The ATV Unbound Part II: The INS Chakra Joyride

We took on lease a Russian nuclear submarine way back in 1988 and it was re-christened INS Chakra. It was to stay with us for three years. First, a little on what this Russian sub was.

It was a 670A Skat series submarine bearing the number K-43 (Charlie class by NATO classification) with eight Ametist (SS-N-7 Starbright) anti-ship missile launchers. It was a 1960s vintage submarine and was decommissioned after it was returned on the termination of the lease. The Charlie class was originally planned in the Soviet Union as a small, 'mass-production' attack submarine. They were re-designed to carry the SS-N-9 SSM, which had been planned for the Papa class. This change was presumably made to deal with the high cost of the Papa design, which clearly could not be built in sufficient numbers. A further change resulted when the SS-N-9 missile was not ready in time for the Charlie class, forcing the substitution of the SS-N-7, a modified version of the venerable SS-N-2 Styx. The Charlie class could fire missiles while submerged, unlike the previous SSG/SSGN classes.

What was the real objective of taking a sub on lease? The fond hope was that if we take a Russian nuke sub on lease, we could learn to operate it and God willing, even learn to make it by reverse engineering merely by looking at it. "People in the Navy high-command, atomic agencies and DRDO who misled the government into believing in such a childish argument deserve to be cashiered." One cannot reverse engineer even a motorbike by looking at it. Even the most elementary knowledge of mechanical engineering should convince one that you require detailed machine designs for making anything — merely looking at it for three years is of no consequence. And they thought that they could reverse engineer a nuclear reactor.

The submarine incidentally came with Russian guards who did not allow our people to even touch the reactor. The Russian online daily Kommersant had later confirmed that while Chakra was on lease the Russians did not allow the Indians access to the reactor. "We played with the sub for three years and then returned it." How could such a stupid decision have be taken in the first place? Was it not clarified in the beginning as to what the terms of lease would be? Why was it such a surprise? Or did someone genuinely expect that he would be able to decipher the secrets of the nuclear reactor of the submarine by looking at it from a distance or operating the consoles for a sufficiently long time?

The simple fact is that while the Russians had provided detailed designs of the leased submarine the designs of the reactor and drawings were not provided for the simple reason that providing reactor design details would have been a violation of the NPT. How is it that such a simple thing did not go into the heads of those who took the decision? Was this unprecedented intellectual bankruptcy? Or was it all a part of the operation to cover up the bungling?

The total cost of the lease was approximately Rs 360 crore at the rate of Rs 120 crore a year. And it wasn't all smooth sailing either. The Navy News and Undersea Technology (November 13, 1989) reported that radiation problems on the submarine were responsible for the death of at least one Indian scientist on board the submarine. It is suspected that these radiation problems could also have played a role in the termination of the contract with the Soviet Union. These are not reports -- these are facts.

It may be kept in mind that India's first indigenously-constructed diesel-electric submarine, the INS Shalki, a license-produced Type 209 Class 1500, was commissioned 25 years after the Navy established the first submarine squadron. The Shalki was built at the East Yard of the Mazgaon Dock Ltd. (MDL). Construction stated in 1984, and it was launched in September 1989.

The point to be noted is that in 1985 someone in the establishment wanted to gain operating experience of nuclear submarines even as we were yet to build a diesel-electric submarine of our own. Obviously the Navy and scientific establishment had led the decision-makers to believe that they would deliver the nuke submarine shortly. Why did they fail to notice that that fabrication of the Shalki had taxed the MDL's capabilities to the limit, resulting in a 20 per cent cost over-run, and the delivery of the submarine was 15 months late. This was admitted by P.K. Mukherjee, general manager of MDL's East Yard himself. The Shalki has cost the Indian navy some Rs 1.8 billion ($450 million). And it was not really an wholly indigenous affair. Raw materials such as high-strength HY-80 steel and pipes had to be imported but were cut, formed and welded in India.

In 1990, there was a massive row in Visakhapatnam between a DRDO materials scientist and a senior Naval officer from the ENC. Both were arguing over drinks and things got out of hand. The officer argued that the Chakra was a good idea -- the scientist argued that it was not, and that nothing was being learnt. It was, what he called, an "expensive joyride" with absolutely no returns. The officer, far senior to the scientist, famously (in Navy circles) lost his cool and poured the beer onto the scientist's lap and ordered him to leave. Two years after the lease, opinion was starkly divided.

It should be obvious that the decision to take the nuke sub on lease was not only premature, it was a hasty decision based on the wishful thinking and false promises of the scientific establishment and in part, the Navy itself. And the nation was poorer by Rs 360 crore in the process -- that's the bottomline. Nobody can argue that operating INS Chakra gave us experience of operating a nuclear submarine. The utter folly of the decision stands exposed in all its starkness as 31 years later, all personnel who served on the INS Chakra [including one of the contributors to this piece] have retired now and the so-called experience has gone with them—we never got a nuke sub of our own in these three decades on which they could practice the experience or pass it on to others.

(Next, Part III: The ATV's Missiles)

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