Red tape has crippled the blue water capabilities of the Indian Navyand the nation is now paying in blood for it.
A shortage of submarine batteries after the Ministry of Defence (MoD) objected to the acquisition process may well be the starting point of the series of unfortunate events that resulted in the INS Sindhuratna mishap early on Wednesday.
Sources say that the batteries on the INS Sindhuratna were not changed during its refit that ended in December 2013.
The facts that are now surfacing from the depths of the Arabian Sea point to running the ill-fated submarine on ageing batteries as the likeliest reason for the explosion that claimed the lives of two officers and injured seven sailors earlier this week.
The INS Sindhuratna is a diesel-electric vessel, and runs on battery power while submerged. That power is provided by 240 lead acid batteries that weigh about 800kg each.
These batteries tend to release flammable hydrogen gas, especially when they are being charged, and submarines have safety systems to address emergencies arising out of this. Old batteries are even worse.
The high level probe ordered by the Navy under Flag Officer (Submarines) Rear Admiral S.V. Bokhare will go into various aspects of the accident. It will be centered on finding the cause of explosion in the battery compartment that triggered the release of toxic gases.
The INS Sindhuratna was powered by Russian batteries during the early years of its life in the Indian Navy. Later, the Navy began procuring batteries from an established Indian vendor, Mumbai-based Standard Batteries Limited, later bought out by Exide.
The Navy has bought batteries from Standard for a long time, and the two have had a smooth working relationship. Somewhere down the line, however, the battery purchase process was hit by objections raised by HILIFE Batteries, a Hyderabad-based competitor.
HILIFE took the Indian Navy to court, saying its products were superior and cheaper, and that it had been considered good enough to supply batteries for a DRDO submarine project. The MoD also intervened to end the "single vendor situation", a situation that is avoided in acquisition.
As the web of litigation grew, battery purchases were hit, sources say, adding that the INS Sindhuratna mishap was waiting to happen.
The Iranian Navy operates Kilo-class submarines of the same manufacturing batch as India's (see box) and uses Indian batteries that it replaces regularly. There has been no major mishap reported from Iran's Kilos, and that only points another finger at the old batteries on the INS Sindhuratna.
The fact that the Navy is operating Kilo-class submarines for close to 30 years now, much beyond their lifespan, is also a reflection of the breakdown of perspective planning in the MoD.
As per the 30-year perspective plan for submarines, the Navy should have 24 new submarines by 2022. In fact, 12 submarines should have been inducted by 2012 if the plan had remained on track. It is tragic, say old submariners, that the MoD was well aware of the problem and did nothing.
The submarine fleet is centered on 10 Russian Kilo class and four German HDW type 209 submarines. Nuclear-powered INS Chakra was acquired two years ago, the only addition in the last three decades.
The government has been told several times about the teething problems in the construction of six French Scorpene submarines which has delayed the entire acquisition programme. All the six Scorpenes are now expected to be inducted only by 2021.
Kilo-class submarines of Soviet design are among the most silent-and proportionately deadly-vessels of their kind. The Sindhuratna, commissioned into the Indian Navy in 1988, had undergone an extensive refit from May through December last year, and was being put through the second, submerged phase of trials that would certify it as operationally fit when disaster struck.
The accidents involving two Kilo-class submarines within a span of six months are now likely to speed up the plan for construction of a new line of underwater vessels.
Iranian Kilo subs running perfectly on Indian batteries
The Iranian Navy operates three Kilo class submarines - Tareq, Noor and Yunesh - which are of the same vintage and type as the ones in the Indian Navy.
However, Iran is yet to face any serious accident. In fact, the Iranian Navy even routes its batteries from the same Indian vendor, Standard Batteries Limited.
The sinking of INS Sindhurakshak in August last year and the accident on board the INS Sindhuratna on Wednesday has brought focus on the Russian-made submarines.
A probe will indicate whether the fire in INS Sindhuratna was caused because of poor maintenance and inferior quality of spares, or because of some other fault.