Military & Aerospace

What ails Indian Submarine Fleet?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 21 Apr , 2014

There been a spate of accidents in the recent past in Indian Navy’s fleet, particularly in the submarine arm of the Navy. One of the most unfortunate accidents of the Indian Navy, was the mishap with INS Sindhuratna, a Russian made Kilo-class submarine on 26 February this year. It was the tenth such incident in a series of such accidents involving an Indian warship in seven months. The incident led to the resignation of Navy Chief, Admiral D.K. Joshi from the high office of Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), first time in Indian naval history that a CNS had to resign.

The repeated accidents of this kind at the strategic weaponry can also hinder morale of its own forces and strategic aspiration of the nation.

Though the exact reason for the mishap is yet to be made public, the initial probe says that a fire extinguisher had become operational automatically in the sailors accommodation spewing out poisonous Freon gas which resulted in death of two officers and several injuries due to inhalation of the noxious fumes. There are also consistent reports from within Navy circles about the malfunctioning of the batteries. Each Kilo class Submarines like INS Sindhuratna, acquired from Soviet Union in late 1980s has 240 Lead acid batteries weighing around 800 kg. The Sindhuratna, commissioned into the Navy in 1988, was originally intended to have been phased out in 2013. Instead the submarine underwent a refit and was again inducted to the Navy in December 2013. It was reported that the batteries on board were not replaced by new ones when the submarine underwent a refit. The submarine was at sea on a training and inspection exercise post the refit. The trials were being supervised by the Western Fleet’s Commodore Commanding Submarines or COMCOS who was personally aboard the submarine when the accident had occurred.

Aspiring to become a maritime regional power, the Indian Navy had recognized the importance of submarines as early as 1947. However, owing to budgetary constraints, difficulties in operating the submarine fleet and sourcing procedures hampered the acquisition process and the submarine hardly featured in the Navy’s ten year plan of 1948-1958. Large parts of the Navy’s efforts in the early 1950’s were to counter the threat posed by Pakistan and the submarine hardly featured in the list of countermeasures. The border war with China in 1962 changed this, dramatically. The defense review following the border war, allowed the Navy to make its claim for the submarine arm once more. Eventually, a deal was signed in 1965, which allowed for acquisition of submarines from the Soviet Union (Hiranandani, G. M, 2000). Apart from the acquisition of submarines, the 1965 agreement also paved the way for a Dockyard, a submarine base, training facilities and submarine repair areas to be set up in India.

Along with conventional submarine acquisition process, India was also trying to develop its Nuclear Submarine program that goes back to the early part of the 1970’s. The origins of the program lie in a project titled ‘Project 932’, which under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was to design a reactor which could be fitted within a submarine hull. However, the project was much slower than expected and without much support from the Indian Navy, came to a halt in the early 1980’s (Das Premvir, 2009).

At any given time, India has just five or six operational submarines…

In the late 1980’s, INS Chakra, a Soviet produced Charlie Class nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) was delivered to India. However, in the mid 1980’s, the Indian Navy embarked on an Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) program to try and build a nuclear submarine, this time with a more thorough system in place including specific units for development of certain parts. The whole program was under the Department of Defence Research and Development (DRDO). This was coupled with an agreement with Russia for assistance in development and design of the nuclear submarine (Das Premvir, 2009).

The program gained impetus in 1998, following the nuclear tests carried out in Pokhran. The nuclear submarine for India is considered to be an important second strike capability against Pakistan. Some believe that the primary use of the submarines is to act as a deterrent against China (Gorwitz, Mark, 1996). In spite of the fact that India has a no-first-use nuclear policy, the submarine is seen as an integral part and the final leg of the nuclear triad i.e land, air and sea methods of delivering nuclear weapons (DNA, 2009).

The accident of February 26 is not the first ones involving Indian submarines. A much worse accident occurred on August 2013 with a tragic explosion on board the INS Sindhurakshak, another Kilo class submarine, which Russia built at the Admiralty Shipyard in St. Petersburg in 1995. The submarine exploded and sank while docked in Mumbai, killing 18 crew members, the worst maritime loss in India in four decades. The submarine was set to sail on a long deployment patrol with a full complement of 18 missiles and torpedoes. This ship had returned to India just a year before in late 2012 after a pre-planned refit and was upgraded at the base of the Zvezdochka Shipbuilding Centre in Severodvinsk.

…China has begun arming two of India’s neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh with submarines along with its own modernization and induction of new nuclear submarines.

The submarine is yet to be salvaged and as result, the authorities are yet to find out the exact reason for the explosion. The missiles and torpedoes are still lying in the ship which sank in the south break jetty of Mumbai Naval Squad. The government has approached several international agencies including the Russians to lift marine. A Russian delegation was brought in firstly, but due to disagreement over huge payment that Russians demanded, the contract was never signed and India had approached other agencies from US and Singapore. Recently, the contract was finalised with an American company, Resolve, Salvage & Fire Inc to salvage the submarine. It will take almost six months to lift the submarine to the dockyard and the company is in process of bringing major salvage equipment from U.S.

Once the sub is lifted out of water, a complex process of technical forensics need to be carried out before a conclusion can be reached. There are wide ranges of speculations on what caused the explosion. Russians also have had problems with submarines and torpedo fuses like K-141 Kursk accident in 2000. The explosion in Kursk was due to the failure of one of the Kursk’s hydrogen peroxide-fueled Type 65 torpedoes. Those torpedoes (which are not in service in Indian Navy) use kerosene for combustion and store H2O2 as an oxidizer. A leak in the H2O2 pipes in the torpedo corroded the vessel of the kerosene and caused fire and explosion, which in turn exploded the warheads of adjacent torpedoes. Russians also had an accident in November 2008 in an Akula class nuclear-powered attack submarine by the accidental discharge of Freon gas that killed 20 Russian sailors and injured 41 others. That submarine, interestingly, now serves in the Indian fleet, renamed as INS Chakra (Swamy Praveen, 2014).

It may take years to get the final report of the Inquiry Commission on the explosion. Obviously these boats are exceedingly complicated systems with many things that can potentially go wrong. My limited interaction with the Indian sailors served in the Indian submarines, who don’t like to be identified by their names had suggested several reasons for a submarine mishap. There can be several possible causes such as

1. Warhead Explosion: Naval ammunition typically has a 3-stage explosive chain. Warheads are extremely stable, and in the open air will burn rather than explode. However, a warhead does not burn when in contact with air until it is a pyrophoric or a thermobaric weapon which is one among many warheads. A conventional warhead with TNT will not burn on contact with air. Rather, if one sets fire to TNT, it will be a smouldering mass rather than an exploding one.

There has been a recent confirmation from the Naval HQ that the ship is about to be classified as ‘beyond economic repair’.

And to detonate a warhead a primer has first to inserted, which sets off the detonator fitted in it when the torpedo impacts a target, or when the primer receives an electric signal. The detonator sets off a localized explosion within the warhead that causes it to explode. The important thing to note is that primers are only fitted (i) after leaving harbor, (ii) on specific orders from the command to arm torpedoes, and (iii) only in the torpedoes in the tubes, not in the racks.

2. In short, explosion of warheads is not a primary event. It is caused by a significant explosion external to the warhead, or because of intense and sustained fire that brings the temperatures sufficiently high.

3. There are other explosives stored in the submarine. These are hand grenades, and small arms ammunition, ammunition for shoulder-fired missiles, and so on. These are stored under strictly regulated conditions in special tanks which can be flooded in an instant.

4. Overheating of compressed air/gas cylinders can cause them to explode. Normally such cylinders are not stored in weapon areas.

5. Hydrogen: When lead-acid batteries are charged, the chemical reaction caused by electrolysis of sulphuric acid and its conversion to lead sulphate results in release of hydrogen. This takes place towards the later stages of the charge and for some time thereafter. Rise in hydrogen levels to about 4% makes the air an explosive mixture. To prevent this the submarine is fitted with hydrogen monitors, hydrogen eliminators, and an automatic hydrogen elimination system which controls hydrogen levels even when the submarine has dived and ventilation is not possible.

6. Oxygen/air with spray of combustible liquid. If there is a massive leak of oxygen in a burning compartment, or a combustible liquid such as kerosene is atomized in the surrounding overheated air, this can under certain circumstances result in an explosion.

It must be realized that all these conditions can exist under certain conditions. Now the question also raises whether the Indian Navy will repair the boat again with an enormous cost as it was refurbished in Russia in 2012 or Navy may decide to scrap it though the salvage operation from dockside should be straightforward. There has been a recent confirmation from the Naval HQ that the ship is about to be classified as ‘beyond economic repair’.

If India wish to play a substantial role in the Indian Ocean, especially when China is moving beyond its seashores to Indian Ocean with its 50 plus submarines and blue water aspirations, it needs to find a way urgently…

The Indian Navy which boasts itself as one of the largest in the region has been under adverse scrutiny since the enormity of the loss of a number of strategic assets and personnel. There have been more than eleven incidents in recent past of operational lapses and minor accidents involving naval ships and submarines. Most of these accidents, with different magnitudes and contours, can be related to the delays in the modernisation programme due to financial approval being withheld at the defense ministry. Several submarines are refitted to serve beyond its design life, because of inadequacy of India’s higher defence management and procurement delays in the navy. The fleet is ageing and most of the class is more than two decades old. Consequently, old platforms are being exploited beyond their normal life cycle after repeated refits and repairs. There is also a gross disconnect between the Ministry of Defense and the Services. The bureaucrats, because of lack of knowledge and therefore, of urgency has delayed a lot of procurements for the three services.

The Indian Navy also have been trying to diversify their dependence on Russian equipment for years but still almost 80 percent of its defense requirements are met from Russia. An earlier attempt was made with a German company Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) in 1981 to construct four Shishumar-class Type 209/1500 vessels and these four vessels are still operating, which have undergone refit since they were commissioned. And lately, a cooperative effort with France and Spain to locally build a new class of conventional submarine called the Scorpene was signed in 2001 (NTI, 2013). Though initially planned for 2012, the project has been delayed and the first submarines are not expected to be ready before 2016.

At any given time, India has just five or six operational submarines, considered far too few to be compared to its rivals in the region and their procurement programmes. For example, China has begun arming two of India’s neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh with submarines along with its own modernization and induction of new nuclear submarines. The Jane’s Defense weekly reported in February that China is set to sell up to six submarines to Pakistan by end of 2014, probably the ‘S20’ or Yuan-class diesel-electric submarine (SSK) (Bokhari Farhan, 2014). China has also agreed to sell two Type 035G Ming-class diesel-electric submarines to Bangladesh and has promised to deliver the submarines to Bangladesh Navy by 2019 (Dasgupta Saibal, 2014)

India has a vast coastline adjoining the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal and India is a major player in the regional maritime security of the region. These waters include numerous sea lines of communication (SLOC) chokepoints. Almost 97% of India’s foreign trade and 60% of the world’s sea-borne trade are transported through these bottlenecks. If India wish to play a substantial role in the Indian Ocean, especially when China is moving beyond its seashores to Indian Ocean with its 50 plus submarines and blue water aspirations, it needs to find a way urgently to overcome its political apathy, bureaucratic bottle-necks and fasten modernization of infrastructure at shipyards and dockyards. The repeated accidents of this kind at the strategic weaponry can also hinder morale of its own forces and strategic aspiration of the nation.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Nabeel A Mancheri

Nabeel A Mancheri is a research fellow at Institute of Social Science, The University of Tokyo.

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One thought on “What ails Indian Submarine Fleet?

  1. A well written and cogent analysis depicting the state of affairs regarding the Indian Navy and its submarine fleet. The recent spate of accidents has had a series of cascading events within the Indian Navy and within the political circles of India. The article has also elucidated the strain in the relationship between the civilian bureaucracy and the defence services which unfortunately is not only restricted to the Navy but ails the three services and their relationships with the defence ministry. The article could have been better had it mentioned remedial measures to obviate the circumstances which the Navy has found itself in vis-a-vis its modernisation and utilisation of the submarine fleet.

    To compare this article with journals written by Naval cadets/Midshipmen who are already hazy with RoR and AstroNav is a bit harsh. For that matter, the standard of articles produced by Staff College cleared Capts or the ones in Naval Higher Comd will be be pretty much the same as this if not lesser. At least hopefully the author will not be admitted in some Naval Hospital if at all he gets ousted from University of Tokyo like the C-in-C, WNC who got admitted in the Naval Hospital for getting superceded.

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