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Ignorant approach
Need for the acquisition of submarine rescue ship

The tragic accident in the Indian Navy  Kilo class Submarine INS Sindhurakshak has once again focused on the need to have a Submarine Rescue Vessel, which the Indian Navy  has been urging the government to acquire.

In view of India’s plans to acquire several more nuclear submarines, this becomes all the more necessary to have this facility. Since accidents in submarines are very rare, the government has been ignoring the urgent necessity of possessing such facility. According to naval officials, the acquisition plan of such vessels falls low in priority because of funds constraints.

The defence minister A K Antony had to sadly inform the Indian Parliament on 19th August that “Globally renowned professional salvage agencies have been approached and they are undertaking the survey for salvage operations. There is also an offer of help from Russia, where the refit and upgrade had been undertaken.” According to naval officials the Singapore office of a Dutch company was requisitioned to deploy its salvage personnel on the INS Sindhurakshak.

Submarine accident

A few minor accidents earlier in the Indian Navy  submarines should have been taken as a warning signal and the latest incident has happened while the Submarine was parked on the naval base at Mumbai, the MoD must not wait for the next accident to happen.

In the absence of a Submarine Rescue Vessel, India depends on the US Navy support, for which India has signed an agreement with the US Navy. Only last year in August, the US and Indian Navy conducted a joint exercise on rescue of submarines in distress.

The exercise, called Indiaex-2012 was held off the coast of Goa, taught the Indian submariners how to rescue a submarine in distress, for which the US has agreed to send its Rescue Diving and Recompression System (SRDRS) of the US Navy’s Undersea Rescue Command.

During the exercise pressurized rescue module from the launch and recovery system was pressed into action, which was fitted on a non military vessel. This was launched and maneuvered to the required depth to mate with the forward hatches of the submarine in distress. However, in times of distress, the US Navy would not be of immediate assistance as it would take at least 24 to 72 hours to reach the spot with required equipments.

Presently the Indian Navy  possesses INS Nireekshak, which is deep sea diving support vessel with an onboard submersible capsule called Bell, but this cannot independently manage a submarine in distress in high seas. Nireekshak’s clearance divers operating out of ‘Bell’ could also be of help only at limited depths.

After obtaining the Foxtrot class of submarines, Indian Navy in 1971 acquired the submarine rescue vessel INS Nistar which had the capability of rescuing the crew of a disabled submarine from depths .But this was decommissioned in 1989 after rendering yeoman service, after which the navy acquired the diving ship Nireekshak. But the later governments kept ignoring the navy demand for a rescue vessel.

Though the Sindhughosh class of Russian submarine possesses pressurized escape suits while the Shishukumar class of submarines has the rescue spheres which can be punched out as in fighter aircrafts. But these are not foolproof and the submariners can still find themselves trapped inside as the escape routes get sealed as it happened in the case of Sindhurakshak, in which a huge blast resulted in total destruction of the ship.

Rescuing submarines

The submarine arm of the Indian Navy was largely perceived to be well maintained because of very low rate of incidents inside the submarines. However, with plans to acquire more advanced submarines especially the nuclear submarines with significant damage potential, as demonstrated during the Kursk nuclear submarine accident in 2001 , in which all the 118 naval personnel met the watery grave, Indian government must start the process of early acquisition of such facility.

Even a country like Singapore has acquired indigenous capabilities for rescuing its submarines in distress. The Singapore Navy has obtained the Submarine Support and Rescue vessel (SSRV) from its company First Response Marine Pvt Ltd, who was awarded the contract by the Singapore Navy in 2007.

The accident in submarines invites international attention and exposes the country’s ability to manage and maintain such advanced vessels. Hence the Sindhurakshak incident has underlined the necessity of urgent acquisition of a submarine rescue system.

But the MoD only took superficial interest in the demand once when it negotiated with the US administration for the sale of two Deep Submergence Rescue Vessel (DSRV) worth Rs 1000 crores but the proposal is stuck for over a decade.

A DSRV or mini submarine is equipped with pressurized chambers, sonars and cameras. The vessel can rescue up to 24 submariners at a time from a depth of around 600 metres, which mates with the stricken submarine’s hatch. The INS Nireekhsak can only be used in shallow waters with limited rescue capabilities.

Earlier in 1997 India had signed a contract with US Navy to provide its facility to Indian Navy in times of emergency for its Global Submarine Rescue Fly Away Kit for which India had already paid an initial amount of US$ 734,443 but in 1998 when India conducted its Pokhran Nuclear test, the US administration banned Indian Navy from availing its service.

The agreement was once again revived in 2004. This provides for the dispatch of DSRV within 72 hours of an emergency. However this service was valid only in high seas. The Sindhurakshak incident happened on the coast so the US Navy could not assist India.  It is high time that Indian government take serious view of the Navy demand for such rescue facility.