India: Sub burns, sinks; 18 crew lost

Infographic from the Hindustan Times.

Infographic from the Hindustan Times.

During the Cold War, India tilted towards Russia and still operates predominantly Russian weapons systems. Some of these, like the accident-prone MiG-21 fighters, have long been a problem and the Indians long to develop indigenous alternatives, or source Western equivalents. But they don’t trust the United States, partly because of its Cold War tilt towards secondary enemy Pakistan (despite the implacable hostility of Pakistan to India, India’s general staff worries more about China). And partly because the USA is seen as an inconstant partner in arms supply. If the Russians sell you, they’ll deliver. India’s keenly aware of what the USA did to Pakistan when Pakistan displeased us: prevented the Paks from taking delivery of F-16s they’d already bought and paid for.

They’d love to have the superior capability and reliability of the F-16. They’d just hate to be embargoed for spares in a shooting war.

Another problematic Russian weapon for India has been the Kilo-class submarine. While these are frequently reported as old or obsolete, they date to the 1980s and 1990s and are fairly advanced diesel-electric boats. But India’s had hard luck with them, and with the Sindhughosh Class boats and the INS Sidhurakshak (S63) in particular. In 2010, Sidhurakshak suffered an explosion while at dockside in the east coast naval base of Visakhapatnam. Three sailors were injured, one fatally. Not long after that, she returned to her Russian makers for refit and modernization, returning to India early this year with new electronics and new cruise-missile capabilities.

Now Sidhurakshak has suffered another casualty, this one eerily similar, but more serious: the boat burned and exploded at dockside in Bombay (Mumbai), and sank. All 18 crew on board are lost.

INS Sindhurakshak before the casualty.

INS Sindhurakshak before the casualty.

Ordnance goes high-order as Sindhurakshak burns. NDTV photo.

Ordnance goes high-order as Sindhurakshak burns. NDTV photo.

It is too early to say what caused the fire, but it either began in or extended into the weapons storage area in the boat’s bow. Once the missiles and hazmat-fueled torpedoes started going, there was no fighting the fire.

India is not the only nation whose navy has had a submarine setback this year. Recently the US Navy judged USS Miami, a nuclear attack submarine, as too expensive to repair, and ordered the Cold War workhorse scrapped. Miami would have cost over $700 million to repair, and it will cost less than $100 million to cut her up and dispose of her parts. The sub was in Portsmouth Navy Yard for a scheduled overhaul when it was destroyed by an arson fire. The arsonist was a painter at the Yard, a mentally ill youth who wanted to get off work early and figured starting a fire would be a good way to do it. He’s off work all right — he’s scheduled for release from Federal prison circa 2029.

Updates

The sail of the sunken sub is just at or below the surface. Divers report the interior is burned and buckled -- very hazardous conditions.

The sail of the sunken sub is just at or below the surface. Divers report the interior is burned and buckled — very hazardous conditions.

Four bodies have been recovered by divers who entered the hulk. The incinerated nature of the submarine, and the condition of the remains recovered so far, suggests that the other 14 crewmen are certainly dead. CNN story.

Six bodies. Hindustan Times story. Foreign salvors are assisting, per the Times of India (India does not have domestic capacity to salvage the boat). It was not a good end for the submariners: they died of burns and drowning. The Russians suggest the Indian crew may have been bending safety rules, even though they admit it’s too early to know. That’s going to go over badly in grieving India.

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