Submarine blast sinks Indian navy hopes

2013-08-14 22:46
Exhaust smoke rises from an Indian Navy ship at the Naval Dockyard, the site where an Indian submarine exploded and sank, in Mumbai. (Indranil Mukherjee, AFP)

Exhaust smoke rises from an Indian Navy ship at the Naval Dockyard, the site where an Indian submarine exploded and sank, in Mumbai. (Indranil Mukherjee, AFP)

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Sailors trapped in Indian submarine

2013-08-14 12:22

About 18 sailors are trapped on board an Indian submarine following an explosion at a port in Mumbai. Watch.WATCH

New Delhi - A giant fireball from explosions on India's newly upgraded submarine lit up the Mumbai skyline on Wednesday, the deafening blast reverberating in the south of the city, and sinking the military's hopes as the country seeks to bolster its maritime capabilities.

The Russian-built INS Sindhurakshak, one of India's frontline submarines, sank at its home port, leaving rescuers scrambling to find 18 sailors who were on board.

The INS Sindhuratna, a second submarine of the same class that was docked nearby, also reportedly suffered some damage but there was no immediate confirmation on the extent from the navy.

This was among the biggest disasters in the history of the Indian Navy, coming on the eve of Independence Day celebrations and in a week that began on a high note.

The navy launched its first home-built aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, on Monday in a landmark move towards projecting itself as a maritime power that seeks to counter the rising dominance of China.

It also activated the atomic reactor onboard a domestically built nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, at the weekend, paving the way for its induction later this year.

Major setback

Deployed in May, the Sindhurakshak was considered among the most advanced non-nuclear submarines in the world.

It played a key role in the navy, built for anti-submarine and anti-ship warfare, defending naval bases, securing coasts and sea lanes of communication, reconnaissance and maritime patrol operations.

"It is a great loss to all of us ... the greatest tragedy in recent times. I feel sad," Defence Minister AK Antony said before rushing to the site in Mumbai.

India has 10 Sindhu-class submarines and the loss of a key submarine and possible damage to another is a major setback to the operational preparedness of the navy, which relies on such submarines for both coasts, strategic analyst Ranjit Rai said.

The 16-year-old submarine recently underwent an $80m upgrade in Russia, where it was equipped with Klub land-attack missiles and a new India-built sonar and radar.

Originally inducted in 1997, the Sindhurakshak was expected to serve the navy for 10 more years.

13 submarines 'not enough'

"The Sindhurakshak was one of India's few operational and potent submarines that were refitted for land attacks having cruise missiles with a range of 160km upwards," said Rai, a retired navy commodore.

"In peacetime, she was an assurance to the nation that its coasts were secure. In war, she could have been very belligerent."

India now has a total of 13 conventional submarines - nine Sindhu-class subs and four German HDW submarines. It also leased a Russian-built nuclear-powered submarine last year.

"Of the nine Sindhu-class subs now, some five were upgraded with such capabilities, but this is just not enough for India's huge coastline," Rai said.

While India has undertaken a major naval modernisation programme, several of its projects to build warships and submarines have been hamstrung by long delays.

It plans to have more than 30 submarines in the long term to strengthen coastal defence, but progress on that front is extremely slow.

Criticism over delays

India's plans to induct six French-Spanish Scorpene class diesel submarines have been repeatedly delayed to 2015, until which time no new submarine is expected to join the navy.

Rai noted that in the 1980s India had a fleet strength of 21 conventional submarines, but the numbers have shrunk because of delays in procurements and projects.

Vice Admiral AK Singh, a commander of India's eastern fleet, said: "It is a huge knock for our submarine force levels that are already on the decline."

The national auditor has sharply criticised the Defence Ministry for the delays.

The Indian Navy faced "large shortfalls against its planned levels" it said, and that in 2012 it retained only 61, 44 and 20% of the envisaged force levels for frigates, destroyers and corvettes.

"The lead ship in all projects is delivered or expected to be delivered after a delay ranging from four to five years from the original delivery date," the auditor noted in a report.

Defence analyst Gurmeet Kanwal said that the pace of modernisation has been slow because of the "lack of adequate funding, delayed decision-making, and a low-tech defence industrial base".

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