The Strait of Malacca
For even a seasoned nuclear submariner, navigating the Sea of Japan is a truly scary experience. These are the busiest waters of the world. Busy, with regard to submarine traffic. Aside from the Russians, the Chinese, the Koreans and the Japanese, who have the right to be there since it is their backyard, this part of the world’s oceans plays host also to US subs of all types, from Los Angeles-Class attack subs to those 19000 ton Ohio-Class ballistic missile behemoths.
To a sonar technician hunched over his console, slugging endless cups of coffee, headphones glued to his ears, the Sea of Japan feels like a blue-water version of Times Square in New York, if one could draw an analogy.
The ‘traffic congestion’ was far worse in the 80s than it is now. Then, you could find every class of sub there was. Ballistic missile subs, hunter-killer attack subs, cruise missile subs, diesel-electric subs, you name it and the Sea of Japan had it snooping around somewhere inside its murky depths, armed to the teeth. The combined firepower under the surface was frightening and the chances of a sleep-deprived sonar technician, bungling distances inside that opaque soup, were hair-trigger.
If you were just passing through, in peace, you made sure you made a lot of noise so everybody knew exactly who and where you were and left you alone. Switch off your active sonar and you could be asking for trouble.
We had no enemies in that part of the world and therefore we made damned sure we weren’t deliberately quiet. We did a steady 22 knots, occasionally rising to periscope depth, to take a quick look-see and then dived back into the surreal haze.
Somewhere along, a Chinese Jin-Class SSBN latched on and doggedly kept pace at 1500 meters, joined a day later on the surface by a North Korean OSA-1 missile frigate.
Every time the Sindhudhanush came up to periscope depth, so did the Chinese. It looked as though the roadside romeos were out eyeballing the new bride, while she was being carried in her palki through their mohalla. We could have taken evasive action of course. Just to test the Chinese’s nerves, we could have dived deeper, right up to our test depth, to see how far he would dare. We didn’t.
Let me explain about diving depths on a sub. Depth ratings are the measure of a submarine’s ability to operate underwater and limited only by the strength of it’s hull. The pressure of the water outside increases by around one atmosphere, every ten meters. The deeper you plan to go, the stronger your hull must be.
The Test depth (approx 500 meters) is the maximum depth at which a submarine is permitted to operate under normal peacetime circumstances and is roughly 80% of the Design depth. Your next-of-kin can sue the manufacturer or your country’s Navy if the sub implodes below the test depth.
The Design depth (usually around 600 meters) is the maximum depth listed in the submarine designer’s manual, where it says that the designer cannot be held responsible for any hull implosions below this depth.
The never-exceed depth (700 meters, give or take) is the maximum depth beyond which a submarine is not allowed to operate under any circumstances. Beyond this depth, the hull’s integrity begins to be compromised. The welds start to give very very gradually, in microscopic increments, unknown and unseen. The never-exceed depth is the last safe depth for the sub, beyond which you are on your own and not very likely to survive the dive. You might have just enough time to recite the Lord’s prayer if you happen to know it by heart.
The crush depth (roughly 800 meters) is the depth at which a submarine’s hull will collapse due to excessive pressure. Being a calculated depth, the crush depth is not always accurate. Submarines have been known to have survived even below the crush depth and have risen, unscathed. But you don’t want to go there unless you are losing ballast and the torpedo tube hatches are breached or you are just plain suicidal. It is also the point at which you start wishing you were a whale.
(The depth figures quoted above are approximate and refer to 6000-ton Charlie Class Russian nuclear subs similar to the Sindhudhanush. If you dive and implode at 400 meters, I shall not be held responsible. The Soviets were never great at quality control).
If the sub does implode under the pressure, you will die, no question about it. Even though the human body itself is essentially water and virtually incompressible, it has too many cavities that won’t stand the pressure. The water will crush your rib cage and squish out your lungs and all the veins and arteries inside your body. Your bones will swiftly develop aseptic bone necrosis and your capillaries will fail. If the water is gradually breaching the vessel, one bulkhead at a time, the pressure on you will build up over 15 to 20 seconds. They say that your eyes will recede, the sockets having turned literally inside out after 7 seconds. A second or two later, your ear drums will implode. Air at sixty atmospheres will force its way through your rectum into your intestines stretching and blowing them apart, leaving a mess within, that resembles fruit salad with papaya in it. All in all, it will be a horrible way to die.
A whale has the ability to withstand pressures of up to 100 atmospheres. It’s body is flexible, it’s ribs bound by loose, bendable cartilage, which allows the rib cage to collapse under pressure. The whale’s lungs too collapse safely as it dives. When it’s lungs collapse in a controlled manner, the air inside them is compressed, thus maintaining a balance between the inside and outside pressure. Sperm whales have been seen diving up to 2200 meters without breaking into a sweat. They have to go down to those depths to get at those yummy giant squid who live there.
Soon after we sailed into the South China Sea, the North Korean melted away, but the Chinese SSBN hung on. Two days from the Strait of Malacca, a Vietnamese Sigma-class corvette fell in but winked off after a while. Ten hours after we finally exited the strait and entered the Andaman Sea, the Dunagiri appeared over the western horizon, took a wide circle and joined escort for the home stretch to Vizag.
A constant fixture whenever we rose to periscope depth was a P3-Orion, flying in figures of eight. Alternating between its outer and inner engines, the turbo-prop driven P3 can remain in the air for over 18 hours at a stretch, filming, eves-dropping, jamming and generally snooping around. And if its tanks can be topped up by a KC-135 Stratotanker and it has a relief crew, it can fly on non-stop for 36 hours, covering over 20000 kms.
Anyway, P3 or no P3, it was calm and sunny on the surface and Capt. Doshi gave the order to surface again. Ventilation, even inside a snazzy new nuclear-powered sub, sucks. After a week you’ll be smelling nothing but dirty socks and farts. The chance to open the hatch and take a stroll outside is gold-plated. Everybody trooped up in turns, including Sasha Karimov and his crew.
Instead of utilizing the time stretching their legs, the Russians took turns jumping up and down, showing the large reconnaissance plane their middle fingers, while Karimov looked on indulgently and laughed. I later heard, to my amusement, that the ever-frisky reactor room technician, Senior Matrose, Ilya Suslov, even pulled his pants down and waved his sizable broggly at the plane. At 10000ft, the high-resolution cameras on the P3 must have recognized an adult commie penis being brandished at it.
The P3 stayed a long while. We assumed it was an American out of the US military base in Subic Bay, Philippines(¹).Later on, the Dunagiri confirmed that the Orion had actually been an Australian from their TUDM Butterworth air base, off Penang.
The dogged pursuit from the Chinese SSGN and the tenacious shadowing of the P-3 were quite understandable. India’s acquiring a nuclear powered submarine was indeed a game-changing event and deserving of the attention. It was not surprising at all, considering the fact that never before had one nation leased out, not only a nuclear-powered submarine but also the technology, to another nation, with very few strings attached. It was military cooperation at its closest. No, let’s call it trust. Military trust like this had never been seen before and hasn’t been seen since, even between the US and Israel or the USSR and China.
As a result of this trust, India has become only the sixth nation after the US, UK, USSR, China and France, to acquire and indigenously build nuclear submarines. At the time of writing this memoir, its first indigenous nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, the 6000ton Akula-Class INS Arihant is completing sea trials. Work on a further three has already commenced. When they are ready, they shall be designated Arihant-Class nuclear submarines.
Some nations see nuclear-powered submarines as their sole private reserve. India’s acquiring the Sindhudhanush was being seen with alarm by them. It is a matter of record that the US President, Ronald Reagan, tried his damnedest to scupper the lease deal. The US objections arose at a time of glasnost and perestroika, when it started becoming apparent that the Soviet Union was going to implode (which it did a few years later, in 1991). There were many in high places at the Kremlin who were already busy putting spit and polish on their democratic credentials and checking on interest rates at the banks on Cayman Islands and Zurich. At one point Kremlin seemed ready to back out and even barred the Indian naval personnel from boarding the sub.
That’s when India’s Rajiv Gandhi proved he had more than a bit of his mother, Indira Gandhi, in him. He personally moved Mikhail Gorbachev to re-engage and India finally got the Sindhudhanush. Once the lease was a go, the international media began calling India ‘an emerging superpower’, ‘the new oriental bully’, ‘dark horse to watch’ and so on. That was perhaps the first time that India’s middle finger was up and waving saucily. Boy, did I feel proud.
As we entered the Bay of Bengal, Capt Doshi received an eyes only burst transmission from an IAF Beriev A-50 that had appeared four hours prior and was patiently circling overhead, at 41000ft (The P3 had realized it was by now too far from base and had turned back). The Beriev is basically a modified Russian IL-76 with Israeli Early Warning and Control Technology installed in it. The transmission was patched through by the Dunagiri.
A burst transmission is a spit of an encrypted digital recording that has been speeded up till it is only a fraction of a second long, like when you fast forward a video cassette. Instead of a two-hour long movie, the fast forwarded video tape zips through in around fifteen seconds. A burst transmission is more than a thousand times faster than even that.
At the receiving end, the sub sends up a buoy with a receptor which catches the transmission and relays it down to the sub, where it is slowed down and decoded. (The buoy is necessary because normal radio transmissions don’t travel easily through good conductors like salt water, unless they are very low frequency).
The message said that brass would be there at Vizag, to greet us. C-in-C, FOC-in-C East, FOCEF, the Soviet ambassador, Victor Isakov and our own submarine chief, Commodore Rajaram (Rambo) Desai – COMCOS(E). And the Minister of Defence, the honorable Shri K.C.Pant. And the Prime Minister, the right honorable Shri Rajiv Gandhi. Wow.
In charge of the torpedo room, I prayed I wouldn’t screw it up and launch a torpedo at the pier in my nervous tension. I didn’t, of course. If I had, would I have retired as head of MARCOS(²) like I did?
Those were the days. Memories of another life. It was getting dark now, with only the irregular lines of the phosphorescent wave crests visible. The Amaretsu Maru was long gone and the western horizon had completed melted into the sea. I had been sitting on that perch on the Colaba Seawall too long and now it was time to get back home.
I decide to sweep the waters with the Oberwerk one last time, when the corner of my right eye caught it – a sudden flash, some distance into the waters. It blinked on and off twice. Steadying my hands, I squinted into the eyepiece. This time I acquired the target and held it steady.
The night vision on the Oberwerk was grainy but I had seen that kind of craft multiple times before. We had them in the MARCOS. Zodiacs and there were two of them. I counted five or six men on each. Didn’t look like your typical fisher folk returning home. Fisher folk don’t ride zodiacs.
Last night’s dinner at the Navy Club with Commodore Jimmy Taraporewala, suddenly sprang into my mind. “There is a sudden increase in the chatter, Krish,” he had looked tensed,” we are all antsy as hell.”
(¹) The American military base at Subic Bay, Phillipines, closed down in 1992, when the Americans perceived that, with the break-up of the Soviet Union, there was no longer any commie threat. I understand that, now with rising Islamic militancy in the region (Abu Sayyaf, Al Qaida, et al) and the increased belligerence of the regional bully, China, the lease on the Subic Bay facilities is being renewed for the Americans.
(²) MARCOS – Marine Commando Force : Special Operations Unit of the Indian Navy.