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Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Tribute to INS Sindhurakshak: Sailing in a Submarine

(Between 2004 & 2006, I was living a military junkie’s dream. We had unprecedented access to life along India’s frontiers for my show ‘Line of Duty’ on Times Now. Among many firsts, we were onboard a submarine to film sub-surface warfare exercises at sea. What follows is the story of what it was like to be in the company of submariners – men who may not flaunt the glamour of fighter pilots or commandoes, but do no less confront death every time they sail out to sea.)

INS Sindhurakshak. Protector of the Sea. Will no longer be in operation. 18 submariners martyred in the Line of Duty.

I can’t help but go back in time to the 3 days I had spent in a similar Kilo class Russian diesel-electric submarine. My team and I were filming the lives of submariners deployed at sea. I distinctly remember my first impressions - you have to be insane to sign up for this 24X7 claustrophobia where days and nights can often merge for weeks in a painfully constricting capsule.

That’s not all. You are sailing ‘20,000 leagues under the sea’ in a ‘bomb-shop’, locked in with deadly missiles and torpedoes. God forbid, if something went wrong, the end maybe a violently painful one. Who, in their right minds would volunteer? (Yes, we discovered submarine appointments are only by choice!) Then again, the joke among submariners is that they’re all a little mad. As one of them candidly revealed, "It’s the freedom I have in a confined space that I miss the most when I'm not on a sub". Ironic, huh? 

For most of us, submarines are creatures of mystery. Whether it was Captain Nemo and his secret submarine created by Jules Verne, the WW2 stories of Navies and their U-Boats, or even the Cold War, where these weapons of stealth played cat and mouse games under the sea. Honestly, in the world of operational subs, the rules of the game haven’t changed very much. Even today, submarine warfare is as classified as before. Because there is only rule – stay hidden to stay alive. 

You’re lethal only as long as your location is a secret under the sea. If that’s out, you are a sitting duck. It’s like playing a game of 3 dimensional chess with blindfolds on – your sonar has to track and trap the enemy before the enemy can trap and destroy you!

So, Navies go to a great extent to hide their submarines, even during peacetime drills. We were told that when an Indian submarine sets out, her mission is a closely guarded secret. Not even the Captain is detailed about the assignment. The brief lies sealed in an envelope in his cabin, and he opens it when his boat is well away from harbour. At sea, there is no contact with anyone on shore. The only sign that a submarine is safe is a designated signal sent out to a pre-determined place. Sounds straight out of a Robert Ludlum novel, doesn’t it?

We were lucky enough to get on board a sub as it sailed out for a mission. Day 1 was all about loading the boat – stocking up the larder, the logistics and arming her for combat. As she may not touch land for up to 45 days, tonnes of ration went into her belly… from fresh fruits and vegetables to canned rations and tetra-packs that last longer.

As we slid down the monkey ladder and explored the sub, compartment-by-compartment, I felt as if I was in the belly of a giant machine – the whole place is wired up, there are just too many valves and switches and everything seems to have multiple connections. And if you are bigger or taller than average, then get ready for a few bruises and a permanent hunch :)

 The man responsible for all this wiring is the Electrical Officer. He described the submarine as an “animal under the sea controlled by man – it has blood in the form of hydraulics, sensors as brains, and torpedoes to attack & defend”. I couldn’t think of a more apt metaphor.

We did manage to get access to the torpedo room - this really is the business end of the sub! Because at the end of the day, she is a weapons platform and her job is to neutralize targets. We got to film the loading of these deadly torpedoes as they were guided into tubes – I was surprised to see that it takes about 4 to 6 submariners to load the weapon and one of them actually crawls through the length of the tube to bring it in. It’s like squeezing through a wormhole between war and peace. 

Although, a fairly routine operation every time the submarine sails out, this is a high precision job. And you can almost hear a collective sigh of relief, every time a torpedo is successfully loaded. As the Captain of the sub told us, “For a man in uniform, there is no peace ever. There is either war or preparation for war!” 

Once the submarine leaves the harbour, it’s time for her to disappear. And when she dives, it’s a state of high alert within the boat. Her nerve centre is the Control Room where she requires everyone’s undivided attention. As the ballast tanks let the water in, you can almost hear her squeak and moan. A small mistake and things can pop…  water can rush it, and God forbid if she ever sinks below her maximum permissible depth, the pressure can crush her. She can go off like a bomb! It’s a chilling experience for anyone on board the first time. Yet, for submariners this is routine - just like a cup of tea in the morning!

Routine in a sub is also about living life in 3 hour cycles - watch shifts, maintenance shifts, emergency drills and a few winks. And making the most of confined spaces. What do you do if there are 30 bunks for 70 men? You hot-bunk! Grab a quick nap between shifts and while you’re away, let someone else take over your bed. We realised that submariners have actually made a habit of multi-tasking. For instance, the Officer’s Mess doubles up as a Home Theatre, triples up as a cabin with bunk beds and is also equipped to turn into an Operation Theatre during a medical emergency! 

Also have to admit that we had the most delicious food in the submarine – alu-pooris and hot gulab jamuns. But when we went to film the kitchen, we were shocked by its size. There is barely enough space for 2 people to stand, and yet, this is where 3 meals for almost 70 people are prepared everyday. This is space and design innovation at its best! 

In this world of uniformed men and their hierarchy, I discovered that submariners have another quirk. No submariner wears his rank at sea. All of them change into medicated disposables – a use and throw cotton uniform that’s the same for everyone. Quite a leveler, don’t you think? 

Well, 3 days was barely enough to do justice to the life of a submariner. But it was enough for us to get claustrophobic. Yet, it felt as if the sea morphs into some kind of a seductive mistress for these submariners. Despite the danger and the drawbacks, they crave to go back to her again and again. Why, you may ask?   Well, I think I’d like to believe what the Captain said about his men, “We’re all here to train harder than the enemy will fight, only then we will fight harder than the enemy has trained.”