An explosion ripped through a diesel-powered Indian submarine, killing at least some of the 18 sailors on board and dealing a blow to the nation’s growing naval ambitions.
Speaking outside parliament before heading to the accident site in Mumbai, Defense Minister A.K. Antony said he felt “very sad” about the deaths of sailors, without specifying the number killed. The explosion and subsequent fire at a navy dock occurred inside the INS Sindhurakshak just after midnight yesterday.
“While we hope for the best, we have to prepare for the worst,” Navy Chief Admiral D.K. Joshi said at a press conference in Mumbai. He said there has been no communication with the crew since the explosion.
The blast is a setback for the Indian navy as the country seeks to bolster its military amid a buildup by neighbor China. On Aug. 10, India activated the atomic reactor on its first indigenously built submarine, and two days later unveiled its first homegrown aircraft carrier.
“The navy has certainly lost some of the sheen it has built up over the last week,” said Uday Bhaskar, a former Indian Navy commodore and now a defense analyst at the Society for Policy Studies in New Delhi. “Compared with other navies that operate submarines, India has a very good track record.”
Bhaskar said the explosion was the worst-ever disaster for India’s submarine program. The Sindhurakshak, whose name means “protector of the ocean,” is a Russian-built Kilo class submarine that returned to Mumbai earlier this year after a $133 million refit at a shipyard in Russia, according to India’s defense ministry.
The blast occurred at the Navy Dockyard in Mumbai less than a mile from the financial capital’s luxury Taj Mahal hotel. It took the Mumbai fire brigade more than two hours to bring the blaze under control as flames illuminated the night sky.
Joshi said the fire was caused by two almost simultaneous explosions. While the cause of the fire is not known, it could have been triggered by ammunition, fuel or oxygen bottles on board, he said.
Divers searching for rescuers have managed to open one of the vessel’s escape hatches and were attempting to create watertight compartments so the sub could be emptied of water and re-floated for examination. The number of casualties was lower because only the night-watch team was aboard, he said.
In 2010, a sailor on board the submarine was killed by a fire that broke out in the battery compartment while it was docked at naval base in southern India, Press Trust of India reported at the time. The ship was sent for an overhaul in Russia later that year.
There have been several accidents aboard Russian-made submarines in the past 15 years. Twenty Russians died on a vessel when a faulty firefighting system was accidentally activated during trials in the Sea of Japan in 2008. The Kursk sank in August 2000 after an onboard explosion in the Barents Sea, killing all 118 on board.
India plans to increase its defense spending by 14 percent in the next financial year as it modernizes its military to counter traditional rivals as well as China’s rising power.
In the last week, India has achieved two military milestones, activating the nuclear reactor aboard the INS Arihant submarine, and on Aug. 12 unveiling its first home-built aircraft carrier. The 37,500-ton vessel was unveiled at a shipyard in the southern city of Kochi but won’t enter active service for several years.
India’s navy has a fleet of 15 submarines, including 10 diesel-electric vessels similar to Sindhurakshak. They have a maximum diving depth of 300 meters (984 feet), a top speed of 18 knots and are able to operate for 45 days with a crew of 53 people, according to the navy’s website.
India last year inducted a Russian-built nuclear-powered attack submarine into its navy at a cost of $900 million that allows longer missions and a faster response to threats. The rest of the submarines are more than a decade old, with half of the fleet commissioned in the 1980s.
Rahul Bedi, an analyst and correspondent for Jane’s Defense Weekly, said yesterday the sinking was a major loss for the country’s naval ambitions, with only about half the sanctioned number of submarines now available.
“The submarine fleet has been a worry for the navy for many, many years but for reasons of inefficiency the ministry of defense has taken it very lightly,” Bedi said.