INS Sindhurakshak: Indian navy's submarine woes
The explosion aboard INS Sindhurakshak, a recently upgraded conventional Indian navy submarine, on Wednesday morning at a dockyard in Mumbai will be a major setback to navy's operational preparedness.
The incident comes a day after India launched its first indigenous aircraft carrier and activated the reactor aboard its locally designed nuclear-attack submarine on 10 August.
Commissioned into service in 1997, the Russian-built Sindhurakshak is the seventh and last of the 10 Kilo-class diesel-electric boats the Indian navy acquired from Moscow between 1986 and 2000. It had recently undergone a mid-life upgrade in Russia.
The $80m (£52m) retrofit equipped it with anti-ship and land attack 200km (124 mile)-range cruise missile systems.
The submarine's hull was also refurbished and numerous other systems were upgraded to enhance its safety and security, adding at least an additional 10 years to its 25-year service life.
Sindhurakshak's cooling system likewise underwent modifications, fitted with a Porpoise radio-locator to enhance its capabilities.
Official sources say it is "highly unlikely" that the Indian navy and the Russians will be able to resurrect Sindhurakshak and that will add to the navy's operational woes as it faces a severe depletion of its ageing sub-surface fleet.
By 2014-15, the navy will be left with only nine of its current fleet of 14 diesel-electric submarines that include eight Russian Kilo-class and four German Type 1500 (HDW209) boats.
Beyond the planned expansion of its nuclear submarine capabilities, the navy in addition faces severe difficulties with its conventional underwater assets.
Delivery dates between 2012 and 2017 for the $4.2bn programme to build six French Scorpene diesel-electric patrol submarines under licence at the state-owned Mazagaon Dockyard Limited in Mumbai has been pushed back following bitter financial wrangling and technical problems.
Indian navy officials said the first Scorpene was now scheduled for delivery three years later than planned, most likely around late 2015, and the sixth and last by 2019-20.
Indian government auditors - the Comptroller and Auditor General - in a recent report warned that the navy faced the danger of operating with less than half its already deficient submarine fleet by 2012-13 when 63% of its boats would be eligible for retirement.
The watchdog revealed that "other than holding 67% of the submarines envisaged in its 1985 Maritime Perspective Plan, the average operational availability between January 2002 and December 2006 of the existing boats was as low as 48% due to prolonged refit schedules".
According to the auditors, 83% of short submarine refits and 100% of "normal and medium refits" invariably were delayed well past the prescribed time period.
This was because many of the Sindugosh (Type 877 Kilo-class) boats - of which Sindhurakshak was one - needed to be sent to Russia.
"With serious slippages in the induction plan, the navy is left with an ageing fleet with more than 50% of submarines having completed 75% of their operational life and some already outliving their maximum service life," the report said.
The navy's plans to import two submarines and locally build four to make good the shortfall has been entangled in bureaucratic wrangling for several years.
While the navy is keen on involving private shipyards, the defence ministry wants three submarines built at the Mazagaon Dockyard Limited, despite it being overburdened with orders, and one at the public sector Hindustan Shipyard in Visakhapatnam on the east coast.