On the eve of India’s Independence Day, against the backdrop of the proclamations of a number of naval achievements, like the reactor of its first nuclear submarine Arihant going critical, the indigenously-built aircraft carrier Vikrant commencing sea trials, Vikramaditya beginning air trials after the completion of sea trials and the acquiring of Kiev-class aircraft carrier from Russia, a serious accident marred the revelry.
At 11:53pm on the night between August 13 and 14, the orange ball of flame that lit the skyline of Mumbai harbour and soon dominated TV screens all over the world was India’s Kilo-class submarine, Sindhurakshak, which exploded after a major accident, claiming 18 precious lives comprising 15 sailors and three officers. However, the exact cause will be confirmed four weeks later, once the Indian navy’s investigation is complete. Nevertheless, a number of safety related questions linked to the horrible incident do arise.
What was the ill-fated submarine’s mission? “Mumbai Mirror” of August 15, 2013, in its story, entitled “Sub was on a secret mission”, informs: “When the blasts took place, Sindhurakshak was being armed for a clandestine operation. Presumably, its crew had no inkling of the mission yet, since military protocol requires that the commanding officer of the unit be handed over a sealed envelope a few hours prior to the departure, detailing the target and TOT (time on target).” The presence of the commandiing officers at the time of loading weapons and the night time priming of munitions, normally conducted to maintain secrecy, indeed, confirm that the submarine was to embark on a war patrol.
Reportedly, Sindhurakshak’s “crew were fitting Klub-class surface-to-air missiles with capability to hit targets within 300 km range. Apparently, gross negligence, incompetence, crew fatigue or failure to adhere to standard operating procedures (SOPs) caused two of the missiles to fire. The first missile went right through the vessel's nose and slammed into the dockyard's security wall, destroying it completely. Within seconds, another missile also caught fire and blew up inside the vessel, triggering a massive fire and knocking off a part of its roof.”
The intensity of the blasts blew the doomed submarine’s nose and sank it. Sixteen sailors, who were outside the submarine on guard duty, managed to escape by jumping into the sea after the first blast. While firefighters managed to save three more submarines, several frigates and ships anchored near Sindhurakshak.
Possible correlation with developments? A retired Pakistani navy officer, who participated in a war game in a neighbouring country, mentioned, during a talk show “Defence & Diplomacy” aired on August 25, that Indian participants had contemplated a surgical strike against Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the Amir of Jama'at-ud-Da'wah, after playing a scenario of a hypothetical attack during a cricket match in India being attended by celebrities. The participants were adamant that the attack on Hafiz Saeed was justified using the plea of his alleged involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Looks like that the Indians have also convinced USA to announce a $10 million bounty on him.
Linking the war mission of Sindhurakshak with the deliberate heating of tension at the Line of Control by India, and the development that US shutdown its consulate in Lahore but not Karachi (where the law and order situation is much worse), because it may have had warning of a probable Indian attack on Muridke, leads me to conclude the possibility of Indian adventurism.
Lessons for Pakistan? This time fate may have intervened, but conspiracies against Pakistan will not cease and a high level of vigilance must be maintained to guard against nocturnal predators.
Horrifying implications? Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore and renowned naval strategist, maintained: “The (Sindhurakshak) accident should serve as a catalyst for India’s navy and higher defence establishment to review and introspect over the institutional inadequacies that need to be redressed.” “Inadequacies”, perhaps, comprise the technological gap emanating from leapfrogging directly to the indigenous production of nuclear-powered submarines without going through the regimen of manufacturing conventional submarines and India’s poor maintenance standards.
Finally, should the Russians withdraw the leased nuclear-powered submarines from the Indian navy? Can’t say for sure. However, there is a possibility that even they are now apprehensive of India’s ability to safely run nuclear submarines and perforce maintain a full-time deployment of a team comprising 10 Russian nuclear technicians onboard its Akula-class submarine leased to the Indian navy. If another Indian nuclear submarine were to meet a disaster, like the latest one or much worse than this, the consequences make one shudder, as the entire region would be exposed to the perils of nuclear radiation affecting all forms of life.
The writer is a former group captain of PAF, who also served as air and naval attaché at Riyadh. Currently, he is a columnist, analyst and host of programme Defence and Diplomacy on PTV.