9 minute readIndian Navy should heed San Juan tragedy siren

ARA San Juan | Source: Martin Otero – Naval Base Mar del Plata/Licence: CC BY 2.5

Former naval aviator Captain K.P. Sanjeev Kumar examines the San Juan tragedy, pointing out that after half a century of operating submarines, India still does not have organic submarine rescue capability and asks why navies such as ours invest in submarines without closing the loop on submarine rescue.

It has been over 15 days (11:36 GMT, 15th November) since contact was lost with Argentinian submarine ARA San Juan. Being a conventional diesel-electric submarine, it has to come up to ‘snort’ every 24-48 hours for ventilating foul gases and recharging batteries that power the boat once it is submerged. Without surfacing for over 15 days, any hope of finding the 44 crew (including their first female submarine officer Eliana Maria Krawczyk) alive is almost zero. Another sad statistic has been added to the list of submarine disasters, the worst in recent memory being our own boat, INS Sindhurakshak that blew up in Mumbai harbour on 14 Aug 2013 while preparing for a sea sortie.

As per Argentinian sources, the submarine captain had indicated a ‘failure’ in the vessel’s battery system and a ‘short circuit’ onboard. But 6-8 metre high waves and gale force winds in the San Jorge Gulf, South Atlantic, forced the boat to dive. One last time, as it turned out.

Submarine accidents are rare. Some of the highest safety standards in the world are norm for those who build and operate submarines. But accidents do happen. Fire and flooding are omnipresent dangers in the submarine’s unforgiving environment.

Conventional submarines release highly flammable hydrogen (H2) gas while charging their batteries on surface. This gas can catch spontaneous fire at concentrations as low as 4% by volume. Faulty batteries or insufficient ventilation can cause H2 concentration to shoot up rapidly. In such a confined volatile space, a short circuit is a potential emergency and can hardly be dismissed as ‘minor’.

The submarine is a weapon of stealth and communicates with shore authorities but rarely (daily CHECK reports being the only scheduled communication). Submarine skippers are usually known to measure their words. If a ‘short circuit’ merited mention in his last radio contact, chances are it was already a grave situation. An underwater explosion detected about the same time radio contact was lost poses to be the stricken submarine’s final moment. It’s a terrible way to go; every submariner’s worst nightmare.

What immediate lessons can growing navies like the Indian Navy draw from this disaster?

The Indian Navy has been operating submarines since 1967. A force which aims for 24+submarines has dwindled down to just 14 conventional and 2 nuclear submarines (one leased). We belong to an exclusive club of 5 countries that have built and operate a nuclear submarine. But a critical vulnerability that existed since the submarine arm’s inception continues to fester: submarine rescue capability. In this aspect, we have fared no better than the Argentinian Navy or any third world navy.

After half a century of operating submarines, India still does not have organic submarine rescue capability. The U.S. Navy developed the Deep Submergence Rescue Vessel (DSRV) in the 70s, about the same time we started building our navy’s third dimension. The DSRV is a manned, mini-submarine that mates with the distressed submarine’s escape hatch to facilitate rescue of personnel in small batches. It can also be airlifted to the nearest airport and then taken by a host ship to the datum. Other navies who value their submariners’ lives have also developed their own portable rescue facilities. The Royal Navy uses the LR5 Submarine Rescue Vehicle (SRV), Submarine Parachute Assistance Group (SPAG) and the Scorpio Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). The NATO Submarine Rescue Service (NSRS) is another system developed jointly by Britain, France and Norway. The U.S. Navy has developed a Submarine Rescue Diving and Recompression System (SRDRS) as part of their continuous efforts to provide rescue cover for their assets. The Royal Australian Navy which did not have organic submarine rescue system till 1995 has since developed the Submarine Escape and Rescue Suite (SERS) which includes the Australian SRV Remora, the SRV’s launch and recovery system, and decompression chambers with a Transfer Under Pressure (TUP) capability. We have none of that.

The DSRV is the minimum, first-on-site capability without which timely assistance and rescue cannot be provided to submarine crew in danger. As such, they should be considered MUST HAVE and essential and not merely NICE TO HAVE or desirable for any self-respecting navy that has submarines in the water. Nations that do not have organic capability usually have a standing agreement with other countries that have them. The Indian Navy has an ongoing agreement with the U.S. Navy for the provision of a Global Submarine Rescue Flyaway Kit (GSRFK) should any such emergency befall one of our boats. Our escape hatches and seals have been adapted to mate with U.S. Navy’s DSRV that forms part of the GSRFK.

But such arrangements come with their own challenges and small print. For one, who can deny the ‘time-late’ at datum when such assets have to be flown in from across the globe? For instance, consider the unlikely event of an Indian submarine bottomed 50 miles off Visakhapatnam. Imagine the coordination required at the highest levels to fly-in a C-5 Galaxy or a C-17 Globemaster with the GSRFK from San Diego to Visakhapatnam, via Singapore or Hong Kong. If the aircraft is unable to land at Visakhapatnam, the DSRV has to be taken by road from Chennai to Visakhapatnam, then put on a mother ship and sailed out to the datum along with a multi-disciplinary, specialist crew from both sides.

Familiarity of U.S. Navy crew with our submarines, our waters (depths plummet rapidly off Visakhapatnam) and our procedures would throw up several challenges while the last traces of oxygen deplete from the stricken submarine. We may have signed up for rescue services, but there is every likelihood that the mission will turn to one of salvage. When submarine safety is in doubt, every minute, every second counts. Without an integral capability that has been exercised and rehearsed many times over, the crew’s chances of safe rescue will be greatly diminished.

As an aviator accustomed to fighter sorties being cancelled because rescue helicopter cover was not available, I find this situation hard to understand or reconcile with.

Why do navies such as ours invest in submarines without closing the loop on submarine rescue?

For a small navy like the Argentinian Navy, this can be understood if not condoned. How could we – a navy that boasts of blue water capability – justify this situation should the unthinkable happen?

As young officers on ships, we used to often practice submarine safety alerts like SUBMISS and SUBSUNK through its exercise version SMASHEX. Five decades later, these exercises remain as nebulous as ever while we ride a thin dotted line on a piece of paper signed with Uncle Sam. One can hazard a guess as to its viability. In my opinion, it is fraught with uncertainties because of timelate, rescue coordination and interoperability issues. We have bashed on regardless, dependent on outside help for submarine rescue while our boats stalked the oceans far and wide. This is the brazenly chalta hai (devil may care) attitude for which the higher defence management of this country is notorious.

But before we pin the blame on bureaucrats and the ministry, perhaps a little introspection is in order. Why did successive naval chiefs gloss over this gaping void? Why has the Silent Arm’s repeated requests for organic submarine rescue capability not borne fruit despite some spectacular disasters right under our nose. Is it the same convoluted issue of writing staff requirements and archaic decision-making systems?

We are the same navy that contracted the U.S. Navy for on-site SRV cover when President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam embarked INS Sindhurakshak for a sea sortie of 6 hours in 2006.

Are our submariners’ lives any less precious? It took more than a year and excess of INR 200 Crores (US$ 31 million) to salvage INS Sindhurakshak that sank right next to South Breakwater inside Mumbai’s Naval Dockyard. It exposed several chinks in our safety armour. How were we to deal with something like this on the high seas?

A good submarine rescue plan includes both organic capability as well as tie-ups with other nations to employ their assets where that equipment might be better suited than our own. This was revealed in the Kursk tragedy, where the Russians doggedly refused NATO help and in the resultant delay 23 lives that could be saved were lost. In the aftermath of Kursk tragedy the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Organisation (ISMERLO) was formed, with the primary objective to help coordinate future submarine rescue missions. India is a passive member of this organisation. A less-than-impressive picture of Diving Support Vessel INS Nireekshak and an Alouette helicopter adorns our page on their website after 50 years of operating submarines. The irony is hard to miss.

In the wake of INS Sindhurakshak disaster, then Defence Minister A.K. Antony rebuked the Navy for frittering away national resources through avoidable peacetime accidents. The defence ministry, under cover of his diversionary tactics, ducked responsibility and everyone breathed easy after Navy Chief Admiral D.K. Joshi offered his resignation. Things slipped back to status quo. Antony’s successor and former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar followed up by tabling a reply in Rajya Sabha in 2015 that nobody could be blamed for the Sindhurakshak accident since ‘none of the officers or sailors present inside the boat survived’. This is a chilling reminder of the state of affairs that approximates the capital’s ‘No one killed Jessica’ whodunnit. It is a terrible mistake to take submarine safety lightly.

Four years later, as the Indian Navy celebrates the Golden Jubilee of the Submarine Arm on December 08th this year, many a toast will be raised to celebrate the induction of the indigenous nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, and the successful operation of the leased Russian Akula-class nuclear attack submarine, INS Chakra.

But as far as submarine rescue goes, there is finally something to cheer about. The first of the two DSRVs ordered by the Indian Navy may be commissioned as early as 2018; fourteen years after the case was initiated.

For a skewed force level that prioritised capability over safety for many decades, this is definitely something to celebrate. But it should also be an occasion for introspection.

So what do you think?