Something to hide? Russian technicians, present in Mumbai at the time of the accident, have been kept away
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th Sept 13
More than a month after the submarine, INS Sindhurakshak, sank in Mumbai after at least one fiery explosion on board, there is little clarity about what caused the disaster. And with the Indian Navy unable to raise the submarine to the surface, seawater is wiping out evidence of what might have happened in the vessel’s last fateful moments.
Inexplicably, the navy and MoD have flatly refused offers of help from a team of at least five Russian experts who were in Mumbai on Aug 14, when the Sindhurakshak sank at the Naval Dockyard. Zvezdochka, the Russian shipyard that refurbished and upgraded the submarine from 2011-13, had positioned the technicians in Mumbai to respond to any defects during the guarantee period.
Top Indian officials in New Delhi say the Mumbai-based Russian team offered assistance immediately after the Sindhurakshak disaster, but were told by Naval authorities in Mumbai that no help was needed. Nor were the Russians allowed access to the Naval Dockyard, where the Sindhurakshak still lies submerged in 10-15 metres of water.
Moscow also responded to the incident by immediately flying down a senior defence official to New Delhi. He too was told that no assistance was required. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, also offered assistance in a public statement.
Top Russian officials worry that, in the absence of clarity about the cause of the accident, crew morale would be affected in the 50-plus Kilo class submarines in service across the world.
Kilo class submarines equip the navies of Russia (17 vessels); China (12 vessels); India (9, excluding Sindhurakshak) and several others.
“It is absolutely vital for the confidence of our submarine crews that the cause of the accident be pinpointed, and remedial measures and procedures be instituted,” says Vice Admiral (Retired) KN Sushil, a veteran submariner.
The Indian Navy, contacted for comments, says that it is “in dialogue with the Russians. Further, (the Russians) are and will be consulted wherever/whenever a need is felt. The Navy is committed to using all requisite resources to enable a comprehensive inquiry and to ascertain the cause of the incident.”
The Russian side believes that the only reason why the Indian Navy would exclude Russia from investigations is the apprehension that crew errors might have caused the explosion, not equipment failure or systems malfunction.
“We know every nut, bolt and screw in the Kilo class submarines. What reason could there possibly be to deny us access to the Sindhurakshak?” asks a Russian official who requests anonymity in view of the delicacy of the issue.
Moscow has experience of the sensitivities involved in handling such incidents that are simultaneously tragic and strategic. When the Russian Navy’s nuclear-powered submarine, the Kursk, sank in 108 metres of water in Aug 2000 with 118 sailors on board, Russia declined British and Norwegian offers to help with rescue. Eventually all 118 sailors perished, though evidence was found that some had remained alive for at least several hours, and possibly several days.
Indian statements made soon after the Sindhurakshak incident pointedly note that the submarine had been recently refurbished by Zvezdochka (Little Star) shipyard, at Archangelsk, Russia. Major systems had been upgraded and weapons and sensor packages installed afresh, as specified by India. The new systems included the Klub-S cruise missile system, an Indian navigational system, and the Ushus sonar.
“We have not ruled out an equipment malfunction, possibly due to the recent refurbishment,” says a senior naval official.
Russian officials say there has been mild friction between naval officers of both countries, sparked by the Indian Navy’s insistence on following its own operating procedures, rather than those recommended by the Russian Navy and by Russian shipyards.
Says a Russian official, “This is not necessarily bad. Every navy has its traditions and procedures and the Indian Navy has inherited many from the Royal Navy. But safety procedures are specific to a vessel and to the equipment in it, and cannot be deviated from.”
For now, INS Sindhurakshak continues to languish underwater. The MoD has issued an international tender to lift the vessel back to the surface.
INS Sindhurakshak was a 2,300-tonne, Project 877 EKM submarine (Kilo class is its NATO designation), which joined the Indian navy in 1997. It is manned by a crew of 52 sailors, and has a top speed of 19 knots (35 kmph). It can dive to a depth of 1000 feet below the surface.