Submarines: And Then There Were Three Chakras

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April 8, 2019: India has signed a $3 billion 10 year lease with Russia to obtain the use of another Akula II class SSN (nuclear attack submarine) submarine. This new one will not arrive until 2025 and will replace another Akula (INS Chakra) that had earned the reputation of being something of a cursed boat. The latest example of the curse occurred in late 2017 when Russia delayed making repairs to Chakra because of suspicions that India had violated the lease agreement by 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 was also a dispute over the extent of the damage, which occurred while Chakra was navigation a narrow channel while approaching its base. The sonar dome had a hole in it from a mid-2017 accident. India put Chakra into a dry dock and called on Russia to provide a technical team to make repairs. At first, the Russians believed the damage may have been worse than described. If that were the case the sub would have to return to Russia for repairs and be out of action for a lot longer. The Indian inspection team had already delivered its report but Russia insisted on sending its own inspection team to examine the damaged sonar dome. The damage was as the Indians described it and repairs were made, at a cost of $20 million.

India had received this first Akula II, originally the K-152 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 were many delays. The Indian crew for the Nerpa had been ready since 2008.

Most of the delays stemmed from an incident in late 2008 when, while undergoing sea trials, there was an accidental activation of the fire extinguisher system on the K-152. 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 K-152 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 the former Nerpa, until the sonar dome incident.

When K-152 finally entered Indian service the name was changed to INS Chakra II. This was the same name used by the Charlie class Russian sub India leased from 1988-91. The lease arrangement had 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. India not only paid rent but supplied cash to finish the subs and this entitled them to learn much about how the Russians built nuclear subs. In effect, Russia sold this tech to India as part of the lease agreement.

As a result of that first experience renting a Russian sub, India 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 came 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. Trials 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 enabled India to train more nuclear sub sailors in the meantime.

Negotiations to lease a second Akula II SSN proceeded slowly. This began in 2013 India, in part because of the recent Indian loss of a Russian made Kilo sub due to an accidental explosion. Another incentive to lease another Akula was the continuing delays in building new diesel-electric and nuclear subs in India. To encourage Russia to provide the second Akula India offered to supply the cash to complete another of the Akulas 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 the reality was that the work would take six years and cost over $2 billion. This stalled negotiations. Russia is also beginning to suspect that a growing number of Indian naval officers had 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. Russia managed to overcome these misgivings and the Chakra III appears to be on schedule for delivery in 2025. Russia has a lot riding on making this deal go as smoothly as possible. India has had a lot of problems with its Russian weapons, which include several hundred Su-30 fighter bombers as well as over a thousand T-90 tanks (most being built in India under license). As a result of these problems, India has been buying more and more Western weapons, especially from Israel. While more expensive the Western stuff is more reliable and delivered on time.

 


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