Submarining has always been a dangerous profession, meant only for volunteers drawn from serving navy personnel. It is also a relatively young man’s profession, with commanding officers of conventional submarines going “over the top” in their late thirties, into staff jobs. The selection is strict and the training rigorous. New entrants are carefully screened in psychological tests to survive in close proximity, under difficult conditions, with other human beings, for long periods of time. Not surprisingly, the camaraderie is close and submariners make friends for life.
The Indian submarine service commissioned its first submarine in 1967 and the pioneers realised the imperative of laying down the strictest standards of safety right at the beginning. The explosion on Sindhurakshak occurred in 2013, after years of accident-free service. The Sindhuratna fire, close on the heels of the earlier explosion, poses a huge leadership challenge to senior naval officers in assuring serving submarine personnel that their weapon platforms are reliable weapons to fight with. The “Kilo,” as these submarines are referred to in the West, and “Project 877” in Russia, are formidable weapon platforms, but have a reputation for being difficult to operate. They were the first submarines to be acquired, covered fully by anechoic rubber tiles and had a reputation for running silently in combat.
Cry of despair
The Indian Navy never fielded a “Kilo” in joint naval exercises with other navies for precisely that reason and their reputation remains an undisclosed secret. Their role in war in South Asia is all the more formidable being armed with supersonic land attack missiles that can be used punitively or to influence the course of events on land.
If submarining is a demanding profession, it is partly because a submarine emergency is truly a terrible event, particularly when it occurs in a submerged submarine. The Sindhuratna faced such an event a hundred miles west of Mumbai, and put into practice the hours of drilling that submarine crews undergo, while dealing with emergencies. The “Kilo” has a high resistance to flooding and fire as it is divided into watertight compartments. A damage control drill requires a damaged compartment to be “isolated” and the unspoken anxiety is, of course, the fate of the crew who are isolated. In Sindhuratna’s case, all the events are yet to be clarified, but it seems that two officers, both with brilliant service records, pushed the sailors out of the stricken compartment, and shut the compartment on themselves to fight the fire. Both succumbed to the fumes in an act of cold-blooded gallantry. The Sindhuratna survived the fire and will be back in service in a few months, but the Navy’s front line strength of submarines will be depleted.
The accident raises issues that go beyond the gallantry and competence exhibited by the crew of the submarine. The resignation of a serving chief, with more than 15 months of residual service, is a traumatic event for the service.
It is normally not only an act of honourable exit but a cry of despair, signalling to the service and the government that he was not permitted to hold himself to the same standards as those he demanded from his officers.
Since 1952, the services have laboured under a dysfunctional government “Rules of Business” which declares that the Ministry of Defence, under the secretary, is responsible for the Defence of India — not the armed forces, and certainly not the chiefs. Under this excuse, the services have the accountability; the Ministry has the power to create innumerable hurdles in the path of each service getting financial approval for anything from a battery to a ship. There is good reason to believe that the Sindhuratna was operating with over-aged batteries which give off vast amounts of explosive hydrogen, because the replacement batteries were held up in contractual red tape. The Board of Inquiry will bring out the truth but is unlikely to apportion blame to the Ministry of Defence, whose lackadaisical performance has crippled more than one armed service in the past.
Series of delays
Questions arise that can only be answered by persons well above the level of the service Board of Inquiry, headed by a Rear Admiral. Why was the Navy forced into operating a 26-year-old submarine with over-aged batteries? Because the replacement submarines — the Scorpène class French-origin submarines — were six years in the choosing under Defence Minister A.K. Antony, and were thereafter delayed by another four years contractually on account of the Ministry’s decision-making.
The Chief of the Navy has taken full “moral” responsibility, but his act is more a cry of despair that he has been unable to represent the interests of his service with an unresponsive and callous ministry which has been warned repeatedly by the Naval Headquarters of the depleting force levels of submarines in the Navy. The government had, many years back, approved the Navy’s plans for a 24-submarine force as the ideal. Considering that in peacetime, no more than 60 per cent of submarines can be kept operational, the levels today have fallen to parlous numbers. In past instances, the resignation of a service chief has prodded unresponsive governments into reviewing its policies and procedures. In the Indian case, the Naresh Chandra committee report is still in limbo, according to the same Ministry of Defence.
What can be done by the government to honour the sacrifice of Admiral D.K. Joshi and not merely send him on pension? Building of the Scorpène class is in progress but six submarines will join the Navy only by 2022. An immediate step could be the acquisition of two more nuclear submarines of the Akula class on lease from Russia. The Russians were willing to lease another submarine in any case following the handing over of the INS Chakra, but considering the good relationship between the Russian and Indian navies it might be possible to persuade President Putin to part with two more Akulas, until the Indian indigenous building project catches up. The only major navies still operating conventional submarines are China and Japan. The others have shifted to an all-nuclear submarine force and India should go down the same route. In the vast reaches of the Indian Ocean, the slow pace of transit of conventional submarines make them a liability, which can only be overcome by acquiring larger numbers. A far more elegant solution is the nuclear propelled SSN, which is normally twice as expensive as a conventional submarine but is far more effective than two conventional boats.
The indigenous route to nuclear SSNs is some years away since SSNs require more powerful reactor plants than the missile-armed Arihant. India’s submarine community also needs to arrive at an intellectual consensus on the merits of transiting to an all nuclear submarine force and communicating that decision to the government. The government on its part needs to help the Indian shipbuilding industry and the Department of Atomic Energy by looking for strategic partnerships involving the building of nuclear propelled submarines — an activity not under the purview of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In the decades to come, the Navy will become the prime service as India dumps its anxieties over territorial integrity and pursues its global self-interest. The Navy must also shift its strategic thinking from antiquated ideas of coastal defence and a Karachi blockade to an oceanic maritime strategy that is in line with India’s status in the region and its interests overseas. A good beginning was the seminar on nuclear submarines conducted in Visakhapatnam by the Commander-in-Chief to help the submarine community come to grips with future submarine policy. The Navy must now speak with one voice in favour of nuclear submarines.
(Raja Menon retired as Rear Admiral in the Indian Navy.)