More than a month after the INS Sindhurakshak submarine sank in Mumbai after at least one fiery explosion on board, there is little clarity on what caused the disaster. And, with the Indian Navy unable to raise the submarine to the surface, seawater is wiping out evidence of what might have happened in the vessel's last and fateful moments.
Inexplicably, the navy and the ministry of defence have flatly refused offers of help from a team of at least five Russian experts who were in Mumbai on August 14, when the Sindhurakshak sank at the naval dockyard. Zvezdochka, the Russian shipyard that refurbished and upgraded the submarine in 2011-13, had stationed the technicians in Mumbai to respond to any defect during the guarantee period.
Senior Indian officials in New Delhi say the Mumbai-based Russian team offered assistance immediately after the Sindhurakshak disaster but were told by naval authorities in Mumbai that no help was needed. Nor were the Russians allowed access to the naval dockyard, where the Sindhurakshak still lies submerged in 10-15 metres of water.
Moscow also responded to the incident by immediately flying down a senior defence official to New Delhi. He, too, was told no assistance was required. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's deputy prime minister, also offered assistance in a public statement.
Senior Russian officials worry in the absence of clarity on the cause of the accident, morale of the crew for the 50-plus Kilo class submarines in service across the world would be affected. Kilo class submarines equip the navies of Russia (17 vessels), China (12 vessels), India (nine, excluding Sindhurakshak) and several others.
"It is absolutely vital for the confidence of our submarine crews that the cause of the accident be pinpointed, and remedial measures and procedures be instituted," says Vice-Admiral (Retired) K N Sushil, a veteran submariner.
When contacted for comment, the Indian Navy said it was "in dialogue with the Russians. Further, (the Russians) are and will be consulted wherever/whenever a need is felt. The Navy is committed to using all requisite resources to enable a comprehensive inquiry and to ascertain the cause of the incident".
The Russian side believes the only reason why the Indian Navy would exclude Russia from investigations is apprehension crew errors might have caused the explosion, not equipment failure or systems malfunction. "We know every nut, bolt and screw in Kilo class submarines. What reason could there possibly be to deny us access to the Sindhurakshak?" asks a Russian official, requesting anonymity due to the delicacy of the issue.
Moscow has experience in the sensitivities involved in handling such incidents, which are tragic as well as strategic. When the Russian Navy's nuclear-powered submarine INS Kursk sank in 108 metres of water in August 2000 with 118 sailors on board, Russia declined British and Norwegian offers to help with rescue. Eventually, all 118 sailors perished, though evidence was found some were alive for at least several hours, possibly several days.
Statements by Indian officials soon after the Sindhurakshak incident pointedly noted the submarine had been recently refurbished by Zvezdochka (Little Star) shipyard at Archangelsk, Russia. Major systems had been upgraded and weapons and sensor packages installed afresh, as specified by India. The new systems included the Klub-S cruise missile system, an Indian navigational system, and the Ushus sonar. "We have not ruled out an equipment malfunction, possibly due to the recent refurbishment," says a senior naval official.
Russian officials say there has been mild friction between naval officers of both countries, sparked by the Indian Navy's insistence on following its own operating procedures, rather than those recommended by the Russian Navy and Russian shipyards. A Russian official says, "This is not necessarily bad.
Every navy has its traditions and procedures and the Indian Navy has inherited many from the Royal Navy. But safety procedures are specific to a vessel and to the equipment in it, and cannot be deviated from."
For now, INS Sindhurakshak continues to languish underwater. The ministry of defence has issued an international tender to lift the vessel back to the surface.
INS Sindhurakshak was a 2,300-tonne, Project 877 EKM submarine (its NATO designation is Kilo class), which joined the Indian Navy in 1997. It was manned by a crew of 52 sailors and had a top speed of 19 knots (35 km/hour). It could dive to a depth of 1,000 feet.