Mumbai: A day ahead of India’s 67th Independence Day, a diesel-powered submarine exploded and sank Wednesday in a Mumbai dock, killing an unknown number of the 18 crewmen on board and setting back the navy’s ambitious modernization drive.
The fully armed INS Sindhurakshak, returned by Russia earlier this year after a major refit at an estimated cost of $80 million, is nose-down in the water, with just a small part visible above the surface, the navy said.
Navy chief Admiral D.K. Joshi said divers had managed to pry open the main hatch of the diesel-powered submarine, more than 12 hours after the incident, and were trying to find their way through the vessel.
The disaster is thought to be the worst for the Indian navy since the sinking of a frigate by a Pakistani submarine in 1971. India’s defence minister A.K. Antony described the explosion as the “greatest tragedy in recent time”.
“I feel sad about those navy personnel who have lost their lives in service of the country,” Antony told reporters in New Delhi, without saying how many had died.
The blast came days after New Delhi trumpeted the launch of its first domestically built aircraft carrier and the start of sea trials for its first Indian-made nuclear submarine.
India has been expanding its armed forces rapidly to upgrade its mostly Soviet-era weaponry and react to what is perceived as a growing threat from regional rival China.
Grainy amateur video footage taken by a witness showed a fireball in the forward section of the Russian-made INS Sindhurakshak where torpedoes and missiles are stored as well as the battery units.
“There were two to three explosions and the night sky lit up briefly,” said eyewitness Dharmendra Jaiswal, a sanitation worker.
“There was a lot of smoke and I thought it was some major repair work,” he told AFP near the scene of the disaster.
P.S. Rahangdale, an off-duty firefighter who rushed to the scene, told a local television channel that the INS Sindhurakshak “was totally on fire” and was berthed next to another submarine.
“Because of timely intervention of my team and resources and navy’s resources we could save that second submarine,” he said.
The navy stressed that the cause of the explosion was not known.
“Eighteen sailors were on board the submarine, they have not been evacuated yet,” navy spokesman P.V. Satish told AFP. The submarine was fully operational and was therefore carrying a “full complement of torpedoes and missiles”, he said.
Other sailors stationed on vessels berthed nearby were admitted to a navy hospital with burn injuries.
A fire had broken out on INS Sindhurakshak in February 2010 while docked in Visakhapatnam, killing a 24-year-old sailor and leaving two others with burns.
An inquiry into the cause of the explosion has been ordered.
One senior naval officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the “needle of suspicion” was on the battery system as the source of the fire, but he stressed that these were early assumptions.
A spokesman for the Russian Zvyozdochka company, which overhauled INS Sindhurakshak’s weapons, navigation and power generator systems, said India raised no objections about the vessel when it was returned after testing in April.
The submarine, whose name means “protector of the seas”, is covered by a Russian warranty and eight Zvyozdochka employees are still in Mumbai, the spokesman said.
“Zvyozdochka is prepared to render its full assistance in the investigation and search for the causes of the accident,” the spokesman told the ITAR-TASS news agency.
The submarine was built in 1997 at the St Petersburg’s Admiralty Wharf.
Official statistics show that eight of the 11 Project 877 submarines, such as the INS Sindhurakshak, Russia has built for export since the 1980s have been delivered to India.
“I do not believe that this incident will have a negative impact on Russia’s military cooperation with India,” the state-run RIA Novosti news agency quoted Moscow’s Global Arms Trade Centre expert Igor Korotchenko as saying.
But Indian officials have voiced growing displeasure with their old partner’s service—particularly concerning cost-overruns and delays involved in the refit of a Russian aircraft carrier that now bears the name INS Vikramaditya.
Analysts believe India is forced to continue purchasing Russian military parts because it still operates so many Soviet-era warplanes and vessels.
But New Delhi has also sought to expand its military trade ties with the US in the past decade.
The US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that cumulative defence sales between the two had grown “from virtually zero” 10 years ago to more than $8 billion today.
That trend has unnerved Russian officials who have already suffered humiliations from two deadly post-Soviet submarine disasters and a raft of other military and space setbacks.
The Kursk nuclear submarine accident claimed 118 lives when it sank in August 2008 while an Akula-class sub—eventually commissioned by India as INS Chakra—killed 20 Russian sailors when it caught fire while conducting exercises in November 2008.
The INS Sindhurakshak is under Russian warranty until January 2014.
Arun Prakash, a former Indian navy chief, said the prospect of survivors appeared unlikely.
“There is a possibility that these 18 crewmen may have sealed themselves off in some part of the submarine and they may still have survived,” he told the CNN-IBN news channel.
“Otherwise, with this massive explosion, chances don’t look very bright,” he added.
Rahul Bedi, a defence expert with IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, told AFP that the 16-year-old submarine lacked some modern safety features common to newer vessels even after its overhaul. “They don’t have escape routes in the event of accidents, unlike some of the modern submarines,” he said.
The Indian navy says it has a total of 14 submarines but only between seven and nine are operational at any point because of regular repair and refitting operations.
Russia is still the biggest military supplier to India, but relations have been strained recently by major delays and cost over-runs with the INS Vikramaditya.
The accident is set to overshadow scheduled talks between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a G20 summit in St Petersburg in September.
India’s navy has had far fewer accidents than the air force, dogged for years by crashes of Russian-made MiG-21 fighters.
However, most of the country’s fleet of 15 submarines is in urgent need of modernization, which has been hampered by delays in government decisions as it battles corruption allegations.
Efforts to build a domestic arms industry to supply the military have made slow progress, with the country still the world’s largest importer.
A new aircraft carrier built by the Cochin shipyard was launched this week, although it’s only due to be fully operational by 2017.
The navy also announced that the reactor on its first indigenous nuclear submarine had been made operational as part of the plan to build a powerful navy to counter China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean.
INS Sindhurakshak completed a two-and-a-half-year upgrade at a Russian shipyard a few months ago. “This is a very, very old boat that really doesn’t go out on long sea patrols,” said Bharat Karnad, a senior fellow of national security studies at the Centre for Policy Research.
The accident was a setback, said former navy chief Admiral Sushil Kumar. Vice Admiral (retd) A.K. Singh said an internal explosion on a submarine could have been caused because of a problem with the batteries. In submarines, the batteries are placed in the lower part while on top are the missiles, Singh said.
The batteries release hydrogen and, during charging, the gas reaches a concentration level of about 4%, which may form an explosive mixture. Singh, however, added that hydrogen alone was not enough to cause an explosion of the magnitude witnessed in the Sindhurakshak case.
“I suspect the hydrogen could have created a fire, which spread to the top where the missile compartments are and reached the warheads, (thus) causing a massive explosion,” he said. “It is unfortunate it was our frontline submarine. The damage done is enormous.”
PTI contributed to this story.