Murphy's Law: The Endless Exorcism


October 10, 2010: Russia is having trouble letting go. Two months ago it was announced that India had finally received the Russian Akula II SSN (nuclear attack submarine) Nerpa it has leased for ten years. The Indian crew was standing by. The 7,000 ton Akula II requires a crew of 73 highly trained sailors, and the Indian sailors needed to get aboard the Akula class boat to complete their training.

But it turns out that the Indian crew never actually took possession. There were more problems with the Nerpa, and Russia wants to hang on to the boat, to get everything fixed, until next March. And maybe a little more time after that. The Nerpa already has a reputation as a cursed boat, and the exorcism keeps taking longer than expected.

The Nerpa was built for this Indian deal, and finally completed its sea trials and was accepted into Russian service last December. India was supposed to take possession last May, but there were more delays. The Indian crew for the sub has been ready for nearly two years.

Most of the delay stems from an event two years ago, when, while undergoing sea trials, there was an accidental activation of the fire extinguisher system. This killed twenty sailors and civilians, and injured more than twenty. There were 208 people aboard the sub at the time, most of them navy and shipyard personnel there to closely monitor all aspects of the sub as it made its first dives and other maneuvers. The source of the fatal accident was poor design and construction of the safety systems on the sub. This accident led to sailors and shipyard technicians being fearful of going to sea on the boat. So the sea trials were delayed, even after repairs were made.

The Nerpa is to be renamed the INS Chakra (the same name used by the Charlie class Russian sub India leased from 1988-91) as soon as the Indians take possession. The post-accident modifications on the Nerpa have cost $65 million so far, and may go north of $100 million. The lease arrangement has India paying $178,000 a day, for ten years, for use of the sub, but only after they take possession.

It was Indian money that enabled Russia to complete construction on at least two Akulas. These boats were less than half finished at the end of the Cold War. This was another aftereffect of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Several major shipbuilding projects were basically put on hold (which still cost a lot of money), in the hopes that something would turn up. In this case, it was Indians with lots of cash.

Traditionally, when a new ship loses lots of people during sea trials, it is regarded as "cursed" and unlucky. Sailors can be a superstitious lot, especially when there are dead bodies involved. It's not known if India will have any problems with this. Russia seems keen on making sure the Indians have no complaints once they get their nuke.

India has designed and built its own nuclear sub, but the first one is basically a development craft, and mass production of Indian designed nuclear subs is still 5-10 years away. The unlucky Russian sub will enable India to train more nuclear sub sailors in the meantime.





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