Argentina is in grief and the world is anxious. Days have passed and leads on the disappearance of submarine ARA San Juan and its 44-member crew have turned cold. The Argentine Navy said there was an explosion near the last known location of the submarine.
In brief, here is what happened:
Midway through its journey from the naval base in Ushuaia to the one in Mar del Plata, on November 15, the ARA San Juan surfaced and reported a short-circuit in the batteries of the submarine. That was resolved. At 7.30am, the submarine stated it would submerge and reach Mar del Plata. Nothing was heard from the boat thereafter.
Watching these developments is the small community of Indian submariners. As one of the largest navies operating 15 submarines most of which are nearing or past their shelf lives, the concern is genuine. There is one more reason.
“Our Shishumar-class of submarines (Type 1500) is similar to the missing Argentinean sub in design and equipment fit (ARA San Juan is a German-designed Type 1700 submarine built in 1983 in erstwhile West Germany),” said vice admiral KN Sushil, a veteran submariner, who retired as the head of the Kochi-based Southern Naval Command.
Subsurface, like space, is where nature did not envisage human presence. Thus submariners leave nothing to chance.
To start with, the underwater arm is a volunteers-only affair and “earning your Dolphins” is as challenging a task as it can get. While in other arms of the service as well as in other services, an individual is expected to be the master of his/her domain, the underwater arm requires an individual to master all domains.
The most important part of their training is how to escape, should the worst happen and the boat is rendered dysfunctional. Proof of how intense and treacherous the exercise is lies in the fact that the Indian Navy provides every trainee with a trainer.
WATCH: Short film on the Indian Navy’s Escape Training School in Vizag
Depending on the depth, personnel are imparted the skill to self-evacuate using tubes meant to fire torpedoes.
Caution goes beyond training.
WATCH: My comprehensive documentary on the INDIAN NAVY’s EKM-class submarine INS Sindhukirti shot in November 2015
Ingrained in the very design of a submarine is layer after layer of redundancy to ensure the worst does not take place. “In fact, our Shishumar-class submarines have a rescue sphere which allows the entire crew to escape when all efforts have failed and if the submarine continues to descend below operational depth,” said the admiral.
Those onboard ARA San Juan did not have the rescue sphere.
But they still had multiple mechanisms to guide rescuers. “All submarines have emergency indicator buoys which when released help locate the submarine and have a search and rescue beacon. In addition, there is an underwater pinger which can be picked by sonars and sonobuoys. If the submarine is sunk at depths from which escape using escape suits is possible, the crew can abandon the submarine and float on the surface.
These submarines also have life rafts which can be released from a depth of 150m,” added vice admiral KN Sushil (retd).
What if an Indian submarine suffered a similar fate?
Though the Indian Navy did lose INS Sindhurakshak in a tragic explosion inside the Mumbai Naval Dockyard in August 2013 where the crew on board was killed, it has never lost a submarine at sea.
“Operation centres keep a track of submarine positions. During peacetime a ‘check’ signal from the sub, sent over Very Low Frequency (VLF) transmission is received and anything to be conveyed is relayed. If there is no ‘check’ signal for 24 hours then in the 25th hour, the hunt with all available assets will begin,” explained a submariner who did not want to be quoted.
Within 48 hours of India requesting, based on a pre-existing arrangement with the United States, the US Navy would fly out its Deep Search and Rescue Vehicles (DSRVs) to aid the Indian efforts. “The entire logistics of flying out the DSRVs, bringing it and welding on to a ship which would take the material to the sea has been worked out,” revealed an officer aware of the matter.
By the end of 2018, India will operationalise two DSRVs of her own using which distressed submarines located as deep as 650m can access. It will help pull sailors to safety.
Since 2004-05, India has also been a participant to various international arrangements like NATO’s Submarine Escape and Rescue Working Group under which even non-NATO countries come together on a single platform to cooperate in case of submarine mishaps. “The best of what is available in the world can be pooled in. We’ve worked out these arrangements and practised the drill over the years,” said a source.
But all of this and more is at play in the waters of Argentina. Yet, the admiral said, “There are no happy stories of a lost submarine crew having been rescued alive using these techniques.”
In searching for an unresponsive submarine, ironically, its biggest strength becomes the biggest hurdle – stealth.
“A submarine’s build and shape prevents the ships from getting its picture. Bad weather can make a difficult job, more difficult,” said commander Ashok Bijalwan (retd), who has served onboard the Indian Navy’s Foxtrot and Kilo class submarines.
Another factor is crush depth – the depth at which the submarine will collapse inwards by the pressure exerted on it. Crush depth comes into the picture when the submarine is in a freefall, a downwards spiral.
“Generally the crush depth is two times the maximum depth to which a submarine can dive and operate. However, since the ARA San Juan is more than 30-years-old, the chances of it imploding even at lesser depths are possible”.
The takeaways for India are clear.
A group of relatives of the ARA San Juan crew left the President of Argentina Mauricio Macri speechless when they asked him why he couldn’t invest the state budget into buying newer and safer submarines.
With a submarine fleet whose average age is 25 years, India is only inching closer to an underwater disaster. If and when that happens, there will be no one to blame but ourselves.
ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED HERE: