Indian armed forces are prone to accidents, but their navy has suffered more than its fair share of disasters. An article in India Today reported that since 1990, the Indian Navy (IN) has lost one warship in peacetime every five years. Since 2004, it has lost one naval combatant every two years. While peacetime losses of warships are not uncommon, the magazine mentioned that few global navies have such a dubious record.
IN spokespersons have rationalised that these accidents, which have been attributed to ageing ships in need of maintenance (refit/repairs delayed in spite of laid down rules for refit cycles), delayed acquisitions by the Ministry of Defence, and human error. Captains of erring ships are dismissed from their command following an enquiry. The accident on board the submarine INS Sindhuratna led to the resignation of the then IN Chief Adm DK Joshi on 26 February 2014, who assumed moral responsibility for the loss.
The list of Indian Naval losses is pretty long but since this article is about the ill-fated INS Arihant, some accidents pertaining to Indian Navy submarines are listed below.
In January 2008, INS Sindhughosh, a Kilo-class submarine, collided with a foreign merchant vessel, MV Leeds Castle, while trying to surface in waters north of Mumbai. The submarine was taking part in fleet-level war games, when the accident occurred.
On 30 August 2010, INS Shankush, a Shisumar-class submarine developed technical difficulties while on a planned exercise off Mumbai. While effecting repairs, the submarine’s maintenance team was washed overboard due to rough sea state.
On August 2013, blasts ripped through the torpedo compartment of the submarine INS Sindurakshak while it was berthed at the naval dockyard off the Mumbai coast. Fifteen sailors and three officers were killed. Other sources state that a small explosion occurred around midnight which then triggered the two larger explosions. The disaster was thought to be the Indian Navy’s worst since the sinking of the frigate, INS Khukri, by a Pakistani submarine, PNS Hangor, during the 1971 war.
On 26 February 2014, INS Sindhuratna, a Kilo-class submarine, had a fire detected on board when trials were being conducted which resulted in smoke leading to suffocation and death of two officers. Seven sailors were reported injured and were airlifted to the naval base hospital in Mumbai.
INS Arihant, India’s first indigenous nuclear submarine, was launched amidst fanfare, chest-thumping and belligerence in August 2016. The launch coincided with the 10th anniversary of the conclusion of the Kargil War. The successful launch after sea trials, made India the sixth country in the world to put a nuclear-armed submarine into operation. That was considered a milestone in the history of the Indian Navy’s development. Unfortunately, it met with a serious accident shortly after launch, although the news of the loss was kept under the lid.
The Arihant-class submarines are nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines built under the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) project. They are the first nuclear submarines designed and built by India. The submarines are 112 m (367 ft) long with a beam of 11 m (36 ft), a draught of 10 m (33 ft), displacement of 6,000 tonnes (5,900 long tons; 6,600 short tons) and a diving depth of 300m (980 ft). The complement is about 95, including officers and sailors. The subs are powered by a single seven-blade propeller powered by an 83 MW (111,000 hp) pressurised water reactor and can achieve a maximum speed of 12–15 knots (22–28 km/h) when surfaced and 24 knots (44 km/h) when submerged.
The submarines have four launch tubes in their hump and can carry up to 12 K-15 Sagarika missiles with one warhead each (with a range of 750 km or 470 mi) or 4 K-4 missiles (with a range of 3,500 km or 2,200 mi). The submarines are similar to the Akula-class submarine of Russia. The Indian Navy trained on INS Chakra, an Akula-class submarine leased from Russia in 2012.
India’s first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine has been grounded for over two years after it flooded with seawater and almost sank in January 2017. Disaster struck, when only a few days after launch, the $2.9 Billion nuclear submarine INS Arihant was badly damaged because one of a submariner’s worst nightmares occurred: someone forgot to close a hatch. Water flooded into the propulsion compartment of the vessel and decommissioned the crown jewel of the IN. Two years down the line, the sub is still undergoing extensive repairs, including water being pumped out of the vessel and pipes being replaced. The pressurised water coolant pipes have been corroded by the salt water flooding.
According to the Indian daily, The Hindu, the Arihant’s absence first drew attention after it failed to make an appearance at the Doklam border standoff in the summer of 2017, which involved hundreds of Chinese and Indian military personnel. Indian forces were at the brink of war with China but had to blink first and withdraw their forces from the disputed region.
The INS Arighant, India’s second Arihant-class submarine, was launched in November 2018 but is currently at trial stage.
The question arises that if Arihant was the pride of Indian Navy, it must have been staffed by its top-of-the-line sailors and officers, yet a human error of the gravity of leaving a hatch open, caused the IN such grief and embarrassment. Various analysts, including Li Jie of the Global Times, have now examined the case and concluded that inadequate management, indiscipline and slackness among officers and soldiers of the Indian Navy, are responsible for the various catastrophes that have hit IN the near past.
As a national strategic weapon, the nuclear submarine requires careful maintenance, strict management and operation. However, the sailors on the vessel failed to take good care of it.
India has long dreamed of becoming a military power. It hopes to acquire more core defence technologies as soon as possible. However, most of India’s weapons are purchased from major military powers including Russia, France, the UK and the USA. The sources of India’s weaponry and equipment are complicated. Norms and technical standards that various countries follow to make weapons, are different. Coupled with the fact that India is also developing indigenous weapons, it is fair to conclude that the country’s arsenal is a hodgepodge. In the meantime, Indian soldiers, who are not well-educated, lack necessary knowledge to operate imported advanced weaponry. What they can depend on, is just outdated experience and knowledge. This may be how accidents on INS Arihant happened. Improvement in military technology does not come about overnight. It is a long process that is not solely a military issue, but also related to a country’s comprehensive strength, level of technology, manufacturing capability and quality of personnel. But the Indian military has been over-anxious for quick results in recent years and has paid too much attention to dealing with China and Pakistan. This will inevitably lead to adverse consequences.
India wants its masses to believe that in November 2018, Arihant completed its first deterrent patrol but a report published by The Hindu, claiming that INS Arihant was still lying idle almost a year after the incident, had caused a storm of controversy because it came at a time when another nuclear submarine leased from Russia is already undergoing critical repairs following a serious accident in August last year. The sonar of the nuclear submarine Chakra (Akula-2 class) was reportedly damaged and two panels were dislodged during the accident.
If India wants to fulfil its ambitions of developing a bluewater navy, it will have to shed its arrogance and pay attention to the basics of educating its personnel and learning to master the intricate art of managing a force comprising weapon systems of diverse origins.