Getting to the heart of a submarine

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

They glide through the sea menacingly like sharks: Cutting the waves with force and dipping underwater with surprise. The black hull and the raised Conning Tower (no pun here) complete the picture of a shark on prey. Though sharks are not known to be particularly dangerous to human kind ( of course, there are exceptions), submarines are among the deadliest weapons at sea, lurking unobtrusively and hitting where it hurts the most, Getting to the heart of one of these menacing creatures requires more than enthusiasm.

Forewarnings are usually meant to forearm the recipient. And standing on the black rubber surface of the kilo class sub-marine, Sindhushastra, (Russian origin) the first-timers needed as much good warning as good luck. However, none of these are enough preparations for what awaits you once the hatch door opens and you gape down nearly 15feet of darkness. “It’ll help if you shed the excess baggage,” advises a submariner in good humour. Whether he referred to the unwieldy bags journalists and photographers are in a habit of carrying or to the body in general depended upon your frame of mind, considering the lean frames of the naval officers. Clearly, submariners have a ‘wet’ sense of humour which cannot be matched by those who live on land.

Anyways, much trepidation and demonstrations later one starts the precarious descend down what seems like an unending funnel. Though the leather baggage was shed, as advised (hopefully!), the body still seemed to have a problem adjusting to the space constraint and fast disappearing sunlight. You start enthusiastically by keeping count of the steps as you go down (physically, not metaphorically) but soon the effort of not missing a step and falling in the abyss is enough to lose track and before one knows, one is well and truly inside one of India’s mean machines. Unlike welcome aboard, it is welcome inside and what an inside it is. Brightly lit with cheerful people who go about their work as mundanely as if they have forgotten that they are no longer on terra firma. But the first-timers can’t get over the idea of being in a sub-environment and enthusiasm freely alternates with awe and wonder at various contraptions all around, which vaguely resemble a boiler room, Descending from the escape hatch in the Force-end one enters the Control Room first which houses a periscope among other things. “When we are on operations this is our only window to sunlight.” Says the Commanding Officer, Cdr Anshuman Dutt. Operations in peace time basically means exercises or drill which keeps them under sea and in communicado from the rest of the world for nearly 45 days (Even though they receive communications they remain silent because sending out messages would give away their position). Though the submarine comes up close to the surface to the sea to recharge its batteries everyday (it charges its batteries by a diesel engine, which requires oxygen to burn, hence the need to come up), which is when they raise the periscope also, it is only the Officer on the Watch (OW) who mans the perisocope and hence sees the glimpses of the fading light. Given that stealth is the gospel for a submarine, the process of battery charging takes place at night, when in any case sun light is replaced by all round darkness.

But absence of sunlight is the least of the worries of a submariner. Living inside it is what presents a challenge. Says Dutt who opted to be a submariner. “A submarine is no place for a claustrophobic person. Our living conditions, lack of space, extended period of being out of touch with the surface and the fact that one is surrounded by deep sea on all sides does unnerve people. We are very careful about this. At the first sign of claustrophobia, we evacuate the person. “Submarines turn the daily routine of a sailor on its head as days become nights and nights become work-time. “It takes some practice,” smiles Cdr Grish Kulsod, deputy commander, adding and once you are used to it then you don’t know how to revert back when you are ashore.”
Once the initial excitement wanes then living inside a submarine can be quite an exercise. Sindhushastra is like an obstacle’s course. Divided into six water-tight compartments, it takes a degree of agility to move from one to another as each is entered through a circular hatch door. If you think curling up in a near foetal position is enough to enter a compartment then you need a crash course on movement inside Russian-made submarines. The trick is to put one leg across the hatch, bend the body to pass the cubby-hole and then pull in the other leg. The first time is a little difficult as you don’t know exactly how much to bend, so you end up bumping either your head or your back before you are inside or outside one compartment. The compartments are built like this to ensure greater survivability of the sub, in case of an accident. The hatch door localises flooding which does not affect the buoyancy of the sub. However, a veteran submariner says that the Russian design of a submarine reflect the Russian mindset which stems from lack of trust of its own people. Hence, a veteran submariner says that the Russian design of a submarine reflect the Russian mindset which stems from lack of trust of its own people. Hence, even the control systems are scattered throughout.

Russians also believe in according maximum lethality possible to its weapons. Hence, Sindhushastra, which is roughly about 73mx9.9mx6.6m in dimentsion have five Klub SASCM missiles and six torpe does on board. And this does not take into account the decoys which are used during war. INS Sindhushastra is the only submarine in India which can fire missiles even when it is submerged. In terms of man power the kilo class can accommodate about 65 on a good day with 15 officers. On bad days, or training days, it takes a few extra people, basically trainee submariners, which means that the scarce bunkers that the Russians have built have to be improvised even further. So men have to muster bunks in between compartments, as and where they find space.
Dutt and Kulsod are not only hospitable hosts but keen submariners also. They move with the swiftness and grace of a fawn in a place that can reduce the most elegant ramp-walker into a bumbling novice. Walking inside is possible only on a slim metallic ramp which runs throughout the sub. Flanked by various control panels, water and air pipes, cubicles and living quarters (the term is an exaggeration as each room which is half of a railway cabin, accommodates six people. Sailors can only lie their bunks and not sit). Responding to their felicity of movement, Cdr Dutt says, “This is our home.”

The six compartment of the kilo class are divided into Fore-ends, Control Room II, 3rd Compartment, Engine Room, Motor Room and finally the Aft-end. A level below this is the hold. Apart from the sleeping bunks, the middle compartment also houses the dining room, which is called the Ward Room in naval parlance and does triple duty as a conference room plus operation theatre if need be. The Ward Room which is equipped with push-back seats, operation theatre lights and a small televisional visitors with squash and biscuits. On one wall of the Ward Room, a small inscription sums up the feeling of a submariners, expanding the word TEAM it reads: Together Everyone Achieves More. There is a tiny kitchen or galley with hot plates to cook food. But cooking is a luxury in which submariners indulge in sparingly. Sustenance is drawn from packaged food, though not the kind which the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) make for soldiers on extreme high altitude. “Since movement is restricted within a sub, given the space, we can not eat too much,” explains Dutt. There is another factor which determines the intake of food: All the waste from the toilet gets collected in one of the capsules in the hold which needs to be flushed into the sea every couple of days. Since this can be a big giveaway the flushing is kept to the minimal. The necessity for stealth puts restrictions on bathing also. The submariners bathe only once in a few days because even the soap water is collected and flushed only once iin a few days into the sea. “Once inside the sub we wear a uniform which is called disposables,” says Kulsod. “We wear it continuously for a few days after which it is discarded.” The Russian subs, of which India has 10, the first Sindhugosh was commissioned in 1986 and the last Sindhushastra in 2000, have a single shaft and a double hull between which they have a tank. Double hulls are meant for extra protection as well as for added buoyancy. Each compartment is divided by bulkheads, which add to the buoyancy of the sub even if a compartment gets flooded. Given this they are heavier, bigger and can accommodate more people than its stated capacity. Since it is powered by a diesel engine, the kilo class subs make more noise to reduce which the flooding ports of the sub have been removed form the fore-body. Anechoic tiles are fitted on casings and fins. The submarine also has a gas-freeing system to reduce risk of detection. The hull of the submarine is covered with rubber anti-sonar protection sheet which has a special ozonizing layer to combat the sun’s effects in tropical waters. The bow planes are positioned close to the midship to improve sonar performance. The fore planes are used for changing level and direction of the sub, while the aft planes maintain depth. The kilo class have three hatches: Explains Dutt, “The Russians believe in having greater redundancy. Which is why there is a back-up for everything here.” However, the price for additional safety is paid by cramped living environment.

In case of an accident, when the sub needs to be abandoned, the submariners wear a special body-fitting escape uniforms before ejecting. The escape kit, individually maintained by every submariner, includes small cylinders with a combination of gasses apart form oxygen. At various depths, the sailor has to mix various gasses to inhale as a great depths pure oxygen turns into poison in the bloodstream. All submariners are required to master this drill before they are commissioned to a submarine.

Compared to the Russian kilos, the German HDW submarines, of which India has four (two were built indigenously) look like a luxury place. Though sub mariners insist that comparisons are odious as they represent different technologies and have their own strengths and weaknesses it is very difficult to desist. Despite being smaller in size, with a single hull and only two compartments apart from a torpedo room, INS Shalki, commissioned in 1992, looks more spacious. The central ramp on which one walks seems to go on and on as there are no varying levels of compartments, and one does not need to contort one’s body to enter. All the controls of the sub are localized in a room called Combat Information Centre (CIC).

The sub houses eight torpedoes and no missiles. It can accommodate only 32 sailors and eight officers. Unlike the kilo class it does not have the flexibility to increase its manpower as every gram counts. The living quarters are comfort able and without the flexibility of creaming in another bunk. Even the Ward Room has proper seats instead of push back ones which the kilo class have.
Though INS Shalki also has an additional hatch which can be used to escape in case of a problem, for serious accidents it has a contraption called the Rescue Sphere. Fitted on the upper part of the hull, it has positive buoyancy and can accommodate 40 people. In case of an accident when the sub needs to be abandoned, all the sailors sit inside the Rescue Sphere which looks like a space ship and eject themselves to the surface of the sea.

Western technology has tried to make life more comfortable inside their sub marines, but the fact remains that in certain areas even technology can do that much and no further. As one young sub mariner, who recently got his commission in Shalki, says, “The idea of a submarine is not to make life comfortable for the people who man it, but to hit the enemy hard. So the priorities have to be clear.” All subs have air- that we breathe.” And for all their love’s labour, these underwater sailors get sub mariner’s allowance between Rs 3,500-7,000 per month.

After spending a few hours inside a submarine when you finally heave yourself out of the hatch, the bristling sunlight of early October in Mumbai appears warm and welcoming, Various ships of the Indian Navy mark the horizon by their cool grey and the anchored submarine appears a little less menacing. One is on top of it now, not inside.

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