The efficacy of submarines as a potent military machine was established during the Second World War. Since then, the advancement of these submersible combat vessels have earned them the sobriquet of “silent killers of the deep”. They are valued for their relative undetectability underwater and capability to sneak up and destroy a much stronger warships using lethal torpedoes or anti-ship missiles. This gives them the badge of being one of the best deterrents that any navy can possess.
The Indian Navy inducted its first submarines in 1967, which were the Foxtrot-class submarines from the erstwhile Soviet Union. Today, the Indian Navy submarine arm has come a long way progressing towards indigenous construction and demonstrating the country’s technological prowess.
March 10 is the first anniversary of commissioning of INS Karanj, the third submarine of the Scorpene class, which was commissioned in 2021. The submarine, like its two predecessors, was indigenously constructed at Mazagon Dock Limited at Mumbai.
These submarines are one of the most advanced submarines in the world equipped with the latest weapons and sensors, which makes it capable of neutralising any threat above or below the sea surface. The induction of the Scorpene class submarines built under Project 75 reflects the capabilities of Mazagon Dock as a premier ship and submarine building yard of the world and cements the position of the Indian Navy as one of the formidable forces in the Indian Ocean Region.
As is well known, life on a submarine is not easy, in fact, it is one of the most challenging platforms to live and fight for a man in uniform. It is therefore natural that the men selected to serve on these platforms have to go through an elaborate selection process followed by a gruelling training schedule. The selection for the arm is very stringent and the qualification very selective among the large number of sailors who volunteer. A submarine qualified sailor proudly wears his golden ‘Dolphin’ badge despite all challenges.
In order to decode this platform and get unique insights into the working of a submarine and life of a submariner, we reached out to Commander Narendra Kumar (Retd), a veteran submariner of the Indian Navy who served and commanded submarines.
Commander Narendra first explained to us the types of missions a submarine can be deployed for in the navy. He brought out that submarines were potent platforms for carrying out missions across the entire spectrum of war- starting from surveillance, laying of minefields to blockade of maritime routes. However, the primary role of a submarine remains to attack military and merchant vessels designated as targets. He further added that, they could be used for inserting / extracting Special Operations Commando teams and attack land-based military targets using conventional and nuclear tipped missiles. He explained that nuclear missile armed submarines played a crucial role as part of the nuclear triad in maintaining the nuclear deterrence and hence contribute to the strategic autonomy of the nation.
When asked about the experience of sailing on a submarine, he explained that, once dived there are no visual references for a person to analyse the movement of a submarine. One will only know the horizontal movement through an equipment that is equivalent to a speedometer but can feel the vertical movement by the change in aspect of the submarine.
Speaking about life on a submarine, he added that, conventional submarines stay on patrol for long stretches of time which could extend up to 40 days. Therefore, a meticulous check on essential provisions and water comes naturally to submariners. This earlier translated into simple menus and rationed water onboard and in some cases, sentries guarding water taps. However, with the advent of reverse osmosis plants on submarines, the water situation has improved.
Furthermore, he elaborated about the living conditions onboard highlighting the fact that space for living and movement is always at a premium on a conventional submarine. This coupled with the scarcity of oxygen means the crew have to limit their physical activities and compulsorily rest in their spare time. Living, dining spaces are adequate and not luxurious, but the crew gets used to it over time. Of course, a nuclear submarine being bigger, has better living conditions than conventional submarines.
An obvious challenge onboard a submarine is catering to medical emergencies while on patrol. Commander Narendra explained that normally every submarine has a qualified doctor and small crack medical team to cater to such needs. Moreover, the need to maintain positional secrecy while on patrol while being relatively inaccessible to rescue efforts can weigh on the minds of the crew. However, if the submarine is not constrained by positional secrecy, then today’s advanced communication suits allow them to call for rescue efforts, which can be in the form of an air-ambulance, where the patient is winched up to the helicopter and taken to hospital. The only way to mitigate this, is to ensure a supremely fit crew onboard, prior to any sailing, he remarked.
With the push for indigenisation, the submarine arm of the Indian Navy is set to grow exponentially in the coming years.
As words of advice for future aspirants, Commander Narendra pointed that the submarines are here to stay as the best military deterrent that any country can possess. Both conventional and nuclear. Though challenging, there may not be a more satisfying job that can be offered to a man in uniform.
While running silent and running deep, submarines remain the biggest threat to any ship, big or small who might want to use the same sea space. It is this small select group of men whose eternal vigilance helps maintain the peace that we all savour. Though they will remain nameless and faceless to the majority, I think we should always be grateful for the unseen sacrifices they make, for the freedom that we all enjoy.
As we celebrate the third birthday of the formidable INS Karanj, the nation can be rest assured that Indian waters are in safe hands of the men on eternal patrol.
(Janhavi Lokegaonkar is a Senior Research Associate, Maritime History Society)