- This is one of 13 diesel-electric submarines in Indian Navy
- The Kilo-class submarines were first acquired 31 years ago
- INS Sindhukirti is upgraded to fire anti-ship and surface attack missiles
Within days, the INS Sindhukirti, based in Visakhapatnam will conduct its next sortie. No one, not even the Captain, knows where. Deployment orders are top secret. They come in an envelope which the Captain isn't allowed to open until he is already out at sea. All the crew can do is guess the duration of their next mission based on the quantity of food and supplies they are stocking in their submarine. For the next several weeks, perhaps even more than a month, the Sindhukirti will be prowling the depths of the Bay of Bengal, its crew entirely cut off from the outside world, other than listening to the occasional news report which the submarine is equipped to receive even while operating underwater. For more than a month, the 67 officers and sailors onboard will have no contact with their families. ''Once the last lines have been cast off from alongside, you are nowhere and no longer attached to your family. Whatever happens there, whatever happens to you, you are absolutely in two different worlds," said Captain GS Reedy, the 39-year-old Commanding Officer of the Sindhukirti.
Elsewhere on the submarine, a crew of men head to the rest area. Their shift is over. It's time to hot-bunk: berths as beds are rotated. "At times, we even play around with the body clock of the men on board," said Captain Anurag Srivastava, the Director of Submarine Operations at the Eastern Naval Command in Visakhapatnam. "When we are out for extended deployments and we are close to the enemy course, we have to change the body clock so that we are more alert during the night time. All our activities take place during the night time like charging of the batteries and all."
The Sindhukirti is not an easy work space. Every inch of space is occupied by an essential piece of machinery. Moving around the boat, its many ladders and water-tight hatches, is not comfortable. But this submarine doesn't aim for that. During the Soviet times when she was built, crew comfort was an afterthought. Newer submarines, like the French-designed Scorpene class submarines being assembled at Mazgaon Docks in Mumbai, are like a luxury-liner for sailors used to operating old submarines like this. On the Sindhukirti, there is one toilet for the nearly 70 people on board. There are no showers, and the crew of the submarine dispense with their starched uniforms for light-blue coloured disposable gowns not unlike the scrubs worn by doctors in operating theatres. Each set of clothes is worn for three days and then thrown away.
Part of the process of keeping the men onboard motivated involves feeding them with fresh meals. Cooked in a tiny galley. The chefs onboard have a huge responsibility - the Navy takes its cuisine very seriously; the meals produced, vegetarian and non-vegetarian, are delicious by any measure. Everyone eats the same food - there is no preference or special meal for officers onboard. "We have a lot of activities planned for the sailors to bring them together. We try to occasionally break a part of our routine by having healthy competitions between them. Sailors come out with a number of humorous anecdotes while they are serving which we occasionally broadcast for everybody to enjoy," said the Captain.
Being a submariner is a dangerous business. A build-up of hydrogen and other gases in the battery pits can potentially be lethal. A small spark can trigger an explosion that can destroy the boat and weaponry - missiles, torpedoes and mines - have to be handled with kid gloves. Safety is the key buzzword here. These men won't talk about it, but they know how things can go disastrously wrong. 18 sailors were killed in an explosion in the weapons compartment of the INS Sindhurakshak in Mumbai in 2013, a submarine identical to this boat. A year later, two officers lost their lives on a sister submarine, INS Sindhuratna, while trying to put out a fire very close to the battery pit. The accidents prompted then Navy Chief Admiral DK Joshi to resign from service.
India presently operates only a single nuclear-attack submarine leased from Russia in 2012. The INS Arihant , the country's first indigenously built nuclear submarine - loaded with nuclear-tipped missiles -has also completed lengthy trials in the Bay of Bengal. In addition to this, India operates 13 Russian and German-designed diesel-electric submarines. Six French-designed "Scorpene" class submarines are being assembled at Mumbai, but China, which has at least 12 nuclear-powered submarines either in service or under construction, is way ahead with another 56 conventional diesel-electric submarines, making it the world's second-largest operator of submarines behind America.