MUMBAI – A diesel-powered Indian submarine exploded and sank Wednesday in a Mumbai dock, leaving 18 sailors missing and the navy counting the cost of a major setback in its ambitious modernization program.
The fully armed INS Sindhurakshak, returned by Russia in January after a major refit, is nose-down in the water, with just a small part visible above the surface, the navy said.
India’s defense minister described the explosion as the “greatest tragedy in recent time,” saying people were killed in the explosion, without giving further details. “I feel sad about those navy personnel who have lost their lives in service of the country,” A.K. Antony said.
The blast came days after New Delhi trumpeted the launch of its first domestically produced aircraft carrier and the start of sea trials for its first Indian-made nuclear submarine.
Grainy amateur video footage shows a fierce explosion in the forward section of the vessel, which lit up the sky at the naval dockyard shortly after midnight.
“The cause of the explosion is not known. We are searching for the 18 personnel,” navy spokesman Narendra Kumar Vispute said. He said divers had been deployed once the flames were extinguished by fire trucks.
An inquiry into the cause of the explosion has been ordered amid speculation about what might have caused the fire. One senior navy officer said the “needle of suspicion” was on the battery system, but he stressed that these were early assumptions.
Navy spokesman P.V.S. Satish confirmed that the fire broke out in the forward section where the battery system and torpedoes are located.
A spokesman for the Russian Zvyozdochka company, which overhauled INS Sindhurakshak, said that India raised no objections about the vessel when it was returned in January.
Rahul Bedi, a defense expert with IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, said the submarine was commissioned from Russia in 1997 and lacked some modern safety features common to newer vessels.
“They don’t have escape routes in the event of accidents unlike some of the modern submarines,” he said.