Submarines: From Russia With Paranoia


November 7, 2017: Russia is delaying making repairs to a Russian nuclear sub India leased and the reason appears to be Russian suspicion that India is violating the lease agreement and allowing American naval personnel to get a close look at the Russian sub. This is prohibited by the lease agreement, which included a clause that called for a Russian naval officer to be aboard the leased sub at all times to prevent such snooping and to provide technical assistance. There is also a dispute over the extent of the damage. The sonar dome has a hole in it and this occurred while the sub was at sea last August. But it is believed the damage may have been made worse, or be entirely because of a collision while the sub was navigating the narrow channel it has to pass through to reach its southern India base at Vizag. If the damage is too extensive the sub would have to return to Russia for repairs and be out of action for a lot longer. The Indian inspection team has already delivered its report but Russia insisted on sending its own inspection team to examine the damaged sonar dome.

India finally received its Akula II SSN (nuclear attack submarine), the Nerpa, in 2010 on a ten year lease. The Nerpa was built for this Indian deal and finally completed its sea trials and was accepted into Russian service in late 2009. India was supposed to take it in 2008 but there have been many delays. The Indian crew for the Nerpa had been ready since 2008.

Most of the delays stemmed from an accident in late 2008 when, while undergoing sea trials, there was an accidental activation of the fire extinguisher system on the Nerpa. This killed 20 sailors and civilians and injured more than 20. 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 on the sub. 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 post-accident modifications on the Nerpa cost $65 million. Traditionally, when a new ship loses lots of people during sea trials it is regarded as "cursed" and unlucky. Sailors can be a bit superstitious, especially when there are dead bodies involved. So far India has not had any problems with this, until now.

When Nerpa finally entered Indian service it was renamed the INS Chakra (the same name used by the Charlie class Russian sub India leased from 1988-91). 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.

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 and seeking to lease a sub.

Meanwhile India has designed and built its own nuclear sub, the INS Arihant. This is basically a development craft, and mass production of Indian designed nuclear subs is still years away. In February 2017 the 5,000 ton SSBN (ballistic missile carrying sub) Arihant completed sea trials and entered service. This comes after twelve years of planning and construction. Arihant was supposed to enter service before the end of 2015 but there were more unforeseen technical problems to fix. Nevertheless Arihant was commissioned as a navy ship in August 2016 even though it had not carried out its sea trials. These commenced in late 2016 and were successful. In 2015 India decided to start construction of six SSNs based on what was learned building the SSBN Arihant. The unlucky Russian Charka sub will enable India to train more nuclear sub sailors in the meantime.

Meanwhile negotiations to lease another Akula II sub are not making much progress. In 2013 India is sought to lease the second sub, in part because of the recent loss of a Russian made Kilo sub to an accidental explosion and continuing delays in building new diesel-electric and nuclear subs in India. India offered to supply the cash to complete an Akula class nuclear sub that Russia halted work on in the 1990s because of money shortages. India believed that work could be completed in about four years and then that sub would enter Indian service. India believed this would cost about a billion dollars but now India has found that the work would take six years and cost over $2 billion. This has stalled negotiations. Russia is also believed to suspect that a growing number of Indian naval officers have become so dissatisfied with Russian ships and poor Russian workmanship and repairs that they might pass details of the Akula II India already has to U.S. Navy officers they work with.