SOURCE: TIMES NOW
On the occasion of Navy Day, in a year that marks 50 years of submarine arm, Times Now talks to Commodore (retd) Anil Jai Singh, a submariner for three decades and one of the architects of Indian Navy’s 30-year submarine acquisition plan.
A submarine is the safest platform, until, you realise that it is dangerous– anon
Being a submariner may be perceived as a glamourous job up on the earth’s surface. But it is not exactly so when you are sailing at alien locations hundreds of meters under the blue waters. Sailing onboard some of the most technologically advanced platforms, the earthly technologies are yet to envisage, yet living disconnected from the world, the ironies inside the dingy, capsule are beyond description.
Life onboard a submarine begins with rigorous training sessions that are certainly not meant for the weak-hearted. In the UK for instance, the submarine training course is rightly titled- Perish. That is precise words is the tenure onboard subs. A scratch on the vessel and lives of 50 odd sailors are lost. Add to that the stigma that officers return with- not fit for sea.
A normal deployment for any sub, be it conventional or a nuclear begins by leaving the harbour. But before that, the commanding officer and his crew take full stock of its payload and weight distribution. The weight of the crew, ration, torpedoes and other supporting material has to be balanced in a way that the vessel remains upright- meaning not tilted. It then dives into the sea and sails to deployment location silently.
In a conventional submarine, there are about 44- 50 people on board, about 11 officers and 35- 40 men, though, the number varies as per class of the vessel. Conventional submarines, once underwater sail to a depth of about 300- 350 meters. While no one can trace the exact location of a submarine, while on an operational deployment, the command center on the ground has an approximate idea of the area where it is deployed.
One of the most precious commodities onboard a sub is Oxygen and though available around in abundance- water. With every passing day, the quantity of Oxygen inside the sub decreases and it thus has to surface to gather more amount of fresh air. A conventional submarine surfaces once in about 45-50 days to collect its amount of Oxygen supply and other surface-related functions.
Life inside a sub
Life onboard a submarine is as unnatural and far from the worldly glamour submariners carry. One, there are no days or night onboard a sub. Submariners are given special T-shirts and pants, which need to be changed every third day. Freshwater is so precious that bath and shaving are the last priorities- though things have changed with modern technology and with the advent of nuclear submarines which have a longer endurance. FYI, India has one nuclear submarine SSN- INS Chakra leased from Russia. The Indigenous INS Arihant is work in progress, though moving in the right direction. Once onboard a sub, there is no officer- men discretion, except for when it comes to command and control. Everyone onboard a submarine has to be fully prepared for any exigencies with equal responsibility.
Realistically, there is only dark water around and no light. Time is thus measured in hours. Every submariner follows three hours work, six hours rest pattern. As a result, one-third of the submarine is always on guard. Or, to put it, two third of the submarine is always sleeping. There is no entertainment. The maximum it can get is a CD player with few movies, veteran submariners claim to have watched zillion time.
Majority of the space of the capsule is machinery, batteries, torpedoes, pantry and other wiring and machinery. Little space left for movement is occupied by glowing access channels and bunkers. Exercise is impossible in light of lack of space and due to low energy levels owing to limited Oxygen. No wonder thus that after returning for a deployment of about 4-5 months, all a submariner wants to catch up with is sleep and rest.
It’s a war every minute
Hours underwater are no lesser than war scenario. The first fight is with the water pressure. A crack or a minor malfunction and the tremendous water pressure can fill the capsule with salt water leaving little scope for any obvious predictions to not come true. Fire- electrical wiring and water is a lethal combination on the ground. Imagine a battery-powered capsule surrounded by water. Add to that, the torpedo system and other high voltage equipment. No wonder thus that majority of the crew time is consumed by fire drills and training. Even in the middle of deep sleep, a submariner can never fail to execute a drill he has spent his life practicing.
The most crucial fight is the military threat. Stealth and undetectability is the very composition of a submarine. To be detected by an enemy warship is a nightmare, submariners live with all through their tenures. While conventional submarines, they say, only receive signals from the command centre and not revert in order to maintain stealth, there are tales of enemy warships warning and forcing submarines away from their territories by deploying arm twisting techniques. Worst, a lethal enemy warship can salvage a submarine by dropping depth chargers and claim innocence by saying that the act was carried out as a part of a military exercise and that they were clueless about the presence of a submarine under water. What puts a country in awkward situations in such cases is the fact that none can acknowledge the presence of their own submarine in the enemy territory due to diplomatic, military and peacetime convention pressures. Such scenarios, though rare, mean an unsung and disowned death for submariners.
Last but not the least, as Commodore Jai Singh puts it- on land, Commanding officers of ships can pass on difficult decisions to higher-ups. Even the Navy chief can seek the guidance of the civilian leadership such as the Defence Minister or the PMO. But onboard a sub, in the dark sea waters, the buck stops at the CO. And there, inside the submarine CO’s dingy cabin, water is the least of the pressures!