NEW DELHI — Indian naval divers on Wednesday afternoon opened the main hatchway of a stricken, Russian-made Indian submarine that caught fire, blew up and sank at dock earlier in the day in one of the worst naval accidents in Indian history.
But visibility for the divers within the sunken boat was almost zero, and the effort to rescue or recover the 18 missing crew members was expected to take time. Three sailors who were on the outside of the ship when it exploded managed to scramble to safety.On Monday navy divers managed to open the first hatch of the damaged submarine but there has yet to be contact with any of the crew on board
Adm. D. K. Joshi, India’s naval chief, said at a news conference that the chances were slim that any of the missing sailors remained alive.
“There is a possibility, however remote it might be, of an air pocket,” he said. “We hope for the best but have to be ready for the worst.”
The submarine was docked at the Lion Gate naval shipyard, close to South Mumbai’s busy financial district and within two miles of the Gateway of India. The water where the accident occurred is so shallow that part of the stricken vessel protruded above the surface.
Admiral Joshi said there had been no communication with the missing crew since a small explosion around midnight near the bow of the submarine ignited two huge blasts from onboard munitions, possibly torpedoes or cruise missiles. The heat from the explosions and the resulting two-hour fire was so intense that it fused the submarine’s hatchways, making rescue efforts even more challenging.
“We cannot rule out the possibility of sabotage, although the indicators at this time would not support that conclusion,” Admiral Joshi said. “It is essentially an onboard explosion.”
The cause of the explosion on the 16-year-old INS Sindhurakshak, could not be immediately determined. After a February 2010 explosion in the battery compartment left one dead and two injured, the vessel was sent to the Zvezdochka shipyard in Russia for a two-and-a-half-year, $80 million retrofit. It was handed back to the Indian Navy in January, and went on a three-month, 10,000-mile shakedown cruise that ended successfully in April in Mumbai.
The crew had recharged the sub’s batteries three days before the blast, so a battery leak was not a likely cause this time, Admiral Joshi said.
After divers explore the submarine for survivors, they will try to seal two or three internal compartments, expel the water and refloat the boat, Admiral Joshi said. Only then will investigators be able to begin to look into the causes of the accident.
Defense Minister A. K. Antony went to Mumbai, where the entrance to the shipyard was heavily guarded on Wednesday by police and naval personnel. A scrum of journalists and onlookers stood outside the gates for much of the day.
“I express my heartfelt condolences to the families of those sailors and officers who were inside this submarine,” the minister said at the news conference.
An Indian news channel, NDTV, broadcast a viewer’s video of what appeared to be a series of blasts lighting up the Mumbai sky. The explosions took place a day before India’s Independence Day celebrations, when security is normally tightened at government offices and military facilities.
The Sindhurakshak is one of the 10 Kilo-class submarines that form the backbone of India’s conventional submarine force. India is building a new class of conventional submarines, called the Scorpene, with French and Spanish help. But that effort, like many Indian defense projects, has been marred by delays and squabbling among its international partners, and the first submarines are not expected to be delivered until 2015 at the earliest.
India has long relied on Russian-made military equipment, including MIG-21 fighters, whose safety and reliability have been increasingly questioned. India is the largest arms buyer in the world because its own defense manufacturing industry has been unable to deliver high-quality, low-cost weapons to satisfy the country’s wide range of defense needs.
“This accident again raises questions about Russian standards of manufacture and repair,” Adm. Arun Prakash, who retired from the Indian Navy in 2006, said in an interview. “Russian equipment is not always the best, and it is prone to failures.”
India’s defense purchases are increasingly crucial to the Russians, who have lost major customers in Libya and other Arab nations affected by the Arab Spring. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia visited India in December and signed weapons contracts valued at $2.9 billion.
India’s submarine service was already depleted before the explosion. Only nine of its submarines were considered operational before Wednesday, and just five or six are operating at any given time — too few to guard India’s extensive coastline adequately.
India has become increasingly concerned about China’s naval ambitions and is desperately trying to catch up with its larger rival’s rapid naval-building program. But China now has roughly 260 ships compared with fewer than 100 for India.
India’s attempts to create its own defense manufacturing sector have been riddled with failure. Efforts to design and build new aircraft, tanks, howitzers and machine guns have failed spectacularly in recent decades.
The navy has fared relatively better than the other branches, and its launching of the hull of the first indigenously built aircraft carrier on Monday was a huge step forward. But the navy still must buy critical matériel and technology from foreign suppliers.
Yet corruption scandals have marred Indian defense contracting so badly that the government has slowed its purchases abroad for fear of igniting further controversy. Unable to build or buy, India is becoming dangerously short of vital defense equipment, analysts say.
A recent scandal involved a $600 million contract for 12 high-end helicopters for top Indian officials, bought from the Italian manufacturer Finmeccanica. Italian prosecutors say the contract was marred by bribery and that Finmeccanica knew some of the Indian Air Force’s supposedly secret requirements for the contract while bidding on it.
Another problem has been a history of distrust of the military by India’s dominant political class. India won its independence through strikes and protest marches, not by force of arms, and India’s main rival, Pakistan, has been dominated by military dictators for much of its history. India’s leaders have tried to keep its military at a distance, and military leaders are rarely invited into the inner circle of decision-making.
India’s strategic challenges are mounting. After a long quiescence, India and Pakistan have recently traded fire along their disputed boundary in Kashmir, and China has been probing its disputed border regions with India in unusually confrontational ways.
And after a nearly a decade of rapid growth, India’s economy has in recent months slowed substantially. The value of the rupee has plunged while the country’s foreign exchange reserves have dwindled, making purchases of foreign equipment even more difficult and dear.
“This is a turbulent birthday for India,” C. Uday Bhaskar, a retired Indian Navy commodore who is now with the National Maritime Foundation, the navy’s civilian research center, said in an interview. “The security challenges for this country are complex and mounting.”