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Surya Gangadharan
Friday , April 06, 2012 at 19 : 22

INS Chakra: The silent service under sea


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As records go, this could be it: An appendix surgery on board an Indian Navy submarine hundreds of feet below the sea. The sailor recovered and most interesting from an operational point of view, the sub never surfaced throughout the duration of the surgery. Naval rules don't allow the names of either the sailor or the sub to be disclosed, but it happened fairly recently. The submarine captain who told me this wouldn't be identified either. But the story has a bigger broader context.

The formal unveiling of the INS Chakra, the navy's first operational nuclear powered attack submarine. As the rear admiral heading the submarine command in Vizag told us, the Chakra with its 190 mw nuclear reactor is a game changer in this region. The navy now has a sub with virtually unlimited endurance (at least 100 days) combined with high underwater speeds (33 knots).

With the Chakra, deployment at short notice is no longer a problem. Which brings me to another record: The Chakra's maiden voyage from Vladivostock in Russia through the South China Sea, the Malacca Straits and the Indian Ocean to its home port in Vizag, lasted around 40 days. All this time the sub remained underwater. (The world record of 90 days voyage undersea is held by a US Navy nuclear sub).

The endurance thing of course is limited by the human factor. There's only so much food which can be stored and when supplies run low that's when the sub heads for home. Or if crew members fall sick and have to be evacuated. In which event the vessel breaks surface and the sailor or sailors are transferred to the nearest warship. Breaking surface is a serious issue for submariners. The vessel is at its most vulnerable when on the surface, visible to enemy satellites, maritime reconnaissance aircraft and other ships. Yet it has to be done not only for the reason mentioned earlier.

"Tactical indiscretion", meaning deliberately making yourself visible in order to rise to periscope depth and take a look at the situation on the surface, is required. This happens more often in the case of conventional subs that need to recharge batteries (which is done on the surface). The sub remains "visible" at a maximum depth of 50 metres, beyond that it vanishes and can be detected only by sonar.

The Chakra is reckoned among the quietest of Russian built subs. It's also rated the best when it comes to crew comfort. With all that heat generated by the reactor. There's enough to run a sauna for the crew. It's one way of keeping up morale when operationally deployed. The point is you can't bathe everyday (one could argue in the airconditioned confines of a sub one really doesn't need to).

All crew wear medicated cotton clothing, one set for around three to four days which is then disposed off. Duty schedules are tough: three hours on and 6 hours off. Day and night lose all meaning when underwater, time only matters when your shift ends or begins. And since this is all about being unseen and unheard (except of course when the order to strike is given) the name silent service is quite appropriate.


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More about Surya Gangadharan

Surya Gangadharan is International Affairs Editor at CNN IBN and was in Egypt to cover the anti-government movement. He has covered wars in Afghanistan, the UN intervention in Somalia and Rwanda, elections in Pakistan and the civil conflict in Sri Lanka where he interviewed the top leadership of that time. He has worked for the Straits Times Group in Singapore and also for PTI, the Indian Express and India Today in India.
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