ON ETERNAL PATROL
D S SARAO
‘’ You can imagine the terror of being trapped in a submarine, (240 feet)below the surface, not knowing if you will be dead or alive in a matter of hours‘’
(Edwyn Gray-Disasters of the Deep:A History of Submarine Tragedies)
1 A sad moment for the Navy and the Country and an irreparable loss to those who have lost their loved one amongst those eighteen Souls who perished in that terrible tragedy in which the submarine Sidhurakshak was lost ----a husband , a father, a son ,a brother to someone. Our thoughts are with the families and the shipmates of these valiant sailors .
2 A submariners work space is full of tubing , electricals/conduits , machinery , cylinders,fuel,ordnance,batteries, narrow and cramped passage-ways interspersed with water tight bulkheads and hatches. Anything can go wrong in that confined and claustrophobic space ; from a component failure to a human break-down ,an error of judgement or fire , explosion , water intake or a collision. And we are talking about peace time. To further compound the matter, the restricted space inside a submarine is crammed with unwashed bodies and stale air .With limited toilet facilities and cramped spaces, crews may go without a bath or a change for days at a time.
3 So what could have caused the catastrophe in which we lost so many highly trained sailors not to mention a front line submarine?The reason for this tragic loss will no doubt be carefully uncovered by extremely dedicated and well qualified experts , but by a process of elimination and a study of the sequence of events, one can only conjecture as to what could have caused the massive explosions which resulted in the the sinking of Sindhurakshak. A few things are evident at the outset itself. It did not happen on the high seas --- while sailing (on or under water), or during a test dive , or on torpedo firing trails. Neither were the batteries being charged (as per reports) , for this is an extremely critical procedure and not following set safety drills or because of component failure , a cascading sequence of events can take place.The accident was also not due to a collision.Being berthed and in a protected harbor , a mechanical mal-function pertaining to the hundreds of machinery parts , hydraulics , vents, pressurized chambers , snorkel and periscope structures and ballast tanks can easily be ruled out. Could it have been sabotage???Possible, but highly improbable . Did the explosions cause the fire or was there a fire which caused the explosions??This is an important facet which will come out in the Inquiry. That there was a massive explosion of some sort of ordnance is quite clear . For an explosion of this magnitude it has to be either a torpedo or a missile . The tragedy brings to mind three such like submarine losses which had gripped the world's attention in the recent past.
4 The first is about the loss of the American nuclear submarine the USS Thresher in the North Atlantic on 10 April 1963 ,all 129 men aboard perished in 8,400 feet (about two and a half kilometres) of water. Interestingly , the USS Thresher was on trails after repairs and refit, as it had been accidentally struck by a tug which damaged one of her ballast tanks. The Sindhurakshak had also recently got an extensive refit and
upgradation including that of its weapons systems.The similarity ends here as the USS Thresher was lost on the high seas while on sea trials whereas the Sindhurakshak was berthed in the harbor and at its home base. The Thresher was scheduled to examine systems and make repairs and corrections including post overhaul dive trials. On 9 April 1963, the Thresher, got underway from Portsmouth at 8 am and rendezvoused with the submarine rescue ship Skylark at 11 am to begin its initial post-overhaul dive trials whence it made its final un-recoverable dive.
5 Essentially , this mishap was not due to fire/short circuit , human error or any kind of ammunition related accident . A Court of Inquiry concluded that the most likely explanation is that a piping joint in a sea water system in the engine room gave way. The resulting spray shorted out electronics and forced an automatic shutdown of the nuclear reactor. The inability to blow the ballast tanks was later attributed to excessive moisture in the sub's high-pressure air flasks, moisture which froze and plugged the flasks' flowpaths while passing through the valves.Plainly speaking , it was component failure which triggered a catastrophic sequence of events leading to the loss of the submarine which could not recover from a test dive , thereby exceeding its design limits till it ‘imploded’.
One can only imagine the horror on the faces and reactions of a highly competent crew as they saw the depth indicator showing the submarine in an uncontrollable dive, going deeper and deeper, knowingly fully well , in those last few seconds,that this was the end. Lost with all hands on board---a terrible tragedy in the anals of Naval history.
6 The loss of the Kursk makes interesting reading and many lessons have been learnt from this submarine disaster which had gripped the worlds attention when it sank in the Barrents Sea on 12 August 2000..Like the Sindhurakshak , Kursk was destroyed by two onboard blasts, the second much larger than the first . But unlike the Sindhurakshak the Kursk was in the high seas on torpedo firing trials when the sinking took place. The first blast was consistent with a misfiring torpedo, and the second was likely caused by fire from the first blast setting off other torpedoes (5 to 7 as later deduced) or propellant fuel . Incidentally, like the Sindhurakshak , the Kursk had also undergone a refit . Apparently the Kursk was retrofitted with a potentially dangerous torpedo-launching technology.Initially a number of un-convincing theories were advanced by various experts , including a misfire during a torpedo test and an impact with a World War II mine.It was even suggested that the second acoustic disturbance could have been due to the sound generated because of submarine crashing on the sea bed. Russian officials also suggested that the accident may have been caused by a collision with one of the foreign vessels in the area shadowing the movements of the Kursk.
7 Note , two dubious modifications had been made in the weapons system fitted on the Kursk . The propeller system of the torpedo had been replaced by a new but risky technology using a gas stream to propel the torpedo out of its tube. At the same time torpedo fuel was replaced with some type of modern dual purpose, liquid monopropellant which is very unstable and has a low flash point. And oh yes , " the plus side was that these modifications were Cheaper ”.
8 Because of a leaking weld in the torpedos fuel system, high test peroxide, a form of highly concentrated hydrogen escaped into the torpedo casing where it catalytically decomposed on the metals and oxides present there, yielding steam and oxygen. The resulting overpressure ruptured the kerosene fuel tank, causing an explosion . The rest is known. No one can say for sure whether any could have been saved, but at least 23 of the 118 men who died were alive when when the submarine hit the seafloor. They spent hours hoping for rescue, even reportedly tapping out SOS messages on the submarines hull. If handled better by the Russian authorities , they could have been saved.
Hull Of The Kursk After Recovery
9 Russian submarine specialist, Vladimir Gundarov wrote , ---- “for us it is absolutely clear that a torpedo took part in the catastrophe from the very beginning. Either an outside influence on a torpedo led to the catastrophe, or some kind of processes developed inside a torpedo." Plainly speaking , most likely explanation of the accident which has generally been accepted now , is that the fuel in a torpedo ignited, starting a fire that caused the torpedos to detonate. Plainly speaking , thre disaster was due to faulty ordnance (torpedos or missiles). The Russians did later accept that the torpedo used an outdated and highly unstable propellant.
10 Coming on to the USS Scorpion (SSN-589) , which sank in 1968 southwest of the Azores Islands, on the eastern edge of the Sargasso Sea. The submarine contained highly sophisticated spy gear and spy manuals, two nuclear-tipped torpedo's, and a nuclear propulsion system. Noteworthy again , in February 1967 Scorpion had entered the Norfolk Naval Shipyard for extended overhaul . However, instead of the much-needed complete overhaul, she received only emergency repairs to get her back on duty as soon as possible. A reduced overhaul concept has also been introduced due to Cold War pressures which prompted the Naval hierarchy to hunt for ways to reduce overhaul durations.
11 T he US Navy's Court of Inquiry listed as one possibility the inadvertent activation of a battery-powered Mark 37 torpedo. This acoustic homing torpedo, in a fully ready condition and without a propeller guard, is believed by some to have started running within the tube and targeted the submarine itself(highly unlikely) or could have exploded in the tube, causing an uncontrollable fire he US Navy's Court of Inquiry listed as one possibility the inadvertent activation of a battery-powered Mark 37 torpedo. The silver-zinc battery used in the Mark 37 torpedo had a tendency to overheat, and in extreme cases could cause a fire that was strong enough to cause a low-order detonation of the warhead. If such a detonation had occurred, it might have opened the submarines torpedo-loading hatch and caused the Scorpion to flood and sink.It was surmised that a likely cause could have been the overheating of a faulty battery, however though the battery manufacturer was accused of building bad batteries, it was later proved its batteries were no more prone to failure than those made by other manufacturers.Theory discounted.
12 It was also propounded that a malfunction of the trash disposal unit was the trigger for the disaster. Causing the submarine to flood when the TDU was operated at periscope depth. The Navy court of inquiry official statement was that there was not another ship within 200 miles of Scorpion at the time of the sinking so a collision was ruled out. The Navy investigations offered the opinion that Scorpion's hull was crushed by implosion forces as it sank below crush depth. The Navy has extensively investigated the loss of Scorpion through the initial court of inquiry and the 1970 and 1987 reviews by the Structural Analysis Group. Nothing in those investigations caused the Navy to change its conclusion that an unexplained catastrophic event occurred. Plainly speaking and as per the accepted Naval version ----‘’The first cataclysmic event was of such magnitude that the only possible conclusion is that a cataclysmic event (explosion) occurred resulting in uncontrolled flooding (most likely the forward compartments).’’ Torpedo accident???
13 To conclude , we have eliminated a collision , eliminated sabotage , eliminated a high pressure water leak or a diving accident, eliminated electrical/short circuit, eliminated a battery or battery charging accident(possible not probable in this case) , eliminated a chance fire and with a highly trained crew a fire hazard/non adherence of safety precautions is ruled out and none was seen or reported.What is evident that the submarine had recently undergone a refit and maintenance. Certain weapons systems and functional parts had been added or modified. The boat was getting ready for important trials and perhaps firing of certain types of missiles and torpedo’s. Something unstable (propellant/liquid) may have gone beyond its flash point and a lethal sequence of events could have been triggered. Unless the MoD, DRDO and the Babus of South Block get their act together and ensure that the 'boys' out there get only the best and our men in uniform are never to depend on 'jugad' technology and unwanted modifications,we will continue to have peace time casualities. Till the time the inquiry is completed and made public (if at all), the deductions are yours.