Thursday, 15 August 2013

INS Sindhurakshak - obsessed with the sabotage angle

Via Times of India -

This is getting ridiculous. Who are the 'veteran submariners' in question? Why is there such a fuss about sabotage? And who claims that Sindhurakshak was heading for the Pakistani coast on patrol? The last claim in particular is downright toxic. Dubious reporting of this nature doesn't help the mounting India-Pakistan tension at the moment, especially since blowing up another nation's submarine is an open act of war.

Some of the points in the article are very questionable indeed. To refute some of the things-

1. "Submarines have a sprinkler system" - Submarines don't carry sprinklers that spray water and foam like surface ships, due to very restricted liquid storage and the need to use the fire suppression system underwater, where the pressure of the seawater outside would simply flood the entire submarine. The subs use gas-based fire suppression systems, in case of the Russians, Freon-based systems. These use on-board refrigerants to displace the oxygen from the region of a blaze while the crew put on their gas masks, and this system is typically triggered manually to prevent an accident. An automatic version of this system caused an accident on the submarine K-152 Nerpa in 2008 - ironically, that's the same nuclear leased to the Indian Navy as the INS Chakra.

Since Freon works by displacing oxygen, a fire that doesn't need oxygen from the surrounding air - such as that caused by peroxide leaking and reacting with metal to release oxygen, or burning rocket propellants (which use their own oxidizer) won't be affected from Freon like a normal fire would. The possible culprits for the fire are the same materials that won't be put out by Freon. If Sindhurakshak used a manually triggered system, it is possible that the crews in the command spaces couldn't activate it,

2. "Missiles and torpedoes carry multiple layers of protection" - the level of protection varies from weapon to weapon, with the highest levels of protection being reserved for warhead safety. And it's a known fact that some of the weapons aboard the submarine - the 53-65 torpedoes in particular - are pretty dangerous by design and require very careful handling.

3. I'm going to argue against sabotage from the point of view of accident investigation. Sabotage is the laziest, lowest-effort explanation possible, and it places the blame entirely on easily acceptable targets (spies, traitors, terrorists, et cetera) rather than taking into account an objective view of the event. Accidents involving large, complex systems sometimes have a long chain of failures - it just needs one failure not to happen to prevent the entire accident.

For instance, the 1967 fire on the Aircraft Carrier USS Forrestal involved its own chain of failures - bringing aboard decaying World War Two era bombs, the loss of the safety pins in the rocket pods due to high wings, plugging in the pods early to reduce takeoff time, the randomness of electrical short circuits, and the loss of the ship's fire control team during their heroic attempt to delay a catastrophic explosion as long as possible. In 2002, a Boeing 747 blew up due to poorly repaired damage from a tailstrike 22 years earlier - damage that would have been caught in another few months - showing that old accidents can set up time bombs for the future.

If the system aboard the submarine had multiple levels of safeguards, there were likely multiple levels of failure involved. Finding the answer may be hard, but it mattters to the safety of everyone who serves aboard these vessels - not just in the Indian Navy but all over the world. Seeking out sabotage before all accidental causes have been conclusively ruled out is a grave disservice to submariners.

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