Sindhurakshak accident—implications

Sindhurakshak accidentBy S. M. Hali 

On the eve of India’s Independence Day—2013, in the backdrop of proclamations of a number of naval achievements like the reactor of its first indigenous nuclear submarine Arihant going critical, its maiden indigenously built aircraft carrier Vikrantcommencing sea trials and the Kiev class aircraft carrier acquired from Russia INS Vikramaditya also beginning air trials after completion of sea trials, a serious accident marred the revelry.

At 11:53 pm on the night between 13 and 14 August, the orange ball of flame which lit the skyline off Mumbai harbour and soon dominated TV screens all over the world, was Indian Navy (IN)’s Kilo class submarine Sindhurakshak exploding after a major accident, claiming 18 precious lives comprising 15 sailors and 3 officers. The exact cause of the accident will be confirmed four weeks later, once findings of IN’s official board of inquiry are submitted but a number of safety related questions linked to the horrible inferno do arise. 

What was the ill-fated sub’s mission? Mumbai Mirror of August 15, 2013, in its story titled ‘Sub was on a secret mission’ informs that when the blasts took place, Sindhurakshak was being armed for a clandestine operation. Presumably its crew had no inkling of the mission yet, since military protocol requires that the commanding officer of the unit—in this case the sub—be handed over a sealed envelope a few hours prior to the departure, detailing the target and TOT (time on target).

The presence of the submarine’s ExO, Weapons and the Communication officers at the time of loading the weapons and night time priming of munitions, normally conducted to maintain secrecy, confirms that the submarine was to embark on a war-patrol. Reportedly, Sindhurakshak’s crew were fitting Klub-class surface-to-air missiles with capability to hit targets within 300 km range. Apparently, gross negligence, incompetence, crew fatigue or failure to adhere to standard operating procedures caused two of the missiles to fire.

The first missile went right through the vessel’s nose and slammed into the dockyard’s security wall, destroying it completely. Within seconds, another missile also caught fire and blew up inside the vessel, triggering a massive fire and knocking off a part of the craft’s roof. The intensity of the blasts blew the doomed sub’s nose and sank it. Sixteen sailors, who were outside the submarine on guard duty, managed to escape by jumping into the sea after the first blast. Indian firefighters managed to save three more submarines, several frigates and ships anchored near Sindhurakshak. INS/M Sindhuratan parked next to it also caught fire, which was successfully doused. Possible correlation with developments?

A retired Pakistan Navy officer, who participated in a war-game in a neighbouring country mentioned during my TV show “Defence & Diplomacy” that the Indian participants had contemplated a surgical strike against Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the Amir of Jama’at-ud-Da’wah after playing a scenario of a hypothetical attack during a cricket match in India being attended by celebrities. Indian participants were adamant that the attack on Hafiz Saeed was justified using the plea of his alleged involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks and have even convinced the US to announce a $10 million bounty for Hafiz Saeed.   

Linking the war mission of Sindhurakshak with the deliberate heating of tension at the LOC by India and the development that US shut down its Consulate in Lahore but not Karachi (where law and order is risky), because it may have had warning of the probable Indian attack on Muridke, lead us to conclude of possible Indian adventurism. Lesson for Pakistan? This time fate may have intervened but conspiracies against Pakistan will not cease and a high level of vigilance must be maintained to guard against nocturnal predators. Horrifying implication?

Renowned Indian Naval strategist Commodore Uday Bhaskar acknowledges that “the (Sindhurakshak) accident should serve as a catalyst for IN and the higher defence establishment of India to review and introspect over the institutional inadequacies that need to be redressed.”  “Inadequacies” perhaps comprise the technology gap emanating from leapfrogging directly to the indigenous production of nuclear powered subs without going through the regimen of manufacturing conventional submarines and India’s poor maintenance standards.

Should the Russians withdraw the leased nuclear powered subs from IN? Even the Russians are apprehensive of India’s dubious ability to safely run nuclear submarines and perforce maintain a full-time deployment of a team comprising ten Russian nuclear submarines’ technicians on board its Akula Class submarine leased to India. If an Indian nuclear sub were to meet a disaster like the Sindhurakshak accident, the consequences make one shudder. The entire region would be exposed to the peril of nuclear radiation affecting all forms of life.