Mystery of death in the depths
By N C Bipindra
Published: 18th Aug 2013 07:58:16 AM
The bodies of the sailors killed in the explosions on board India’s 16-year-old Russian-made submarine, the INS Sindhurakshak, on August 14 are being recovered in batches, disfigured beyond recognition. Navy divers are trying 24/7 to reach the compartments of the destroyed vessel in total darkness, compounded by oily muddy waters and zero visibility.
Little is known about the cause of the blast and the fire, but many questions remain unanswered; about the cause of the explosions, reasons for operational deviations and the containment actions. Following a US alert of a possible Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) attack from the sea along
India’s 7,500-km coastline, the Indian Navy is deploying its assets, particularly submarines, to monitor movements close to its coast. The US had sent the alert to India recently; noting that sea attacks could be along the lines of the 26/11 attacks. INS Sindhurakshak was part of such a deployment mission. In the background of the alerts, the operational details of getting the vessel armed and ready are shrouded in mystery.
Was there an alert of possible sabotage?
The Indian Navy has been receiving intelligence alerts about threats to its assets in Mumbai and other places for some time. Recently, the Navy received such an input; but no specific details were given. The Naval Dockyard is highly guarded and it is not easy for unauthorised persons to gain access to a warship. It is all the more difficult to get close to a submarine as the vessel has a single point access, which is manned all the time. The internal explosions indicate an accident from the inside than sabotage from outside.
Why was the second-in-command of INS Sindhurakshak on board the submarine at midnight, which is considered unusual?
In an aberration in procedure, Lieutenant Commander Nikhilesh Pal, the second-in-command or Executive Officer (XO) of INS Sindhurakshak was on board the sub at the stroke of midnight of August 13-14. This alone was quite unusual for a submarine berthed in the naval docks, unless something operationally critical was going on board the vessel. The Navy initially imposed a veil of secrecy on why the XO on board the submarine. It has now been revealed that the vessel was being readied to go out on an operational patrol to an unknown destination before it returned to its home base in Visakhapatnam.
Why was there a deviation from procedure in refitting armaments in the sub? Instead of being armed at the home base as per usual practice, the refitting was done at Mumbai at midnight of August 13.
The Sindhurakshak was scheduled to set sail on an operational patrol at 8 am on August 14, destination unknown. This was the reason why the vessel was being readied on a war footing the previous night. Since the vessel was to be deployed immediately after its return to Mumbai from Russia where it had gone for a refitting programme at the Sevmash shipyard, it had to be operationally ready before being sent out to sea. What was behind the urgency that necessitated work on the vessel to continue even at midnight when 18 of the total 58-member crew was on board the submarine remains unknown.
Sindhurakshak had Russian Klub-S anti-ship cruise missiles on board. Usually, torpedoes and missiles are stored in such a manner that the fuses that arm the ordnance are kept separately and is mated with the weapons only after the vessel’s captain gives the green signal to fire. So why were the weapons on board the submarine armed?
The captain of the ill-fated submarine gave no such green signal. If it is found that torpedoes or missiles on board the Sindhurakshak exploding caused the incident, then standard operating procedures were not followed and the weapons were in an armed state. Who was responsible for this deviation would be discovered only after an inquiry; and even after that the results are unlikely to be made public.
Why were the armaments not fitted in Sevmash, Russia, despite spending Rs 815 crore on repairs, an amount that is almost equal to the vessel’s original cost?
Before departing for Russia for its mid-life upgrade programme in 2011, INS Sindhurakshak had left behind all its arms and weapons systems in India. Hence, it had to be re-armed after its return before it could be deployed operationally to patrol the Indian Ocean. The urgency behind the refitting implies an emergency.
Russian engineers from the Sevmash shipyard were present in Mumbai, but not allowed access when the armament fitting was on. This is odd, since they carried out the refitting. What is the reason behind the secrecy?
Whenever a warship is upgraded at a foreign shipyard, their service personnel accompany it to the domestic base during delivery. The process of delivery and checks on INS Sindhurakshak was still in progress, the reason why the Russian engineers were present to give technical assistance to Indian Navy personnel in case any was needed. At the time of the explosions, no Russian engineer was on board the vessel, since arming a vessel is considered operationally secret. On such occasions, usually no navy would allow foreign personnel to be present on board. But the procedure would have been familiar to the engineers for they have similar submarines back home.
The absence of a specialised Naval rescue team for such an eventuality is a glaring mistake. Why did the Navy depend on Mumbai’s civilian fire fighters and non-Naval deep sea divers?
The magnitude of the explosions on the submarine was such that Naval firefighters were ill equipped to handle a conflagration of such magnitude and had to depend on civilian fire tenders. This is in spite of the Mumbai Naval dockyard having an adequate number of fire tenders and personnel to handle specialist fires caused in military stations, where fuel, oil and such combustibles are stored in large quantities. In such accidents, rescuers are kept on stand-by. Also, the heat generated by the explosions was so enormous that the Naval divers could not gain access to the submarine either.