A cruel blow to Navy’s weakest link

In a year that has seen several landmark events for the Indian Navy — from the launch of the first indigenous aircraft carrier earlier this week (Vikrant) to the induction of the first aircraft carrier in decades with the arrival of the Vikramaditya in December — the loss of the INS Sindhurakshak to massive explosions in Mumbai has come as a particularly cruel blow.

While a detailed inquiry will establish if the loss was a one-off case due to material failure or negligence, it has cast a shadow on the most cutting edge fleet of conventional submarines that the Navy possesses, the Russian-origin Kilo class.

As successive defence reports, internal assessments and battle simulations have brought out, the one area that the Navy lags the most in is its underwater fleet. While deficiencies in other critical areas such as mine sweepers and reconnaissance aircraft also exist, the underwater fleet is the one that raises the most concern.

The reason is clear if the numbers are looked at. The sanctioned strength of the submarine fleet — a number decided in the last century when there were fewer security threats — for the Indian Navy is 24. The holding strength is 14, of which two are currently in refit and a third destroyed today.

Not only that, the submarine had been recently upgraded and was set to serve for another 15 years – a period of time in which the Indian Navy desperately needs functional submarines. The declining strength due to retirement of older submarines has affected operational capability.

Given the platforms that India is inducting – two aircraft carriers this decade, a new range of stealth frigates, a futuristic destroyer fleet - underwater operations have become even more essential. The two carrier battle groups that are planned to be active by 2013 (Vikramaditya) and 2018 (Vikrant) also require underwater support.

However, the pace of modernisation of the surface fleet is not being matched by an increase in underwater capabilities – from a strength of 16 in 2010, it has come down to 14 this year. With the older Kilo-class submarines reaching the end of their extended service lift, at least three of the serving submarines could go out of service by 2017 – the year in which the first replacement submarines are expected.

The condition of the underwater fleet has been attributed to two reasons — the discontinuance of follow-on orders for the German origin HDW after a scandal hit the procurement process, and the huge delay in the manufacturing of the Scorpene class of submarines that is currently running at least five years behind time.

The first of the Scorpenes, the contract for which was signed in 2005, was to arrive in 2012 but due to delays at the Mazgaon Dock Limited (MDL), the vessels are not expected to enter service before 2017. Also, another programme to buy new-generation conventional submarines with air independent propulsion that would give them a major stealth advantage has been held up for several years.

With the Navy taking years to finalise the operational needs for the new generation of submarines, named P 75 I, even tenders for the potential order of six vessels have not been issued. Defence Minister A K Antony however stated on Monday that the process for floating of tenders has been completed and the matter has gone to the cabinet committee on security for final clearances. But, given the past record or procurements, the first of the new generation submarines would not arrive before 2020.

The blow comes at a juncture when retirements from the small force of submarines are taking place at a faster pace than expected inducts.

Govt seeks report from Navy

The Maharashtra government has asked the Navy for a detailed report on the Sindhurakshak incident. "Usually, after such an incident, the state government is blamed for lapses. We have therefore asked the Navy to submit a detailed report," said a senior official. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and the Mumbai police chief separately assured the Navy any help it needs. Chavan and the chief secretary visited the spot along with Defence Minister A K Antony and Navy chief D K Joshi. ENS, Mumbai


December 1971: INS Khukri, a 1,500-tonne antisubmarine frigate, is sunk in the 1971 war by a Pakistani submarine. 194 killed

August 1990: INS Andaman, a 1,100-tonne light frigate, goes down while on a routine training exercise. The Petya class antisubmarine vessel had been facing maintenance issues and started taking in water while returning from the exercise. 15 killed

November 1999: INS Jyoti, Navy's star fleet tanker, collides with merchant ship in the Bay of Bengal. No casualties

October 2002: Two IL 38 maritime reconnaissance aircraft crash mid-air during silver jubilee celebrations of a squadron in Goa. 12 killed

February 2004: INS Agray, an antisubmarine corvette, badly damaged after depth charge explodes too closely. No casualties

February 2006: INS Magar, an amphibious warfare ship, suffers fire accident near Vishakhapatnam while dumping life-expired ammunition in the sea. 5 killed

April 2006: INS Prahar, 500-tonne warship and then Navy's fastest, sinks after collision with MV Rajiv Gandhi off Goa coast. No casualties

September 2006: INS Dunagiri, a guided missile frigate, strikes a glancing blow at a Shipping Corporation merchant vessel off Mumbai coast. Extensive damage, repairs in dry dock. No casualties

January 2008: INS Sindhughosh, a kilo-class submarine, collides with merchant ship off Gujarat coast. 58 crew on board, no casualties

February 2008: INS Jalashwa, troop carrier newly acquired warship from the US, suffers a gas leak on board. 6 killed

June 2010: INS Sindhuratna and INS Sindhukesari, both Navy submarines, graze each other a low speed at Mumbai naval harbour. Minor damage to both, no casualties

January 2011: INS Vindhyagiri, a 3,000-tonne frigate and heavily armed, goes down at Mumbai harbour after a collision with MV Nordlake, a Cyprus flag container carrier. Till then the Navy's worst peacetime loss for the Navy. No casualties

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