Submarines: India Prepares For The Worst


December 28, 2009: India is preparing for the worst, when it comes to its submarine fleet. This can be seen by the fact that India paid the U.S. Navy $100,000 to be one of the countries that can have American SRDRS (submarine rescue equipment) flown in, on 48 hours notice.

India is expecting a submarine disaster.

Indian admirals are resigned to the fact that their submarine fleet (of 16 boats) will shrink before new subs can be built. By 2012, five of India's 16 subs (10 Kilo and two Foxtrot class Russian built boats and four German Type 209s) will be retired (some are already semi-retired because of age and infirmity). Two years after that, India will only have five working subs. Meanwhile, the older subs still go to sea for training. While it would be safer to just keep these boats in port, without the training, these subs, and their crews, would be in even greater danger if war broke out.

The Indian military procurement bureaucrats dithered for nearly a decade, and it wasn't until 2005 that India signed a deal to buy six French Scorpene class diesel-electric submarines. But now problems have developed. The first Scorpene was supposed to enter service by 2012, with each boat costing about $500 million. But political and management problems have delayed that date by two years, and raised the price per boat by over $100 million. The French have raised the prices for some key components, and India has had some problems in getting production going on their end. The first Scorpene was to be built in France, with the other five built in India.

Thus the need for possible submarine rescue services. The new American submarine rescue system, the SRDRS (Submarine Rescue Diving and Recompression System) is a modular system that weighs under 200 tons and can be flown anywhere on the planet within 72 hours (faster depending on the distance and availability of heavy transport aircraft.) The Indians paid to get the faster delivery guarantee, and have made preparation on their end to quickly get SRDRS on an Indian ship and off to the scene of any submarine crew in need of rescue.

The SRDRS was designed to be operated from most merchant ships. SRDRS consists of two main components. There is the rescue module, which is a remotely controlled submersible that descends to the stricken sub, attaches itself to the rescue hatch, and has room for 16 sailors. Once on the surface, the sub links to a decompression chamber, where the sailors have to stay for a while to acclimate them to surface pressures (and prevent the bends). In addition to the rescue vehicle and decompression module, there is support equipment. There are also smaller underwater vehicles and pressure suits for divers. These are flown in first, to explore the stricken sub in detail, clear any debris from the subs rescue hatch, and basically gather information to the actual rescue can be carefully planned.

Two years ago, Britain, Norway and France completed the construction of the NATO Submarine Rescue Vehicle (SRV). This is very similar to the SRDRS. NATO SRV was a $95 million project that resulted in a deep water rescue device that can be airlifted to anywhere in the world on short notice, fit on the deck of at least 140 identified ships, and mate with the escape hatches on most of the worlds submarines, and carry up to 15 men at a time to the surface. This system is shipped in eleven waterproof cargo containers, that can be flown by military or civilian cargo aircraft. Including flight time, set up time on the ship, and movement time to the site of the distressed submarine, the NATO SRV should be able to get there and have the SRV in the water within 72 hours. The SRV itself is 31 feet long and weighs 27 tons, has a crew of three and can go as deep as 3,000 feet (which is the maximum depth for most submarines.)

The U.S. and NATO systems are very similar, but not identical. The basic idea behind this modular design is to enable the rescue system to reach the stricken sub as soon as possible. Once the air runs out down there, rescue is no longer possible. All the navies of the world are invited to modify, if necessary, their rescue hatches (usually just the main hatch on the top of the sub) to accept the U.S. or NATO rescue vehicles. If they do that, the NATO or U.S. rescue systems (depending on whose is closest) will be sent to attempt a rescue. The U.S. systems is based in California, the NATO one in northern Europe. India selected the American system, even though it is stationed twice as far away (14,000 kilometers, versus 7,200 for the NATO one) because the U.S. would guarantee arrival on time, and the American gear is considered a bit better.