Submarines: Indian Kilo Mysteriously Explodes

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August 21, 2013: On August 14th a Russian built Kilo class sub belonging to India (INS Sindhurakshak) seemed to catch fire and explode while docked near Mumbai. The 16 year old submarine had recently returned from Russia after an $80 million refurbishment. Eighteen sailors were killed as the sub sank at dockside. The cause appears to have been an accident but an investigation will try to determine if it was caused by human error or equipment failure. Indians fear the latter because there have always been quality control problems with Russian built equipment, especially ships, armored vehicles, and aircraft. There have been several cases of Russian munitions exploding accidentally and sinking or heavily damaging the ships or subs they were on. Even these Kilo refurbishments have had quality control problems. The lost Kilo had returned from the Russian refurbishment in January and successfully completed a three month shakedown cruise. All indications are that everything was in good order and there were no known problems with the crew or the boat. The recent accident is likely the result of something (small fire, maintenance work) causing one of the torpedoes or Klub missiles to detonate. Diesel-electric boats like the Kilo are cramped and contain a lot of flammable stuff inside. Once the sunk sub is raised, the forensic experts can go inside and reconstruct exactly what happened. Most of the evidence is trapped inside the pressure hull of the sub and what exploded and when can easily be determined by reassembling the pieces and running chemical analysis on fragments.

India bought ten Kilo class boats between 1986 and 2000. All ten are still in service. The Kilos weigh 2,300 tons (surface displacement), have six torpedo tubes, and a crew of 57. They are quiet and can travel about 700 kilometers under water at a quiet speed of about five kilometers an hour. Kilos carry 18 torpedoes or Klub anti-ship missiles (with a range of 300 kilometers and launched underwater from the torpedo tubes). The combination of quietness and cruise missiles makes the Kilo very dangerous to American carriers. But for the Russians their Kilos are mostly for home defense. Nuclear subs are used for the long distance work.

The Kilo class boats entered service in the early 1980s. Russia only bought 24 of them but exported over 30. It was considered a successful design, especially with export customers. But just before the Cold War ended in 1991, the Soviet Navy began work on the Lada. This project was stalled during most of the 1990s, by a lack of money, but was revived in the last decade. Russia has 17 Kilos in service (and six in reserve) and six Improved Kilos on order. More than that is on order from foreign customers.

Four years ago India went all in with the Klub missile, agreeing to have four more of its ten Kilo class submarines equipped with the Russian 3M54 ("Klub") anti-ship missiles. At that point only two Indian Kilo boats currently had the Klub, and that was only after some troublesome testing.

And then there are the quality issues. Five years ago India finally accepted the Russian refurbishment of one of its Kilos, the INS Sindhuvijay. The year before, India had refused to accept the refurbished Kilo because of repeated failures of the subs Klub missiles it was now equipped with. The Indian sub had test fired six Klubs in late 2007, and all failed. The Russians had no explanation for the failures. That boat had been in Russia for over two years, for $80 million worth of upgrades and repairs. India refused to pay, or take back the sub, until Russia fixed the problems with the missiles. This the Russians eventually did, and there were several successful Klub that persuaded the Indians to accept the Klub equipped boat.

The Klub missile is a key weapon for the Kilo. Weighing two tons, and fired from a 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tube, the 3M54 has a 200 kg (440 pound) warhead. The anti-ship version has a range of 300 kilometers and speeds up to 3,000 kilometers an hour during its last minute or so of flight. There is also an air launched and ship launched version. A land attack version does away with the high speed final approach feature and has an 880 pound warhead.

Missiles like Klub are considered "carrier killers," but it's not known how many of them would have to hit a carrier to knock it out of action, much less sink it. Moreover, Russian missiles have little combat experience and a reputation for erratic performance. Quality control was never a Soviet strength but the Russians are getting better, at least in the civilian sector. The military manufacturers appear to have been slower to adapt.

India plans to use the Klub against Pakistani, or Chinese, ships in any future conflict.

 


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