assertive China.
The media highlighted the red-tape and policy paralysis in upgradation and replacement of ageing vessels. The Hindu wrote in an edit piece that the difficulties of defence procurement were clearly evident after the incident. It said: “The orders for more German-made HDWs were cancelled after allegations of corruption in procurement. The manufacture of 12 Scorpene submarines was scheduled for 2012 but their delivery can begin only from 2017 onwards with huge cost overruns. More vexing is the failure to finalise the tendering of six new-generation submarines, dubbed P-75I. With air-independent propulsion these submarines enjoy stealth advantages over the current diesel-electric engines which surface every few days to recharge their batteries.”
Exposing the failure of the procurement policy, the paper speculated if with the economic downturn and the burgeoning fiscal deficit, “defence spending could become a casualty”.
The Hindustan Times opined that to improve the situation, the navy must carry out a security audit and review of the Standard Operating Procedures as regard to its fleet and “look into the dependability standards of its critical systems, residual life, handling and safety for its hazardous ordnance”. The paper said it would be in the national interest to build up the navy’s combat capabilities to dominate this region, as “India’s pronounced strategic sea frontiers lie in the huge expanse between the Straits of Hormuz in the east to the Straits of Malacca in the west”.
The foreign media was more lethal in its reporting of the tragedy. The Guardian also reflected on the Navy’s fleet and said: “India leased from Russia in 2012 the nuclear-powered submarine INS Chakra but it is due to begin sea trials before being made fully operational. But the Chakra cannot be armed with nuclear-tipped missiles due to international non-proliferation treaties.”
The Journal of Turkish Weekly reported that the Russian specialists who repaired Sindhurakshak at the Severodvinsk centre were not being allowed to sunken submarine site in the wake of allegation that it had not been repaired up to the mark. It quoted the experts as saying: “53-65 and TEST 71MKE torpedoes were installed aboard the Sindhurakshak. It is the export version of a well-tested Soviet-era weapon. Our Varshavyankas are equipped with torpedoes, which have proven themselves to be reliable and safe. They can be safely stored in torpedo launching tubes and weapons depots for as long as necessary. They are incapable of self-detonation.”
As another theory emerged that the explosion was caused by a hydrogen leak from the storage battery compartment and the simultaneous loading of munitions and charging of storage batteries, which is strictly prohibited by regulations, the Russian officials told this paper that the batteries were replaced “at the request of the client”.
The Khaleej Times said India was under pressure to perform after the tragedy though the Navy has seen far fewer accidents than the air force, which has been dogged for years by crashes of Russian-made MiG-21 fighters. “However, most of the country’s fleet of 15 submarines is in urgent need of modernisation and has been hampered by delays in government procurement decisions as it battles corruption allegations. Efforts to build a domestic arms industry to supply the military have made slow progress, with the country still the world’s largest importer”.
The Chinese media took India head on over the explosion and argued that the enemy within was standing in way of India’s progress. Chinapost, in an editorial, attacked the Indian government and Defence Minister AK Antony for “slowing the pace of procurement considerably with (his) inability to take quick decisions, and (his) poor understanding of defence vision”. The submarines provided a case in point. The edit ridiculed the government and its strategic advisors for making much of Chinese incursions into India, but not matching the talk by true action as “India’s reducing submarine force is set to equal Pakistan’s in another two years, while China forges ahead with its current 45 submarines, and plans to build at least another 15 Tuan class attack submarines based on German diesel engine purchases”. It said: “The armed forces are clearly being shackled by the civilian wing, namely the Defence Ministry, which retains the last word on procurements. The conservative bureaucracy that ultimately influences the political masters is clearly not impressed or concerned with the vision documents prepared regularly by Defence chiefs.”
It went on to attack the Indian media for screaming war and action over the said incursions and asked it to look for “dangers not from the outside, but from within”.
Despite a number of peace treaties and like agreements between countries of the world, it cannot be doubted that the threat of conflict is any less today than it was before. Developed countries continue to expand their fleet at the same time imposing sanctions on those they can subvert. The world’s eyes are on India as it emerges a powerful economy and influential factor in politics. A fragile naval defence in this scenario only weakens the country’s strength as it goes on to accept foreign junk and undermines its own capabilities in engineering and developing a world-class and safe fleet.