A credible submarine rescue capability is integral to submarine operations because of the nature of the platform and its operating medium hundreds of metres below the surface of the sea.
By Commodore Anil Jai Singh, IN ( Retd)
51 long years after India commissioned its first submarine on 08 December 1967, the Indian Navy finally established its own submarine rescue capability with the commissioning of its first Deep Submergence Rescue Vessel (DSRV) on 12 December 2018 at Mumbai. The delay in acquiring this capability which should be integral to any submarine operating navy was also acknowledged by the former Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba at the commissioning ceremony. Speaking on the occasion he said “The induction of the DSRV…marks the culmination of years of… effort in acquiring this niche submarine capability”. The Indian Navy has procured two DSRVs from Messrs James Fisher Defence, a UK firm which is the global leader in untethered DSRVs. The second DSRV is based in Visakhapatnam.
A credible submarine rescue capability is integral to submarine operations because of the nature of the platform and its operating medium hundreds of metres below the surface of the sea. Hence specialised equipment and procedures are required to rescue the personnel trapped in the submarine. The basing of one DSRV each on the east and west coasts of India is therefore a very positive move because it will enable an early response besides providing redundancy in ensuring a 24x7x365 capability even when one DSRV is undergoing its periodic routine maintenance cycle. These DSRVs are equipped with a side scan sonar for better detection of the distressed submarine which could be lying on the sea bed and could therefore merge with the sea bottom thus making detection difficult ; a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) for providing immediate relief prior to the DSRV actually mating with the submarine and finally evacuating the personnel from the submarine to the surface.
Thus far, the Indian Navy had a very rudimentary rescue capability. Within the country, there was an antiquated diving bell on a diving tender and externally, India had an arrangement with the US for their fly-away kit and DSRV to be airlifted to India from its base in San Diego. Neither of these inspired confidence in the submariners and fortunately the need for it never arose. Closer home, Singapore too has a DSRV, also built by the same manufacturer.
Submarine rescue is a very specialised operation. A submarine could be in distress anywhere and at any time. By the very nature of its operations, it has to remain silent and concealed below the surface of the sea at all times. Therefore, by the time the information of it being in distress reaches ashore, its exact position and time at which the emergency occurred may not be accurately known. In all probability, a submarine in distress would have experienced an accident or an equipment malfunction which has led to its sinking and it would therefore be on the sea bed, perhaps damaged, perhaps flooded and possibly pitch dark without any power. Some of the crew could be injured, some may even be dead and the rest would be extremely traumatised. Imagine trying to remain organised in such a situation with food and water for sustenance in short supply and oxygen to breathe rapidly depleting since no ventilation or circulation of fresh air is possible. Hence for locating the submarine and providing it adequate support and rescue facilities, time will be of the essence. It is therefore significant that within months of getting this capability, the navy has successfully carried out a mating of the DSRV with a dived submarine (simulating a submarine in distress) off Visakhapatnam and successfully transferred personnel from the submarine into the DSRV. This live exercise has firmly established the credentials of the Indian Navy’s submarine rescue capability as a Submarine rescue provider in the Indian Ocean region, thus further enhancing our status as a net security provider in the region. The IN is one of few navies with this capability and, other than Australia is the only Indian Ocean navy that has it.
However, training of the crew is an ongoing process and such exercises will have to be conducted regularly with different submarines for the crew of both DSRVs to be adequately trained and with enough practice to effect a rescue successfully when the occasion demands. A submarine accident will happen just once and without warning. The ability to rescue the crew of a submarine that has sunk will be the ultimate test of this capability and therefore, the DSRV and its crew cannot be found wanting at that time, whatever be the odds. Some readers would recall the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk in 2000 when the entire crew was lost. It later emerged that had the rescue effort been provided in time, a fair number, who were alive inside for a few days, could have been evacuated.
DSRVs can be launched either from specialised vessels on which they are mounted with their associated equipment including de-pressurisation chambers for the crew or from vessels of opportunity which can be temporarily modified to carry these. The IN intends to have specialised Diving Support vessels s which are being built at the Hindustan Shipyard in Visakhapatnam.
The induction of these two DSRVs is indeed a welcome step. The endeavour will be to ensure that they remain at peak efficiency at all times and the hope will be that they are never called upon to be used.
( The author is a submarine veteran and the Vice President of the Indian Maritime Foundation. The views expressed are personal.)