If you were treading water and you reached out and touched the sound absorbent anechoic tiles, glued on the skin like a giant jigsaw puzzle, you might feel a mild thrum coming from within the monster. It would give you the sense that it was alive. It would be like touching the shoulder blades of a crouching puma, waiting for a gazelle calf to stray a bit closer.
And while still treading water, if you looked up, you would barely make out the upward curve of the immense 14-metre wide hull against the overcast skies that appeared to merge with the dark grey of the sea. The behemoth’s grey-black titanium skin had a mat finish, reflecting no light, appearing dull and sinister, even in the phosphorescence of the waves that lashed against it.
Through the night, as the winds had steadily picked up, the waves beginning to crest at 30ft, the Chakra lay half submerged, having shoved aside 8140 tons of the Arabian Sea. Every once in a while, it’s entire 110 metre length disappeared from view as a big one swept over it, leaving only the bridge and the conning tower clear. The wave action, which could easily have capsized a fair-sized fishing trawler, caused the Chakra little or no discomfort. The massive vessel pitched and rolled gently as the wave crests jostled it, much like fans at the ropes, trying to get a closer glimpse of the matinee idol at a premiere.
And a premiere it was surely going to be. This was the Chakra’s first deployment.
Designed and built at the Amur Shipbuilding Plant, 800kms north of Vladivostok, the construction of the nuclear attack submarine, the Nerpa, began in 1992 but had to be halted three years on, for lack of funding. The vessel lay like a dinosaur carcass in the shipyard for the next four years, until October 1999, when Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to the facility and announced the infusion of fresh funds and the restart of construction.
The sub was completed, upgraded with the latest in armaments, navigation, sonar and hydraulics. Finally, at a brief ceremony in January 2012, the Nerpa passed into history as it donned the Indian tri-color and was reborn, INS Chakra-2.
Besides having an awesome array of fire-power, certain design features (which I am not at liberty to reveal to you), make the Chakra a very deadly adversary. Virtually undetectable, defence industry analysts agree that the Chakra is quite a few years ahead of the stealth technology that is incorporated in the comparable Los Angeles Class nuclear attack submarines of the US.
The Chakra’s stealth superiority was immortalized in the Tom Clancy novel,” The hunt for Red October,’ a work in which the author had credited the larger 30000tonne Typhoon class ballistic missile submarines with the new stealth design, just for dramatic effect.
Capable of speeds of upto 33knots (62km/hr) as it slices through the waters at a depth of 600 metres, the Chakra’s 32MW nuclear reactor powers a steam turbine that has the combined locomotive power of 43500 horses. The Chakra is also capable of staying submerged for upto a hundred days without reprovisioning.
The grey of the eastern horizon was beginning to lighten now and the waves were abating at the same time. Not a very comforting thing when you considered the fact that you were well inside Pakistani territorial waters – in fact just over the horizon from Karachi’s Clifton Beach.
“Periscope depth…” Lt Commander Kushilab Bose’s disembodied voice came over the PA system,” Our package is delayed, looks like.” There was a collective sigh of relief at the order. Within seconds, the sub began to hum imperceptibly as the Arabian Sea gushed into the honeycomb-like chambers between the inner and outer hulls.
The vessel began to settle deeper as on-board computers choreographed a complex system of hydraulic cylinders, in order to regulate the flow of the in-rushing waters and keep the Chakra on even keel. In a minute, the hull was completely submerged and only 5ft of the periscope stuck out of the water. The powerful motors that controlled the hydraulics wound down with a low-pitched whine and the huge vessel stabilized at that shallow depth as it continued to lie in wait, performing a slow roll and pitch, roll and pitch, dancing in unison with the wave action.
There was now only the slap of the crests against the periscope as it turned on it’s bearings over a 90degree arc, scanning the northern horizon, in the direction of the the Pakistani coastline. Inside the operations, radio room, galley, crews’ quarters, there was complete silence. A marker pen rolled back and forth between parallels on the map table and an eerie amber light filled the cavernous space.
Lt Cmdr Bose and his XO, Kumbakonam Kannappa, Kay Kay to his peers and superiors, stood at the chart table, waiting, faces like granite, every sense inside them going over and over the order. And the order had been clear. Vice-Admiral Sudipto Basu was not given to grey areas in his command at Visakhapatnam, home of the Chakra – “ Wait 30 minutes and then get the hell out of there.”
The coundown showed that 39 minutes had passed since the sub had parked itself at it’s present station. Bose knew that he had stepped beyond the mission parameters and was essentially now on his own.
“Unidentified surface craft approaching, skipper.” On the Chakra, ranks and formality are dispensed with once you leave the pen and head out into the ocean. When you’re inside a sealed titanium shell hundreds of metres under the waves and know that hostile action is just one of the many ways you could meet your maker, ranks cease to have any meaning. The strict chain of command is however maintained at all times.
The 26yr old sonar specialist, Homiyar Billimoria, continued,”Probably a zodiac. Range to target 500m and closing.”
Bose went to the periscope,”Bearing please.”
“North 20 deg east.”
The skipper swivelled the periscope around and steadied it, “I have a visual. Seems to be three occupants on it.”
“The zodiac just stopped. Range to target 200m.”
Kushilab Bose switched on the powerful klieg light on the periscope and started tapping rapidly…..”Did you get any thunder today?”
On the surface the zodiac had halted and was now riding the swells. It had three men in it, all heavily bearded, two of them in their early thirties and the third a bespectacled, slightly overweight and much older man. One of the two younger men fished out a powerful fog light in his right hand while he adjusted his binoculars. Pointing the light toward the barely visible periscope, his fingers started tapping on the light switch, flashing the powerful beam on and off with practiced ease….”No, just rain. Mitra is here. He’s cold.”
“Stay where you are and do not approach. This warning will not be repeated.”
A barely perceptible high-frequency whine signalled the release of the ballast as the sub started rising and once again took up position half out of the water. The forward hatch openned and two men emerged with stubby Heckler and Koch machine pistols strapped to the backs of their rubber suits. They hauled out a dinghy which was ready to go in seconds and soon they were cutting through the water toward the stationary zodiac.
Bose watched as the two boats met up, remained motionless for a few moments while the commandos gave the three arrivals a patdown. “The package is ready to be delivered…”
“Bring him in.”
The bearded old man had to be maneuvered carefully down the hatch as, besides being unprepared for such physical exertion, he was hogtied with duct-tape and drugged. His two younger companions were nowhere to be seen.
“Secure hatches. KK, check-list please. Down scope.”
“Dive. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
As the old man came to, his eyes tried to adjust themselves to the strange amber-lit surroundings. So different from the cool, shaded room inside the mosque he had made his home for the past twenty years. Already, the floor beneath him was tilting forward perceptibly as the Chakra once again started taking on ballast and headed out to open seas.
An ensign thrust a cup of steaming tea in his hands, while another drew a tiny amount of blood from his thumb tip and disappeared with it. He was back in a minute, with a perfect match and this time, a tallish, grey haired man in civvies emerged from the shadows and stood confronting the old man. He reached inside a folder and drew out a single sheet of paper. On the top right hand corner of the sheet was the Ashok Chakra.
The man in civvies cleared his throat and began,”It is my duty, as an officer of the Government of India, to charge you, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, with the planning and execution of the cold blooded killing of 202 Indian citizens and 21 persons of other nationalities in six separate assaults in………” The man’s voice droned on but the old man had tuned out. He bowed his head as if in remorse and supplication. He brought his hands together, each hand snaking into the opposite sleeve.
Once hidden inside the sleeve, the old man’s right index finger began scouring around the crook of his left elbow till he found it, a slight bump under the skin. The stitches had gone but the bruise around the bump was still fresh, the implant having been put there just two weeks prior, by a surgeon on ISI payroll. A malicious grin spread over his wrinkled face as the old man’s lips started forming the words ‘Allah-ho-Akbar’ and he pressed the spring-loaded switch. He waited. Nothing happened.
“There cannot be any peace till India remains intact. Cut them. Cut them so much that they kneel before you and beg for mercy,” the man in civvies was reading from the sheet of paper he held in his hand. He paused, put the sheet back into the folder and looked down upon the cowering heap. This time there was naked contempt in his voice, ” Well? Don’t the words sound familiar? Of course they do. They were yours.”
The old man’s face changed. Bewildered, he desperately turned till his eyes came to rest on the two bearded aides he’d brought along with him. He had trusted them with his life. They had come along, willing, they said, to die with him tonight. The two were now standing slouched against the bulkhead, mugs of coffee in hand and smirks on their faces. The T-shirts they’d changed into, bore patches on both shoulders and the patches had a logo on them. That of a crocodile, it’s head reared up, jagged teeth bared and it’s tail aloft in an arc, ready to strike. Along the curve of the tail was a single acronym, one that had drawn respect from even Israel’s Mistaravim. It said, ‘MARCOS’.
The old man’s wrinkles now stretched to an ugly snarl as he screamed, “Haramzada!” and scrambled to rise. He would have made it to his feet had the single 9mm parabellum slug not slammed into his throat at a little above the speed of sound, tearing flesh and cartilage, pulverising his lower cervical vertibrae and coming to rest inside the steel wool padding of the seat he had been made to sit on.
You’re not supposed to set off a firearm inside a nuclear submarine. But then, who said this is a conventional war?