India’s Singh Says Submarine Accident Painful

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the likely death of 18 sailors from a blast on board a diesel-powered submarine was “all the more painful” given the nation’s recent strides in modernizing its military.

In an Independence Day speech in New Delhi today, Singh said the nation is “deeply pained that we lost the submarine.” “We pay homage to the brave hearts we have lost,” he said. The loss follows the Navy’s recent induction of its first nuclear submarine and the unveiling of a new aircraft carrier.

The explosion and subsequent fire inside the INS Sindhurakshak at a navy dock in Mumbai yesterday is a setback for the 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 showcased its first homegrown aircraft carrier.

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 explosion was the worst-ever disaster for India’s submarine program, according to Uday Bhaskar, a former Indian Navy commodore and now a defense analyst at the Society for Policy Studies in New Delhi.

Cause Unknown

The blast occurred at the dockyard 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.

Navy Chief Admiral D.K. Joshi said at a press conference yesterday that 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 have managed to open one of the vessel’s escape hatches and are 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 was killed by a fire that broke out in the battery compartment while the submarine was docked at a base in southern India, Press Trust of India reported at the time. The ship was sent for an overhaul in Russia later that year.

Ambitions Dented

Rahul Bedi, an analyst and correspondent for Jane’s Defense Weekly, said yesterday the sinking was a major blow to 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.

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 influence.

In the last week, India has achieved two milestones, activating the nuclear reactor aboard the INS Arihant submarine, and displaying its first home-built aircraft carrier at a shipyard in the southern city of Kochi. The 37,500-ton vessel 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.