New Delhi: The Indian Navy has contracted a NATO Submarine Rescue System for its ageing fleet of underwater boats and a Russian deep submergence rescue vessel for its indigenous nuclear submarine, the Arihant, that is being put through trials currently.
The contract for the NATO Submarine Rescue System is being operated by UK firm James Fisher Defence, pending a $67-million deal to buy two similar systems, for each coast, that the cabinet committee on security is likely to take a call on next month.
Apart from the NATO and the Russian systems, the navy has a contract with the US navy for a flyaway kit to rescue any of its submarines in distress. The US is bound to fly the kit to the spot within 72 hours of being informed.
Russian Project 1855 Priz-Class Submarine Rescue Vehicle
The Indian Navy currently operates a fleet of 14 submarines, plus the Arihant SSBN (sub-surface ballistic nuclear) that is on trial and is yet to be commissioned after it was launched, or put to water, more than six years back in July 2009.
India’s submarine fleet effectively comprises nine Russian-origin Kilo class submarines, four German-origin HDW submarines and the INS Chakra, an SSN (sub surface nuclear) leased from Russia for 10 years.
Barely half the total submarine fleet is available for operations at any given time because the boats are each (apart from the INS Chakra) more than 20 years old.
The multiple arrangements for rescue are borne of two submarine accidents in August 2013 and February 2014. In August 2013, the INS Sindhurakshak, one of the Kilo-class submarines, sank in the naval dockyard in Mumbai as it was being readied for a patrol, killing all 18 crew on board.
In February 2014, a fire inside the INS Sindhuratna killed two officers during trials after a mid-life refit. In its wake, the then navy chief, Admiral D.K. Joshi, resigned and Admiral Robin Dhowan took over.
The rescue services have also been contracted because the navy now expects to put about seven submarines under construction through trials shortly. The nuclear submarines have a crew of 120 men and the conventional submarines each about half that number.
The trials of the Arihant, that is planned as the third pillar of the Indian strategic establishment’s “nuclear triad”, had been rescheduled earlier because of, among other reasons, the absence of the submarine rescue system. It has a crew of 120.
In August-September this year, the navy quietly contracted the Russians, who have been helping in the Arihant project for years, for a rescue system. The system was recently tried, most probably at the “Escape Training School” near the Eastern Naval Command headquarters in Visakhapatnam where the Arihant is based, as is the INS Chakra.
The last known incident of a nuclear submarine going under is that of the Russian boat, the Kursk, in the year 2000. All 118 sailors in the boat died over a two-three day period before it could be salvaged.
The Indian Navy is also looking at beginning trials of the first of six Scorpene-class submarines in waters off Bombay shortly. The first of the submarines was taken off a pontoon and put to water last month. All six are scheduled for commissioning by the year 2022.
In addition, the Kilo and HDW submarines (the Sindhughosh-class and the Shishumar-class) boats of the navy are also being put through refits and mid-life upgrades after which each will also be put through trials during which the deep submergence rescue vessels would be required.
In February last year when the two officers were killed in the Sindhuratna, the only submergence vesesel that was at hand was the outdated INS Nireekshak.
For the Sindhurakshak, which went under in the dockyard, escape and/or rescue is said to have been impossible in any case because the boat was damaged from an explosion in the armament chamber that ripped through its length and cracked its hull.
A senior navy source said the two sumergence vessels that are to be based on the east and west coasts each have to be delivered by the British firm James Fisher within 27 months of the contract. The firm was chosen over a Russian competitor and price negotiations were completed by the end of 2014. But the cabinet committee has yet to put its seal on the selection.
The navy chief, Admiral Robin Dhowan, said a proposal to build six SSNs (nuclear powered submarines that do not fire nuclear-tipped missiles) under a “Make in India” program was in the works. That will take at least a decade before the actual construction begins.
A 30-year submarine-building program that the government had approved envisaged a fleet of 24 submarines for the navy by the year 2022. That is a far cry. China has 60 boats — 48 conventional and 12 nuclear. Pakistan has five French-built Agosta 90B submarines that are relatively new. It is also acquiring eight Shang-class diesel-electric submarines from China.