The first 72 hours after a submarine accident are “vital” as trapped sailors will stand a “good chance” of survival, says Commodore (retd.) Satluri Govind, who has for three decades commanded and served on Russian submarines similar to INS Sindhurakshak, which was wrecked by explosions in Mumbai. All 18 sailors aboard the ship were killed.

Sailors could survive on four to five days’ supply of food and oxygen in a submarine till a deep submergence rescue vessel (DSRV) reached them. He wanted the Navy to have one DSRV for each coastal flank. In the absence of a DSRV, 118 Russian personnel died after their nuclear-powered submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea in August 2000.

A week before Sindhurakshak went down, the government took the first step towards purchasing a system to rescue submariners trapped underwater. The Defence Ministry issued an RFI, or request for information, for a ‘Submarine Rescue Bell System with LARS’ on August 6. The RFI asked vendors to furnish the Navy’s Directorate of Special Operations and Diving with information by September 10. Responses were invited only from Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM)/authorised vendors and government-sponsored export agencies. Principal components of the equipment, sought to be procured, were submarine rescue bell for 12 men, launch and recovery system (LARS), associated life support systems and locator system. The system was to be fitted onboard the Navy’s submarine rescue vessel.

If the DSRV was so badly needed, why did the Navy not get it till now? There are no easy answers as its purchase has so far remained undecided.

“Does it take a tragedy of INS Sindhurakshak’s nature, in which we lost 18 of our highly skilled submariners, to shake up the bureaucratic machinery out of its slumber?” asks Com. Uday Bhaskar.

Sources say the cost of a DSRV should range from $40 million to $60 million, which is not at all a “high” price for procuring such specialised equipment to rescue personnel trapped in submarines which are very advanced technologically but can turn into “iron coffins” when crippled.

After going through the RFI, the Navy will shortlist vendors for issue of the Request for Proposal (RFP) and only after that will qualitative requirements be framed.

“This process, even if speeded up, could take up to a year or more before the Navy finally gets the submarine rescue bell system,” said a senior Navy officer.

Incidentally, it was in November 2012 that the India-US exercise, Indiaex-2012, was held off Goa where the compatibility of the submarine rescue system of the U.S. Navy with Indian Navy submarines was tested for the first time. The exercise, meant to demonstrate the rescue of personnel from a disabled submarine, was significant for the Indian Navy, which not only operates an ageing fleet of submarines but also has no DSRV of its own.

Correction

>>The report, “Navy should have a DSRV for each coastal flank” (August 26, 2013), gave the impression that the RFI (request for information), for purchase of Bell, was for Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicles (DSRVs). It (the RFI) was for 'submarine rescue Bell ' like the one on board the in-service diving support vessel INS Nireekshak which has limited capability to rescue personnel from submarines in distress.