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The Curse Continues
by James Dunnigan
January 11, 2011

Four months ago, India was to have finally received the Russian Akula II SSN (nuclear attack submarine) Nerpa it has leased for ten years. But then there arose a problem. The Indian crew, after more than a year of training, found that they were not fully prepared to take over the sub. The crew won't be ready for another six months. The Russians are being blamed, partly because they were in charge of the training, and partly because they recently made a lot of internal changes to the Nerpa. But Indians also admit that all their veteran nuclear submarine sailors (who manned a Russian nuclear sub leased in 1988-91) were retired, and the difficulties of learning how to run a nuclear boat were underestimated.

The Nerpa was built for this Indian deal, and finally completed its sea trials and was accepted into Russian service last December. India was supposed to take possession last May, but there were more delays. The Indian crew for the sub has been ready for nearly two years. Most of the delay stems from an event two years ago, when, while Nerpa was undergoing sea trials, there was an accidental activation of the fire extinguisher system. This killed twenty sailors and civilians, and injured more than twenty. There were 208 people aboard the sub at the time, most of them navy and shipyard personnel there to closely monitor all aspects of the sub as it made its first dives and other maneuvers. The source of the fatal accident was poor design and construction of the safety systems. This accident led to sailors and shipyard technicians being fearful of going to sea on the boat. So the sea trials were delayed, even after repairs were made.

The Nerpa has been renamed the INS Chakra (the same name used by the Charlie class Russian sub India leased from 1988-91). The post-accident modifications on the Nerpa cost $65 million. The lease arrangement has India paying $178,000 a day, for ten years, for use of the sub. The 7,000 ton Akula II requires a crew of 73 highly trained sailors. Over a hundred Indian sailors have undergone training to run the boat.

It was Indian money that enabled Russia to complete construction on at least two Akulas. These boats were less than half finished at the end of the Cold War. This was another aftereffect of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Several major shipbuilding projects were basically put on hold (which still cost a lot of money), in the hopes that something would turn up. In this case, it was Indians with lots of cash.

Traditionally, when a new ship loses lots of people during sea trials, it is regarded as "cursed" and unlucky. Sailors can be a superstitious, especially when there are dead bodies involved. It's not known if India will have any problems with this.

India has designed and built its own nuclear sub, but the first one is basically a development craft, and mass production of Indian designed nuclear subs is still 5-10 years away. The unlucky Russian sub will enable India to train more nuclear sub sailors in the meantime.


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