INS Sindhurakshak sinks after serial blasts, 18 navymen feared dead - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 14 August 2013

INS Sindhurakshak sinks after serial blasts, 18 navymen feared dead

Above: The INS Sindhurakshak in Russia in 1997; Below: a grab of an amateur video of the fire aboard the Kilo class submarine on Tuesday night

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 15th Aug 13

In the dangerous life of a submariner, his on-board bank of batteries is normally his trusted lifeline.

Enemy sonar detectors, which pick up the faintest underwater sound from many kilometres away, continually listen, armed with depth charges to blow apart any enemy submarine they detect. To remain silent, a submarine moves on electrical power, with giant batteries silently rotating the propeller and allowing it to close in with the enemy and fire its lethal torpedoes. Then, moving urgently on high battery power, the submarine slips away.

Ironically, this battery lifeline can also prove deadly for submariners. When a battery is charged --- which involves running a diesel generator to top up the electricity that was consumed while moving underwater --- it releases hydrogen, an inflammable gas that explodes when it reaches levels of 4 per cent in the atmosphere.

Since this danger is well understood, submarines are built with multiple safeguards to ensure that the level of hydrogen never crosses 1 – 1.5 per cent.

Something seems to have gone dreadfully wrong with the safeguards aboard INS Sindhurakshak last night, while it was moored at the Naval Dockyard in Mumbai last night. Going by video footage of the incident, and by the assessments of veteran submariners, at least two sequential explosions appear to have been sparked by a fire on board the Russia-supplied, Kilo Class submarine.

While the navy remains silent on the extent of material damage, it has declared 18 sailors, who were on board, missing.

Vice Admiral (Retired) AK Singh, a veteran submariner, believes a hydrogen build up during battery charging caused the fire. That set off an initial explosion of ammunition, which then ignited a more massive one.

Says Admiral Singh, “In the Kilo Class submarine, the ammunition compartment is located directly above the battery compartment, in the forward part of the vessel. A fire in the battery compartment could have ignited or detonated the ammunition on board.”

Submarines, like all naval warships, carry a partial load of ammunition, even during peacetime. This eliminates the need to return to port for ammunition in the event of a sudden operational requirement.

On board the Sindhurakshak were two types of Russian torpedoes --- the Type 71-76, with a 200 kilogram warhead; and the Type 53-65, with a 300 kilogram warhead. In addition, there were Klub-S anti-ship missiles that have even larger warheads of 450 kilos. That would suggest that the explosions captured on camera last night involved between 500-1,000 kilograms of explosion.

“The Sindhurakshak itself is certainly badly damaged. The question is: how much have the other warships and submarines parked alongside been damaged? If it had been a western submarine, with a single hull, collateral damage would have been extensive. But the Sindhurakshak, like most Russian submarines, has a double hull that might have contained the explosion somewhat,” says a naval source.

This was not the first fire on INS Sindhurakshak. In 2010 it was damaged, and one sailor killed, in a fire that the navy found had been caused by hydrogen build up during battery charging. At that time, the ventilation system had been found to be malfunctioning.

Immediately after that incident, the Sindhurakshak went back to Russia for refit. This was a three-year-long, Rs 480 crore operation, in which the submarine was checked, overhauled and modernised. It rejoined the fleet on Apr 29, 2013.

According to industry sources, the batteries for Kilo Class submarines are supplied by Indian company, Exide. A battery bank consists of 240 cells, each weighing 800 kilograms. With each of them the size of a filing cabinet, much of the space inside a submarine is taken up by this crucial system.

Charging the battery bank takes 8-10 hours, with several hours of high-rate charge followed by a period of low-rate charging. That packaged power can be expended in just one hour, if the submarine is moving underwater at full speed. But that seldom happens, and there is also a “100-hour rate” of battery power consumption which lets the submarine lurk underwater for 60 hours without a recharge.

While on operational patrol, a submarine remains submerged by day, moving on electrical power. After dark, it comes up to about 9 metres below the surface and runs its diesel generator, raising a snorkel above the water surface to suck in air to run the generators. But in the dockyard, batteries are charged more seldom, since the submarine draws electric current by plugging into shore supply.

The Indian Navy operates ten Kilo-class submarines, which it calls the Sindhughosh Class, after the first of the series that was commissioned in 1986. The Sindhurakshak is the latest but one, having joined service in 1997.

The Indian Navy also operates four German HDW submarines, called the Shishumar Class. Of these 14 submarines, an average of just 8 are operational at any given time.

Also in service is the leased Russian Akula-II class nuclear-powered attack submarine, INS Chakra. And six Scorpene submarines are under construction in Mazagon Dock, Mumbai. These are expected to enter service between 2015-18.


  1. Tragic. Condolences to the bereaved for their loss.

    Just what the Indian navy did not need. Loss of well trained submariners and a much valued submarine and this at a time when the status of the under sea fleet is at its bleakest.
    IMO only one way to go from here:
    1. Lease a few Kilos from Russia while IN Kilos are being upgraded.
    2. Completion of the Scorpene subs on time. If not earlier.
    3. Finalise the deal for the second Akula-II.
    4. Serial production of the ATV SSBNs. These will most probably be comverted to SSNs or SSGNs in future depending on the development of better SLBMs and production of larger SSBNs.
    5. Fast track procurement of a dozen Type 216 or Amur 1650 as Kilo replacements for long range missions and perhaps a few of the smaller Amur 950s for littoral patrol. These subs are being offered to the IN with provision for modification as per IN requirements and will be better off built by the OEMs otherwise we may expect another 5-8 years delay in production from our docks.

    The media has frequently been going to town with comparisons with certain militaries which I find provocative and quite unnecessary. Nevertheless, any great nation must have a well equipped and trained navy and its submarine arm acts as its strike force and the IN I'm sure has stratagem for the protection of Indian interests and for long term military, economic and political aspirations of India and should therefore strive to maintain a healthy and substantial submarine fleet. The government of the day must ensure necessary funding and expediency in clearing procurement issues.

  2. We can spend 480 cores on refitting. Can't we spend few more to change the batteries from lead acid to Lithium ion one? Even modern lead acid batteries are sealed and emanating very negligible if at all hydrogen gas during charging.

  3. Deepest condolences to the families of the brave submariners.

    One thing I have not understood is that while the Indian Navy has made great strides in Surface vessel indigenization, there has not been much luck with submarines.
    Why? Surely we can put resources on this aspect and gain some mastery ourselves?

  4. GhusPetiya Gabbar15 August 2013 at 09:57

    My heartfelt condolences to the sailors and officers who died in this ghastly accident. What a waste of elite trained manpower.

    I am no sailor or a submariner for that matter, but we appear to be jumping to conclusions.

    Firstly was the submarine carrying its full load of munitions - missiles and torpedoes ? Had it just returned from a routine (or otherwise) patrol or way it about to leave for one ?

    By all accounts the sub was berthed alongside at the Naval dockyard. In such a circumstance, it was on the surface and probably connected to electrical and communication feeds from the shore for running on board systems. Charging of batteries, with consequent release of inflammable hydrogen, is a far-fetched occurrence as sub had not dived in the preceding 48 hours, presumably.

    Subs are frequently victims of the munitions, especially torpedoes, going off due to chemical deterioration or corrosion of the explosive train in the torpedo warheads. With the DRDO joining the business of developing torpedo warheads and propulsion systems I anticipate integration issues especially with Russian equipment.

    Going by the fact that the sub was undergoing, or had undergone, a series of sea-worthiness or certification trials, it just may be that it was carrying an unprecedented (for peacetime) full munitions load. Given the Naval propensity for mixing and matching weapon systems and munitions from diverse sources, the full munition load-out may not have been integrated with the weapon storage safety systems.

    I am reasonably sure that there is negligence involved, though not on part of the crew. Neglect, if any, would probably be on part of the Inspectorates of Munitions or the engineering agency that would have been responsible for integrating the safety mechanisms.

    These are mere educated conjectures and should be given their due as such. I can't help but shudder at the exorbitant loss to the National Exchequer and the loss of face for the Navy which I considered a decidedly professional Service vis.a.vis the Army.

  5. Whilst the destruction of a submarine would effect the particular navy , the destruction of sindhurakshak's destruction comes as a much bigger blow to the IN than the impact of destruction of a single submarine would have on a particular navy..Why is it so?

    Some points that come out of such

    1) Every facet of any arm of the forces has an impact as it has a job to do individually. But for any one single asset to have such an impact singularly shows the MoDs not allowing Navy to be up to speed. For how many decades has the navy augmented for better and increase in strength of the submarine arm...contrast this to the MoD and its malices such as MDL working for it.

    Compare the Increase in threat perception, adversaries strength increasing to MoD taking actions to counter shows the MoD worked i such a way that it reversed the Navy's trend) just like it did for the IAF and IA)

    2) Sindhurakshak may have been IN frontrunner , but how come a 1997 built is a frontrunner in 2013. Whilst modifying it, how come MoD didn't envisage the need of more such especially keeping in mind the IN submarine's negative trend.

    3) Chidambaram keeps citing economical down trend....In the 2007 to 2009, he was showcasing himself as a hero when global economy had taken a hit and India was shining....why didnt the FM ,MoD, RM,Supreme comander of India's armed forces swing into action during that time...harnessing the fact of a stronger Indian economy vis a vis production and jobs needed in europe and elsewhere, which would have given us a positive trend in the bargain ratio...The MoD Slept, MDL kept sleeping, the RM probably didnt know and the supreme commander of India's armed forces....well s/he still dont know what their job encompasses of

    4) The scorpion making in India is a joke....The vigilance dept is a bigger joke..The idiots in the vigilance dept dont know head or tail technically or otherwise of what they were/ are and will be probing. Their shelrock homes slills are just that bad..but to justify their job they have to shoot in the dark and witch Hunt....They stalled the project on so many fronts, then years later gave the go ahead to get a technical then software and technical details had advanced...and as software gets outdated out of market...the new technical detail would not match the old ' whatever segments' were had to procure old software at a bigger price than its original one or the need to redo the whole segment was envisaged....then another sherlock stalled it on the witch hunt that the procurements are expensive than originally quoted a decade ago...and stalled it there...and so on and on...the dig made to run in circles to catch its tail...production nill, paper work full and waste of tax payers money on two fronts including paying for idiots and national security being outdated and thinned down

    5) Its the right time for veterans who are showcassed on tv , to highlight the indifference of MoD,that makes sinking of 1 submarine , create a very big blow to national security.


  6. You will find this interesting--- no conjectures are being made , but it is not difficult to deduct what could have happened--


    ‘’ You can imagine the terror of being trapped in a submarine, (240 feet)below the surface, not knowing if you will be dead or alive in a matter of hours‘’
    (Edwyn Gray-Disasters of the Deep:A History of Submarine Tragedies)

    1 A sad moment for the Navy and the Country and an irreparable loss to those who have lost their loved one amongst those eighteen Souls who perished in that terrible tragedy in which the submarine Sidhurakshak was lost ----a husband , a father, a son ,a brother to someone. Our thoughts are with the families and the shipmates of these valiant sailors .
    2 A submariners work space is full of tubing , electricals/conduits , machinery , cylinders,fuel,ordnance,batteries, narrow and cramped passage-ways interspersed with water tight bulkheads and hatches. Anything can go wrong in that confined and claustrophobic space ; from a component failure to a human break-down ,an error of judgement or fire , explosion , water intake or a collision. And we are talking about peace time. To further compound the matter, the restricted space inside a submarine is crammed with unwashed bodies and stale air .With limited toilet facilities and cramped spaces, crews may go without a bath or a change for days at a time.
    3 So what could have caused the catastrophe in which we lost so many highly trained sailors not to mention a front line submarine?The reason for this tragic loss will no doubt be carefully uncovered by extremely dedicated and well qualified experts -------------

    Read the full story on the link given.

  7. It was very sad news for Indian , Many achievements for Indian Navy this year but this Incident remained as a Black day..

    This Incident also got Listed 2013 Naval Top stories


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