The sinking of INS Sindhurakshak, a Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine of the Indian Navy with enormous loss of life is an unprecedented setback to the national effort to strengthen undersea defence capabilities. Defence Minister A.K. Antony has correctly described it as the greatest tragedy in recent times. His department must get down to the task of determining what caused the explosion on board a vessel that has only recently returned after a two-year refit at the Zvezdochka shipyard in Russia. It should be possible to retrieve the damaged submarine, since it sank at the Mumbai dockyard. The wrecking of an important submarine capable of carrying cruise missiles is undoubtedly a matter of great concern, but it is the death of a large number of submariners who work in some of the most difficult conditions that makes the incident extremely tragic. Incidents in the past have been much less damaging. Some of them involved minor collisions between submarines and accidents with ships. For the Ministry of Defence, this is an alarm call to ensure that safety in design and operation is given top priority in the Navy’s ongoing programme to induct six Scorpene-class submarines. Regrettably, indigenous efforts at repairing and retrofitting Kilo-class submarines have not been successful. Recently, Mr. Antony spoke of adequate funding having been included in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Plan periods for the “Project 75 – India” submarine programme. The inquiry into the Sindhurakshak incident will potentially indicate design and safety aspects that must be strengthened without compromise.

What has happened to India’s submarine is of global significance because there is a downward trend in the number of incidents involving such vessels since the mid-1970s. In fact, fewer vessels have sunk due to explosions in recent decades, than due to flooding and collisions. A notable exception was the explosion that sank the Russian vessel, Kursk, killing 118 men in the Barents Sea 13 years ago. It is possible that the explosion on the Sindhurakshak, apparently intensified by the presence of munitions, was caused by the failure of safety systems linked to its power mechanism and batteries, or due to lapses in standard operating procedures. Clearly, the lessons from this disaster will be vitally important for the safety of the nine other diesel-electric submarines of the same class that the Navy lists as ‘active.’ Equally, there is bound to be greater interest in the Naval Materials Research Laboratory project to design a propulsion technology that is “air independent.” In other words, it could lower explosion risk from submarine power plant gas leaks, and help vessels stay underwater longer. For the Navy, though, this is a time of trial as it sifts through the wreckage of what was till yesterday a symbol of great pride.

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