Indian Defence Minister AK Antony (second right) and the Indian Navy Chief Admiral D K Joshi (left) at the site of the explosion on INS Sindhurakshak in Mumbai on August 14, 2013. Source: Itar-Tass
It has been 48 days since the INS Sindhurakshak was sunk in Mumbai Naval dockyard after a series of explosions and a devastating fire and it still remains a mystery what went wrong that night.
The Indian Navy has not been able to even begin its probe into the loss of the Russian-built submarine though soon after the mishap Indian Navy Chief Admiral D K Joshi had said a Board of Inquiry (BoI) under a Commodore-rank officer would probe the mishap and submit its report within four weeks.
Commodore Deepak Bisht was promptly named as the officer to head the probe. Insiders do not smell a rat in the probe being a non-starter and point out that Admiral Joshi was perhaps too enthusiastic in stipulating such an unreasonably short deadline for completion of the probe, in the first place.
The reason is not far to seek. The kilo-class submarine has been resting at the sea bed since August 14 and it was many days after the mishap that the Indian Navy’s divers managed to get inside a small portion of the boat. They have not been able to even locate all the dead bodies thus far as only eleven bodies have so far been recovered and that too after 1,500 hours of operations by the naval divers since the mishap. There were 18 navy personnel on board at the time of the mishap.
Perhaps when Admiral Joshi made the announcement that the probe would be completed within four weeks he was unaware of the fact that it had taken four months for the two Dutch firms to salvage Russian nuclear submarine Kursk after it exploded and sank in Barents Sea in August 2000.
Russian help offer
The Russians were quick to offer all help in investigating the mishap and salvaging the submarine. However, sources say the Indians have been rather lukewarm towards the offer.
Though the Indians have not placed on record their reasons for not accepting the Russian offer of help, it could perhaps be assumed that the Russians are being viewed as a party with vested interests in this context.
The INS Sindhurakshak was purchased at cost of $113 million from Russia 16 years ago. India spent another $156 million for mid-life refit-cum-upgrade of the boat in Russia and the vessel had rejoined the Indian Navy in January this year only.
The submarine is still under the Russian warranty, valid till January 2014. This is likely to be another reason for the Indians in not accepting the Russian help offer.
However, it is unlikely that the Indians would like to invoke the warranty clause with the Russians, given the extremely close political ties between the two countries. In any case, it seems quite improbable that the submarine would be salvaged and brought ashore before the Russian warranty expires in January 2014.
Salvage operation the first priority
The Indian Navy’s first priority is to salvage the sunken submarine and bring it ashore for carrying out detailed forensic examination that could pin-point the exact cause of the mishap.
The forensic tests will help enable the investigators determine whether the missiles on the fully-loaded submarine exploded by accident or due to sabotage.
Accident or sabotage is the million dollar question facing the investigators. But to make a final determination on this point, the investigators need forensic evidence. They cannot do this till the boat is fished out.
A salvage operation is not easy. It will take time, perhaps six months, and will also cost lot of money.
The Indian Navy will soon float a global tender or the Request for Proposal (RFP) for salvaging the submarine. Five Indian and global companies have submitted their initial bids for the purpose after carrying out inspections of the boat lying submerged under almost nine metres.
Significantly, the Indian defence ministry has relaxed the Defence Procurement Manual rules so that a world class agency can be hired for the salvage operation.
Commodore Bisht went on record as saying that the Indian Navy’s first priority is to expeditiously ink the contract after the RFP is floated for the salvage operation that could take a few months.
Defence minister AK Antony had said in a statement in the parliament on August 19 that the explosions that triggered the sinking of INS Sindhurakshak were caused by “possible igniting” of its weapons.
A preliminary probe by the Indian Navy has indicated that the multiple explosions that triggered an inferno had begun in the fully-loaded weapons department was perhaps because of an accident or mishandling of ammunition.
If the final probe report finds inadvertent handling of the ammunition or sabotage as the possible causes of the submarine’s destruction, Russia would obviously not be held accountable. It would be a different story if the probe determines that explosions on the submarine started because of the malfunctioning of the ammunitions and complete failure of the inbuilt security mechanism.
Whichever the scenario, Indian officials are certain that Indo-Russian ties will not be harmed because of the Sindhurakshak episode.
The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist. His Twitter handle is @Kishkindha.
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