NEW DELHI - India’s defense minister says a massive explosion aboard a diesel-powered submarine at a dockyard in Mumbai has killed some of the 18 sailors on board. The apparent accident comes as the Indian navy has been modernizing its fleet and recently celebrated the launch of a newly-built aircraft carrier.
Navy divers managed to open a hatch and enter the sunken submarine late Wednesday, many hours after a huge explosion ripped through the vessel berthed at a naval dockyard in Mumbai. But there has been no contact with the 18 sailors who are trapped inside the boat.
Defense Minister A.K. Antony confirmed there have been casualties.
"I feel sad also about those navy personnel who lost their lives in the service of the country," he said.
Navy Chief D.K. Joshi acknowledged there is only a slim chance of finding survivors, saying “We hope for the best, but we have to prepare for the worst.” He said three sailors had jumped to safety following the explosion.
Admiral Joshi said two near-simultaneous explosions just before midnight resulted in the fire. But he said it was difficult to pinpoint what caused the “catastrophe” aboard one of India’s most advanced submarines.
“It is some of the ordnance which appears to have exploded, which particular ordnance exploded we do not know at this point in time," Joshi said.
Eyewitnesses in Mumbai described an enormous ball of fire that lit the sky in the dockyard area. More than a dozen fire engines fought the blaze for two hours.
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The diesel-powered, Russian-built submarine INS Sindhurakshak, was inducted into the navy earlier this year after undergoing a two-and-one-half-year, $80 million upgrade in Russia.
It had suffered an accident before it went for a retrofit: in 2010 one sailor was killed on the vessel, apparently due to a hydrogen leak.
Joshi said an inquiry will be completed in a month to establish the cause of the explosion, but he suggested it was an accident.
“We of course cannot rule out the possibility of sabotage, although the indicators at this time do not strongly support that," he said. "It is essentially an onboard explosion.”
Defense analysts said the INS Sindhurakshak was fitted with modern electronic-warfare systems, torpedoes and missiles. The submarine’s loss comes at a time when the navy’s submarine fleet is depreciating and will affect India’s naval preparedness, said Rahul Bedi with Jane’s Defense Weekly in New Delhi.
“It operates 14 submarines of which about 12 are operational, eight of them are Russian, four of them are German and some of these are also up for retirement over the next year or so," he said. "So losing one submarine, which had been recently refitted and retrofitted, is a major loss to the navy.”
The incident comes just days after the Indian navy was celebrating major achievements in its defense preparedness. On Monday, an Indian designed and built aircraft carrier was launched, marking a big leap in the country’s technological ability to meet its defense needs. Prior to that, a reactor on the first Indian-built nuclear submarine became operational.
India wants to build a strong navy to counter China in the Indian Ocean region.