The Indian Navy should be more realistic about its plan to build nuclear attack submarines
Capt. Jawahar Bhagwat PhD (retd)
“Responsibility is a unique concept… You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but it is still with you… If responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion, or ignorance or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else… The Devil is in the details, but so is salvation.”
— Admiral Hyman Rickover, Father of the US Nuclear Navy
In the nuclear domain the Indian Navy operates the nuclear ballistic missile submarine INS Arihant (SSBN) and the nuclear attack submarine INS Chakra (SSN) on lease from Russia. On 29 December 2019, the Press Trust of India reported that a Parliamentary panel was informed that in order to strengthen its underwater fleet, the Indian Navy plans to build 24 submarines, including six nuclear attack submarines (SSNs).
In its report to the Parliamentary panel tabled in December 2019, the navy stated that there are presently 15 conventional submarines and two nuclear submarines in its fleet. The Arihant (SSBN) project for building follow-ons to INS Arihant continues to be delayed. According to a media report, the Arighat, which is a sister class submarine of INS Arihant, will be ready for induction in the Indian Navy by mid-2020.
In November 2018, the PMO’s office stated that INS Arihant carried out its first deterrent patrol. Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated, ‘In an era such as this, a credible nuclear deterrence is the need of the hour. The success of INS Arihant gives a fitting response to those who indulge in nuclear blackmail.’ It may be relevant to recall here that it was agreed during the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks to keep the nuclear warheads de-mated from the actual missiles and also for the ‘No First Use’ policy. According to Bharat Karnad, ‘Jaswant Singh also agreed for India to be ‘strategically restrained’. There was the a priori commitment by the Vajpayee government to abstain from further testing followed by its decisions based seemingly on agreement in the Jaswant-Talbott talks to maintain the small, basic and insignificant Indian nuclear deterrent in a ‘de-mated, de-alerted’ mode and not to embark on designing and testing an ICBM.’ No strategic autonomy was or is being adhered to by the government. As stated earlier by this author, this remains a concept on paper. Thankfully, the government has made an exception to this policy for nuclear submarines or else the deterrent patrol for a SSBN would have been nothing but a public relations exercise as reported in the media.
The declaration of the Arihant deterrence patrol was a surprising announcement as the commissioning of Arihant in August 2016 was a closely-guarded secret. It was also reported that the PM received the 100-man crew of the INS Arihant at his 7, Lok Kalyan Marg residence. Pictures on the PM’s Twitter handle showed the submarine’s commanding officer Captain Mukul Surange presenting a ship’s cap and a model of the Arihant to the PM. Disappointingly, the PM could not spare the time and effort to visit the submarine at its base. This would have been more appreciated by the crew of INS Arihant and the entire submarine fraternity. The degree of information revealed to the media (including the number of days spent on patrol) on what should normally be kept under cover and the ease of satellite surveillance on even these submarines in harbour is reflected by the Google map representation of the Ship Building Centre (SBC). Unfortunately, adequate arrangements have not been made towards concealment of SSBNs, making it yet another case of infrastructure lag.
According to the 2018 India Today report: ‘The Arihant, which commenced construction in 1998, was launched in 2009. The deterrent patrol illustrates its rapid return to active duty after she was laid up after a flooding accident in 2017. A second SSBN, the Arighat, was launched at the Ship Building Centre in Visakhapatnam on 19 November 2017 by defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The Arighat is on harbour trials and is expected to join the navy in a few years. Two more submarines, the S-4 and the S-4* are also being assembled and are likely to be launched by 2020 and 2022. The last two submarines are over 1000 tonnes heavier than the Arihant and the Arighat and can carry eight K-4 missiles.’ This information could not have been given other than by an official government source. Such information, if authentic, would be classified top secret and should never have been divulged to the media.
In another more recent report in the Mail Today, it was stated that, ‘S4 is ready for its sea trials by end of this year. S4 is an extended Arihant class design that has twice the weapons carrying capability than the Arihant class. S4 can carry 8 K-4 SLBM with a range of 3,500km or 24 K-15 SLBM with a range of over 800km in its eight vertical launch tubes… S4 sister class ship called S4* (Star) will be ready for sea trials by 2022 and induction by 2024. S4 and S4* will be SSBMs which largely will be getting K-4 and K-5 SLBM missiles, while Arighat and Arihant will be limited to shorter K-15 SLBMs. K-5 SLBM is a new missile which is yet to be tested and reportedly has a range of 5000km. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has already got approvals to design and develop K-6 SLBM. It has a range of 8,000km with MIRV weapons payload to be armed on S5 class nuclear ballistic missile submarines which India plans to construct after completion of S4*.’
Meanwhile, the Economics Times reported that a DRDO spokesman informed the media in 2020, that the 3,500km missile was ready for induction after two successful tests. All advanced navies follow a rigorous programme of testing for any missile due to the inherent risks, both of the possible loss of unintended civilian casualties as well as due to the loss of crew and platform in case of a misfire in flight or fire on the platform.
A Long Journey
The nuclear submarine programme has been progressing surely, albeit slowly. There have been numerous delays due to the large-scale change in equipment from Arihant to Arighat with the thrust on indigenisation. Consequently, even more delays can be expected for future platforms due to issues during trials and integration between equipment belonging to different vendors.
However, an area of concern is the lack of long-term support contracts for important equipment vendors. More often than not, the suppliers of original equipment have to compete in an open tender for support or supply of equipment to follow-on platforms due to the insistence of the defence ministry on an open tender. This is not being supportive of companies who have already invested in manufacture and support of equipment despite the much-touted ‘Make in India’ policy of the government. This is likely to create a technical and logistic holdup for future platforms if the defence ministry/ DRDO and Headquarters Advanced Technology Vessel Project (ATVP) do not realise their folly. Luckily so far, this has not affected Larsen and Toubro (L&T) which continues to be the lead shipbuilding partner. The spin-offs of the nuclear submarine programme in terms of manufacture of equipment and sub-systems by Indian original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have unfortunately not been made available in a systematic manner to the conventional submarine programme due to the inherent secrecy and compartmentalisation of the nuclear submarine programme. This is an area which needs focus by the navy.
For the SSN programme the design phase will be critical. Because unlike other nuclear submarine building navies, India does not have sufficient natural uranium and consequently enriched nuclear fuel unless there have been new discoveries which have gone unreported in the public domain. Therefore, it may be more prudent to look at a smaller displacement submarine like the Arihant which would not only be cost effective but also save time and effort in validating the design, construction of a new submarine and a new reactor. This would enable the builder to leverage the existing SSBN building line, more importantly a proven reactor and the lessons learnt from the first and second of the class. This will also provide more flexibility for berthing the platform in case of contingencies, which is presently extremely limited.
Unfortunately, as in the case of IAC-1, the navy’s infrastructure always lags behind its acquisition of platforms, an area which needs considerable improvement. The limitation shifts all the responsibility on to the commanding officer, who, conscious of extremely limited operational turnaround (OTR) ports faces a Hobson’s choice in continuing with a mission in case of a defect or abandoning the task altogether in case of a deterrent patrol. Therefore, the need for shore support infrastructure including capital dredging, berthing and concealment requirements need to be catered for well in advance and monitored till completion. There are a number of unauthorised pictures of Arihant in the public domain, which seem to indicate that her movements continue to be carried out by day; unacceptable for a SSBN, or even an SSN where stealth must be protected at all costs. It, therefore, also indicates that adequate support to the platform which would facilitate a night movement in terms of tugs, berthing support and backup navigational equipment such as an alternate radar, periscope, bridge gyro repeater and a portable Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) radar may not be available. Further on the discussion of stealth, unlike on the west coast which has noise ranging facility, albeit for surfaced ships, as per information available in the public domain this does not exist on the eastern seaboard, another noticeable lacuna in ensuring monitoring of noise parameters and preservation of stealth of nuclear submarines.
Notwithstanding the above, if the navy and HQATVP decide that they have the resources and the time to go ahead with a completely new design, the need to have a successful shore-based prototype as in the case of the prototype test facility created for Arihant to prove the reactor and train the crew needs no less emphasis. This is considered to be a non-negotiable requirement in case HQATVP and the navy decide to go in for a completely new reactor despite the associated drawbacks of the cost, limited availability of nuclear fuel and the time and effort involved in design, construction and trials of the reactor. It has been the viewpoint of some in the decision-making process that a shore-based prototype facility is not an essential requirement for a new reactor.
However, it needs to be kept in mind that this is a mandatory safety requirement in all advanced navies and we must not forget that we are only at a nascent stage of operating nuclear submarines. Here we need to follow the example of the world’s first nuclear submarine, the USN Nautilus. The reactor was put on the submarine only after doing a successful test run across the Atlantic in a shore facility actually replicating each and every section of the reactor. It may be, therefore, prudent to continue with the reactor developed for Arihant and its follow-on platforms. The need to standardise equipment for all six platforms is also important for timely delivery and future maintainability.
In view of the limited space available at the SBC, Visakhapatnam for building one more line of nuclear submarines, the navy and HQATVP may well look at more radical options like convincing the defence ministry for a long-term lease of HSL by L&T (restricted to when it is building submarines for the Indian Navy) to support both the SSN and conventional submarine building programmes.
As per media reports in the public domain, the lease of INS Chakra is expected to be for 10 years and consequently may expire on 22 January 2022. India has reportedly also contracted for another Akula-II class submarine which is expected to be delivered only by 2025. The Indian Navy needs to ensure that the lease of Chakra-2 is extended at least till Chakra-3 is commissioned and commences operations in India. This will ensure that valuable national resources expended in the training of personnel (both uniformed and civilian) and development of shore support infrastructure is not wasted away as in the case of Chakra-1 which never sailed after it was returned to Russia at the end of its lease in January 1991.
Loss of Learning
Apart from trained manpower not further utilised for the specialised purpose for which they were intensively and extensively trained; all the shore facilities built up for Chakra-1 at considerable financial cost to the national exchequer for an advanced weapon platform of critical strategic significance were abandoned, wasted and later conveniently re-appropriated for surface naval ships due to delays in creation of infrastructure for them.
For Chakra-2, the entire infrastructure had to be rebuilt at an immense cost. Time and effort needed for maintenance and logistic support has increased manifold because the submarine is no longer berthed within the naval dockyard unlike Chakra-1. This is another issue which impinges on the efficiency and stress levels on the crew, which is not acknowledged by the authorities, including the Headquarters Eastern Naval Command (HQENC) and the Commodore Commanding Submarines (East), the operational authority for submarines.
As Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat observed in his article in FORCE, ‘Perhaps an accountant’s view prevailed’. Rear Admiral R.K. Sharma, a former captain of Chakra-1 and ACNS (Special Submarine Projects) when the agreement for Chakra-2 was signed on 20 January 2004 was not so charitable in a personal communication to me.
He wrote, ‘The journey from Chakra-1 to Chakra-2 has indeed been long and arduous. In the annals of a nations’ history it would always stand out as an opportunity of missed opportunities and indecision. It is rare that a navy takes a nuclear submarine on lease and then returns it without getting sufficient experience in exploiting this versatile platform. There were many reasons for the discontinuation of Chakra’s lease, the primary amongst these being the then navy’s casual approach bordering on criminal neglect in dealing with the subject. Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat’s role in initiating the Chakra-2 project from which neither government nor the navy could step back was not acknowledged.’
It is indeed astounding that in a repeat of history there was a view in the navy that perhaps Chakra-2 could be returned before the end of lease because we did not want to focus efforts on the rigorous discipline and technical efforts required of all organisations to operate and maintain nuclear submarines. This must never be allowed to happen.
Unlike Admiral Rickover who sailed for the first trial of every nuclear submarine that was under the US Navy nuclear programme (an example of leadership by example to give confidence to the crew of the reliability of the submarine), in the case of the INS Arihant, the head of HQATVP and the SBC were absent during the dive to test depth. Whilst these are not mandatory as per Indian norms, all over the world the shipbuilder and in case of first of their class, the designer send their teams of civilians onboard the submarine during sea trials to give confidence to the crew that they are satisfied with the submarine building programme and all systems are in order.
In this case the ultimate client is not just the navy but the submarine and its crew who sail in harm’s way. We must never forget the loss of Thresher in 1963 by the United States Navy during her dive to test depth. All the people – 129 crew and shipyard personnel – lost their lives in the second deadliest submarine incident on record, after the loss of the French submarine Surcouf, in which 130 crew members died. The United States Navy never forgets the loss of Thresher and holds a commemorative service every year.
The Indian Navy holds no such event for either Andaman (1990) or Sindhurakshak (2013). If we do not remember, we will be condemned to repeat history. There is a tendency on part of the naval leadership, including the Inspector General of Nuclear Safety and Flag Officer Submarines to accord waivers even for critical equipment like reserve propulsion so that deadlines could be met. Ultimately, such pressure on the captain and the crew resulted in an even further downtime as was reported in the media. This is a dangerous trend which needs to be strictly prohibited by directives of the naval leadership including the HQATVP to avoid a possible disaster.
Regrettably, unlike the United States Navy and the Russian Navy, the Indian Navy does not have a SUBSAFE (Submarine Safety) programme despite the incidents of INS Sindhurakshak (2013), INS Sindhuratna (2014) and INS Sindhurakshak (2009). The SUBSAFE programme was initiated in the United States Navy post the tragic loss of USS Thresher in 1963. As Admiral Rickover, the father of the US Navy nuclear submarine programme, emphasised repeatedly, ‘The devil lies in the details.’
In the case of INS Sindhurakshak, the navy chose to change the president of the board of inquiry, from a submariner of unquestionable integrity to a non-submariner after the phase-I report (before floating of the damaged Sindhurakshak) despite the subject being highly technical requiring prior experience of submarine operations and maintenance in contravention of the existing of Navy Order regarding the selection of personnel for the conduct of a board of inquiry onboard a submarine. In the case of INS Sindhuratna, the navy appointed the Flag Officer Submarines who is also responsible for submarine safety as the president of the board of inquiry despite other Flag Officers of the submarine specialisation being available. Both these actions did not inspire confidence amongst the thinking submarine fraternity.
With regards to the grounding of INS Sindhughosh in Mumbai harbour, the Submarine Headquarters chose to blame the commanding officer despite the documented inability on part of the shore authorities to ensure dredging of the naval harbour in Mumbai for three years; the maintenance dredging being held-up due to audit objections by the Integrated Financial Advisor (IFA). In the present climate of playing safe no Competent Financial Authority (CFA), generally the Commander-in-Chief of a command is willing to overrule the advice of the IFA even if it be for urgent operational reasons which impinge on safety. Hence, inevitably commanding officers are forced to operate with reduced safety margins and they hope that nothing goes wrong.
At a symposium titled, ‘United States Navy’s SUBSAFE Program: Takeaways for the Indian Navy’ organised at Visakhapatnam by this writer under the auspices of HQENC and Submarine Headquarters in November 2014, the then Commander-in-Chief remarked that he would like to see a SUBSAFE programme instituted in the navy for both conventional and nuclear submarines. However, till today this remains only an idea despite many papers on the subject including a detailed study forwarded to all concerned which was piloted by this writer. Ironically, the symposium was held soon after the shocking peacetime loss of TRV-72 on 6 November 2014 — the fifth peacetime loss of a platform by the Indian Navy: INS Andaman (1990), INS Prahar (2006), INS Vindhyagiri (2011) INS Sindhurakshak (2013) and TRV-72 (2014).
It is relevant to mention that in the case of the Nuclear and Radiation Safety, inspectors from Russia who inspect INS Chakra yearly reports directly to the Russian ministry of defence and is independent of the Russian Navy. A similar chain is followed in the United States Navy. In the Indian Navy, the Inspector General of Nuclear Safety is responsible for both safety and procurement of nuclear submarines, which is a conflict of interest.
Similarly, the Flag Officer Submarines is responsible to the Deputy Chief of Naval Staff (Operations) for ensuring operational availability of submarines as well as their safety; another contradiction in terms of responsibility. The Inspector General of Nuclear Safety (IGNS) needs to be responsible only for safety and must at least report directly to the CNS as in the United States Navy. Given the increase in serious accidents (Class A and Class B terminology from US Navy standards) which also resulted in loss of lives from 2006-2014, mainly related to INS Prahar (2006), INS Jalashwa (2008), INS Sindhurakshak (2009), INS Vindhyagiri (2011), INS Sindhurakshak (August 2013), INS Sindhuratna (February 2014), TRV-72 (November 2014) the navy has taken some initial steps towards a safety organisation including Annual Safety Reviews chaired by the Vice Chief of Naval Staff and constitution of an Indian Naval Safety Team on 26 December 2017 at Kochi.
However, the fire which occurred on INS Vikramaditya in April 2019 and resulted in the tragic loss of life of an officer highlights the need for continuous vigil and periodic combined crew training by a ship (like in the Russian Navy) at damage control and fire-fighting simulators. These need to be installed at all naval bases including Karwar and Port Blair. Yearly safety audits by an external safety organisation independent of the operational commands should also be undertaken. The machinery compartments of a ship are expected to have functional smoke and fire detection systems and on exceeding certain dangerous limits the fire extinguishing system should activate unless it has been overridden by human interference. Loss of life indicates either insufficient individual protection equipment or non-monitoring of the time of changeover of equipment / personnel before life of the equipment is to expire.
Clearly, the navy lacks an adequate oversight mechanism and authority as it is not independent of the operational commands unlike the IAF organisation or similar organisations in advanced navies such as the US. There is also no classification of accidents in vogue as in the United States Navy and no historical database either navy-wide or at submarine headquarters. A ‘lessons learnt’ compendium of old submarine accidents from 1967-1997, many of which are still relevant today, remains unpublished by the Submarine Headquarters for reasons best known to it. All these incidents except INS Sindhurakshak were attributed by the MoD/ navy as failure to follow standard operating procedures (SOPs).
However, I believe that many of these were also indicative of a larger systemic failure of lack of an effective oversight system which resulted in inadequate training time for crew post refits/ maintenance periods. This usually happened due to pressures by the operational authorities with the tacit approval of Command Headquarters, a culture which encouraged non-reporting of defects. This is further exacerbated by inadequacy of individual protection equipment and undue focus on non-core competencies such as golden jubilee events, fleet evenings, navy balls and so on.
In case of submarines, there is severe shortage of individual protection equipment including escape suits. Moreover, there is no fire-fighting and damage control simulator for submarines at the training establishment INS Satavahana. Fortunately, many submarine commissioning crews have had the benefit of training on such simulators in Russia and Germany. After one such training exercise abroad, I initiated a proposal in writing for such a simulator and the necessity to be allowed to use two sets of individual equipment every year for training purposes i.e. actual fire-fighting and damage control drills, and not just in case of an emergency.
My proposal for a training simulator was stonewalled with an incredible response that questions would be raised as to how the submarine arm had been operating till date. Hence, since we had been cutting corners in training we should continue to do so, ignoring the good practices of all advanced navies. Unfortunately, more often than not status quo wins the day. In 2017, when I raised the issue again with another Flag Officer of the submarine specialisation, he emphatically said that ‘we could not afford individual protection equipment for training’.
Never mind that when we shift to an advanced weapon platform, following in the footsteps of technologically advanced navies it is incumbent upon us to observe the safety regulations and practices which they observe. Advanced navies follow a similar approach with respect to carrying out of live safety drills in respect of conventional submarines also. The issue of practice individual protection equipment for submarine crew is still pending with Submarine Headquarters. Incidentally, the case of the simulator was initiated in 2016 after the Board of Inquiry of INS Sindhuratna in 2014.
The navy may consider following the safety model suggested by the author in his study which was an adaptation of the IAF model of having a Director General Air Safety and the best practices of the US Navy’s SUBSAFE programme. Not many are aware that even NASA followed the US Navy model in the wake of the Challenger disaster in January 1986.
After the Thresher the US Navy lost only one more nuclear submarine USS Scorpion in 1968. USS Scorpion, for reasons not known, was not SUBSAFE certified. Though it is said that there is always wisdom in hindsight, an independent analysis would reveal the common thread of lack of an effective oversight mechanism in all the accidents to monitor the tell-tale signs of not monitoring hull status effectively or equipment fallibility/ inadequacy or inadequate training as stated above and not just failure to adhere to SOPs as reportedly stated by the MoD and the navy in the media.
Last Among Equals
Another serious issue which impinges on the future growth of nuclear submarines in the navy is a critical dearth of volunteers due to the difficult service conditions. This shortfall is particularly critical among technical personnel (artificers) and officers of the executive branch. The shortage of technical officers was stemmed by the introduction of Short Service Commissioned Officer (Technical) Submarine by Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat when he was chief of the naval staff.
In addition, the motivation factor for officers in terms of level-playing field for higher responsibilities is also a point of concern. In more than 50 years of the Submarine Arm, the navy has not considered a single submarine technical (Engineering/ Electrical branch) officer worthy of being appointed as the Admiral Superintendent of the Naval Dockyard, and consequently for further progression to the top-most technical post of Chief of Material. Similarly, the commissioning electrical officer of INS Chakra, a recipient of the sword of honour was not promoted to flag rank. The commissioning engineer officer was also promoted only in the second chance. These officers and also the executive officer commissioned INS Chakra as senior captains in January 2012, as the Indian Navy considered these officers indispensable to the commissioning of the nuclear submarine, denying them legitimate career progression assignments on the plea that they were vital to the programme. Yet, when the crunch came, they did not get their rightful due.
Significantly, the history of Chakra-1 repeated itself and was a part of a pattern where technical officers of the Chakra stream were denied promotion and career progression. This could not be a coincidence, as in terms of their training on reactors they were valuable and indispensable manpower for the future of the Indian Navy and its nuclear submarine arm. Flag Officer assignments for initiating, progressing and monitoring nuclear submarine projects both at HQATVP and IHQ, MoD (Navy) with the acquiescence of the MoD, the chief of the naval staff and the Chief of Material were assigned to officers of the surface navy; unprecedented in any advanced navy.
Such unprofessional decisions on manpower would not be acceptable to the United States Navy, Russian Navy or any other advanced navy. There is probably no independent view of the MoD on this matter. This pattern of duality is not seen elsewhere. For instance, surface navy officers are not appointed to aviation billets, whereas flag officer assignments for the monitoring of nuclear submarine projects have been regularly given to surface navy officers. This is a disservice to the nuclear submarine arm which requires advanced training and expertise.
The first such re-appropriation happened in April 2005 when the government sanction for the Inspector General of Nuclear Safety was obtained. Even though the project was at a crucial stage, RAdm. R.K. Sharma, then ACNS (Special Submarine Projects), former Captain and commissioning executive officer of Chakra-1, was allowed to superannuate in June 2005 before allocating the vacancy to a surface navy officer. This vacancy continued to be re-appropriated for the surface navy officer until 1 January 2008, when VAdm. K.N. Sushil was appointed as Inspector General Nuclear Safety (IGNS) after the next CNS obtained the approval of the MoD for his appointment.
There is also a noticeable reluctance to give nuclear submarine captains command of a surface ship. So far, no captain of Chakra has been given command of a surface ship except once when an officer who had commanded a surface ship before was given command of INS Chakra. Such decisions are not in keeping with professional practices of advanced navies and their policies with respect to appointments requiring monitoring of projects related to the Nuclear Submarine Arm, because the command of a nuclear submarine arguably is a more challenging responsibility. Apart from routine operations and maintenance, there are a multitude of regulatory bodies at the international, national and regional level to whom the submarine captain reports. This includes a report every two years to the national security advisor which is vetted by the chairman Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) that the plant is safe for operation based upon a detailed analysis by a group of independent experts from the scientific community and the navy.
Most of these bodies include scientists and professionals with more than 30-year experience. These complexities of command need to be valued and appreciated by the naval staff if the nuclear submarine specialisation is to be nurtured. Denial of opportunity to competent nuclear submarine captains to command a ship inevitably affects their career progression and promotion to flag ranks, resulting in the depletion of personnel with years of extensive training. This also affects their subsequent consideration for the command of a fleet considered an essential prerequisite for appointment as commander-in-chief.
This has already happened in the case of both the commissioning captain and executive officer of INS Chakra who, though they were promoted to flag rank, had to be content to remaining rear admirals as they were not considered to have the experience and expertise for the command of a fleet, or even a flotilla. These officers were also not considered to be suitable for Flag Officer Submarines, considered an unofficial stepping stone to becoming a vice admiral by virtue of the submarine specific appointment of IGNS.
They could have contributed greatly to improving the overall safety culture in the submarine arm by virtue of their awareness of the non-negotiable safety standards on nuclear submarines. In 2010-2011, there was an unprecedented proposal by the navy, not in keeping with the personnel policies of advanced navies and the inclusive practices of our own navy in the Eighties/early Nineties to deny fleet commander appointments to officers of the submarine/aviation specialisations which are the front line and first to go into harm’s way of any professional navy. Fortunately, this proposal was shot down by the MoD. However, the navy continues to exercise discretion unfavourably in respect of appointments to commands of surface ships by captains of nuclear submarines.
Presently, the unstated policy of the personnel branch of the navy is that submarine specialised officers of the executive or technical branch can hope to be promoted only on submarine specific flag officer appointments. Thus, an officer of the executive branch could hope to rise to IGNS and a technical officer to project director SBC. As a rare exception, a technical officer may get promoted to director general HQATVP. In effect, submarine specialised officers may contribute to the navy in only their field and not influence the overall growth and development of the navy. This does not mean that everyone needs to be promoted, but level playing field is a necessity. The sacrifices of pioneers who devoted nearly a decade of their service to the reincarnation of the nuclear submarine arm must not go unrecognised.
Unlike Chakra-1, which was shepherded by Russian specialists each time she sailed due to limitations of the then contract, Chakra-2 building upon the advice of the balance Chakra-1 crew in formulating the contract has been a trailblazer in both operations and maintenance. The captains and crew of Chakra-2 have displayed sheer professionalism despite all the odds of an environment, which does not always understand the constraints of operating a nuclear submarine.
All the aforesaid factors continue to adversely impact the volunteer response to the Nuclear Submarine and Conventional Submarine Arm. There is severe attrition of manpower post their initial engagement period with only a minuscule minority willing to stay on in the navy and the submarine specialisation due to the harsh working conditions, where even senior technical sailors are required to do regular watch-keeping duties both at sea (unlike their electrical counterparts on surface ships) and in harbour due to the limited number of personnel that a submarine carries.
In contrast to a Los Angeles class submarine of dived displacement of approximately 7,000 tonne which sails with a crew of 120-140 personnel, INS Chakra, despite the dived displacement of approximately 12,000 tonne, sails with a maximum of 100 personnel. Of these, about 15 are undergoing training, who cannot do an independent watch. This also indirectly impacts on the maintenance of safety standards due to the shortage of personnel. Submarine headquarters manages this shortage by ensuring submarine requirements are met by reducing manpower for shore support and training institutions which thus function sub-optimally.
I managed a premier training institution for nuclear submarines, for almost four years from 2012-2016 with approximately 60 per cent shortage in officers and 20-30 per cent shortage in sailors against the government sanction. In case of establishments like the SBC which is directly responsible for the construction and shore support of submarines, these shortages are even greater in respect of technical sailors. Shortages imply that the existing manpower has to shoulder extra responsibility and work more. This in turn impinges on their willingness to re-engage for a further period.
Unfortunately, despite many studies, including an independent analysis by the College of Defence Management, Secunderabad, in 2014, which included officers in the rank of captain from all three services (ironically sponsored by the Chief of Personnel), the naval staff continues to follow a one-size-fits-all policy for all branches of the navy. Among others, the study had recommended introduction of submarine-specific entry schemes for both technical personnel (artificers) and officers of the executive branch. This logical and reasonable proposal was not agreed to as it would involve more work for the recruitment directorate, a case of the tail wagging the dog. The only solution offered by the naval staff was to reduce training time with the possible implications of having a less than professional crew. Regrettably, most chiefs of the naval staff have preferred to follow the soft option of letting things be as they are.
Before the release of Strategic Personnel Policy by Naval Headquarters in March 1998, chief of naval staff Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat had observed, ‘The highest quality of human resources is a prerequisite and sine qua non for submarine arm’s future as the most potent force, which enjoys virtually natural immunity from space surveillance and has unbeatable advantages operating in the hydrosphere. We must remember that India’s second strike capability is entirely dependent on its submarine force and this capability is unquestioned in the Nuclear Deterrence Doctrine of all nuclear weapon nations. A dedicated band of submariners, with the highest motivation, stability of professional career growth, supported by satisfactory material incentives programme is recognised by world class navies…’
The navy’s Strategic Personnel Policy 1998 acknowledged that special measures were needed to overcome shortages in the submarine specialisation. The introduction of the SSC Tech (SM) entry was one of the initiatives in this regard. In contrast, the navy’s Personnel Policy 2014 was silent on this aspect despite increasing shortages due to the lack of any fresh initiatives to alleviate the decreasing volunteer response.
Chinese submarines have been making forays in the Indian Ocean on anti-piracy missions. Contrary to reports in the mainstream media, when their missions commenced, all concerned governments including the United States and India were informed. The length of these deployments by submarines has been steadily increasing, reflecting the growing confidence of the PLA (Navy) in operational, maintenance and logistic support.
China has been steadily modernising its submarine force, and most of its submarines are now built to relatively modern Russian and Chinese designs. It is an outstanding technological achievement for a nation which suffered the ignominious loss of No. 361, a Ming class submarine with 70 lives in April 2003 because of a ‘mechanical failure’ while on a training mission in the Yellow Sea. Michael McGinty, an expert on the Chinese Navy at the Royal United Services Institute, had said at that time: ‘For an accident to have been so catastrophic when the submarine was on the surface, I find it a very mysterious thing.’ He suggested that the submarine’s batteries might have leaked acid that mixed with seawater, creating toxic chlorine gas, or that leaked torpedo propellant might have poisoned the crew.
However, the most widely-accepted explanation was first published by the Hong Kong Wen Wei Po, a pro-Beijing newspaper: the crew was suffocated by the sub’s diesel engine. A month later, an inquiry by an official commission resulted in the dismissal of both the commander and commissar of the North Sea Fleet, and the demotion or dismissal of six or eight more officers for ‘improper command and control.’
According to a recent US Congressional naval analyst report on Chinese developments, ‘Qualitatively, China’s newest submarines might not be as capable as Russia’s newest submarines, but compared to China’s earlier submarines, which were built to antiquated designs, its newer submarines are much more capable.’ The United States’ department of defence (DoD) has stated, ‘The speed of growth of the submarine force has slowed and will likely grow to between 65 and 70 submarines by 2020.’
China’s newest series-built conventional submarine (SS) design is the Yuan-class (Type 039) SS. Its newest SSN class is the Shang-class (Type 093) SSN, and its newest SSBN class is the Jin (Type 094) class SSBN. Realistically, considering the force levels described above and the PLAN submarine force, the Indian Navy is incapable of fighting a two-front war.
The PLAN’s submarine force is being deployed on extensive missions in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The Indian Navy and HQATVP need to be more realistic about its submarine-building programme. They need to ensure that it builds on the successes of the SSBN programme, if the SSN programme is to fructify in a reasonable time period.
Grandiose ideas of building an Indian Chakra-like platform may not be realistic any more in view of the resource constraints. Like any new programme this will involve long lead times if not built on the foundation of the Arihant programme. HQATVP, duly supported by the navy, must ensure that BARC and all equipment manufacturers supporting the programme, including the missiles by the DRDO, need to be made to adequately test their equipment. This is critically important if they decide on a new reactor, which undoubtedly needs to be proven first as a prototype at a shore test facilities as per US Navy standards.
Training including an equipment specific damage control and fire-fighting simulator needs to be given equal emphasis by HQATVP. In the interim, the navy has little option but to continue training its SSN crews on the Chakra-2 leased from Russia. The navy needs to be sanguine about the need for a SUBSAFE programme for its submarines and focus on an oversight mechanism which is truly independent. The human element is the vital cog in the wheel and the naval leadership can ill-afford to turn a blind eye to a level-playing field and shortages of manpower in the submarine specialisation. Attitude towards safety of nuclear submarines is dependent on the overall safety environment in the navy. The naval staff needs to work out a more effective safety organisation based upon the IAF and US Navy models.
(The writer is former nuclear submariner and captain of INS Chakra, INS Shishumar and INS Shalki)