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Blow to navy’s depleting fleet
Hole in claim of higher capability

New Delhi, Aug. 14: The explosions and fire that sank the INS Sindhurakshak submarine in Mumbai last night have taken out one of the most potent platforms of the Indian Navy.

The navy now has a fleet of 14 submarines. For the last 10 years it has been decommissioning submarines faster than it can acquire them — for reasons of bureaucratic tardiness, whiff of corruption in deals and faulty acquisition processes.

Ideally, the navy wants a fleet of 24 submarines to patrol what it sees as its area of responsibility in the Indian Ocean Region, from the Straits of Malacca in the east to the Straits of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf in the west.

The sinking of the Sindhurakshak torpedoes claims of an increase in military capabilities that were made after the nuclear reactor on board the INS Arihant submarine went “critical” and the hull of the aircraft carrier, the Vikrant, was launched over the weekend.

Indeed, the current year has taken one of the heaviest tolls on the military in peacetime: at least six aircraft of the Indian Air Force — five of them combat jets — have crashed and around two dozen people have been killed; the Indian Army has lost close to 50 soldiers in skirmishes on the Line of Control and in counter-insurgency; and the navy has incurred its biggest casualty since the INS Khukri, the warship that was sunk by Pakistan in the 1971 war.

A loss of the Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine is unprecedented for the Indian Navy. Apart from being one of the quietest submarines — and therefore difficult to detect — the Sindhurakshak was the last of seven boats that were refurbished in Russia over two-and-a-half years. It had returned to Mumbai only on April 29.

Navy chief Admiral D.K. Joshi said the submarine was a different class of vessel since its refurbishment.

During the refit, the Sindhurakshak was armed with the Klub-S missiles, which can take out surface targets from a distance of 200km, additional sensors and an indigenous sonar.

The Sindhurakshak has had two minor mishaps in the past: in February 2010, a sailor was killed in Visakhapatnam when its batteries were being charged.

In March this year, while sailing to India from Russia, the Sindhurakshak had hit rough weather in the Mediterranean and had to be towed to port by Egyptian tugboats before it resumed its voyage.

The submarine had a crew of 58 and was being readied to sail for a patrol this morning when the fire and the explosions ripped through it. The navy now has nine Kilo-class submarines, four (German-origin) HDW class submarines and the leased INS Chakra nuclear attack submarine from Russia.

A programme to acquire six French-built Scorpene submarines — deliveries for which were to begin last year — has got upset because of delays in the acquisition process and technological failures. The $4.2 billion project is now likely to see the delivery of the first submarine only in 2015.

Not only is the navy coping with a fast depleting and ageing submarine fleet (the Sindhurakshak was acquired in 1997), it is also severely constricted for space.

The naval dockyard in Mumbai, where the submarine went down last night, is “packed like the car park of a mall on a weekend”. The INS Sindhuratna was adjacent to the Sindhurakshak that went down. Its rubber tiles caught fire but that was put out and the submarine was towed away.

So choked is the naval dockyard in Mumbai that the navy refused to maintain the decommissioned aircraft carrier INS Vikrant in its berth as a museum to make space for other warships.

The scrapped vessel is now being cut into pieces after the Maharashtra government, too, decided not to maintain it.

‘I wondered if this was another 26/11’

It was nearing midnight but 28-year-old Vikalp Shah was so happy to meet a close friend after a long time that they were chatting in his car parked on the Gateway of India promenade.

A businessman with interests in the spa industry and the salvage insurance industry, Vikalp and his friend were stunned when a huge ball of fire suddenly lit up the tip of the naval dockyard around 11.55pm.

“Our car was parked between the Taj hotel and the Radio Club. We could see huge flames lighting up the sky. Within seconds, a huge explosion followed and such was its impact that our car shook. For a moment, I froze with fear, because we were near the Taj and I wondered if this was another 26/11-type terror attack,” Vikalp said this evening.

He and his friend then whipped out their mobile phones, and began shooting pictures and videos of the
fire and posting them on Facebook and Twitter. (Picture above was taken by Vikalp Shah.)

“I saw three clear explosions. The first one was huge. The second one was comparatively smaller, and the third one was again huge like firecrackers going off and sending things flying up in the air. We hung around the place for another 15 minutes or so, and then drove away as fire engines had come in and needed space to park,” Vikalp said.

Soon after, news agencies contacted him for the pictures and uploaded them on the wires. One even gave him credit for the pictures, Vikalp said.

Our special correspondent