|Illustration: Liu Rui/GT|
The Indian navy suffered its worst peacetime disaster just after midnight on August 14 when the Russian-built diesel-powered submarine INS Sindhurakshak had several explosions on board, triggering a massive fire which sunk and completely gutted the boat.
The loss goes beyond money. Apart from the fact that the over $150 million submarine can never take to the sea again and will have to be dismantled and sold as scrap, it has caused a big dent in India's undersea warfare capability.
India is now left with just 13 submarines. This is well below the Indian navy's minimum requirement of 20 submarines to act as an effective deterrent against China and Pakistan.
India has not purchased a single submarine for the last 16 years. A couple of Scorpene submarines being built in India with collaboration with France are likely to be made available to the Indian navy soon, and at least one of them should be ready for induction later this year.
Also, the Indian navy is looking forward to taking delivery of the much-hyped Russian-built aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, renamed the INS Vikramaditya, in the next few months.
This month has seen the Indian naval graph going up and down significantly.
First, the INS Arihant, India's first largely indigenously developed nuclear submarine, gained criticality on August 10, and then two days later, India's first indigenously aircraft carrier INS Vikrant was launched.
Both the developments, days before India's 67th Independence Day on August 15, made the Indian navy proud. Nonetheless, the INS Sindhurakshak disaster has taken the sheen of both these highly creditable achievements.
This disaster is still under investigation, though the Indian navy's sources rule out sabotage, or even a more fanciful theory of a terror plot. The truth will emerge only after a board of inquiry that the Indian navy has ordered would come out with its report. That will take at least about a month, and there is no certainty that the government will make the inquiry results public.
The hard fact remains that the Russian-built, 2,300-ton submarine, which returned only last year from Russia after an $18 million midlife upgrade, has literally gone up in smoke.
This warrants some immediate actions from the government. The UPA government cannot let this disaster compromise with India's national security at a time when the parliamentary elections are round the corner.
However, the Sindhurakshak incident will not cast a shadow on the traditionally close defense ties between India and Russia. In fact, Indo-Russian defense relations are set to climb new peaks of cooperation.
After the loss of Sindhurakshak in the election year, the UPA government is left with no choice, but to recoup the loss by some quick acquisitions.
But submarines are not like toys that are readily available for purchase off the shelf. Chances are that India will have to look to Russia again for a helping hand.
This is how that India can make up its Sindhurakshak loss: by falling back on tried and tested Russian shoulders.
No less than 10 of India's previous 14 submarines came from Russia. A workable and practical option for India would be to send its existing nine Kilo-class submarines to Russia for midlife upgrade in batches. That will take a couple of years at least, if the agreement between India and Russia were to be signed tomorrow.
Those who are in the business know very well that the agreement itself will take several months to be signed considering the costs, expected to be around $200 million for all nine boats and the new equipment such as avionics, sonar systems and missiles that India would like the upgraded submarines to be fitted with.
The second, and quicker course, would be to ask Russia to lease a few more nuclear submarines to India.
Russia has already leased a nuclear submarine to India twice before, the most recent one being a Nerpa class submarine renamed INS Chakra which was inducted into the Indian navy in April 2012. It is a 10-year lease that will cost India $1 billion in staggered annual payments.
Indo-Russian diplomatic and military engagement in the coming two months will inevitably focus on these aspects. India's loss may well be Russia's gain.