Undersea Diplomacy — An Opportunity for India

By Commodore Aspi Cawasji NM, VSM (Retd.), Indian Navy

By Commodore Aspi Cawasji NM, VSM (Retd.), Indian Navy

Undersea Diplomacy — An Opportunity for India

Submarine rescue operations for submarines in distress were conceived as early as the end of the nineteenth century when the first submarine was designed to attach explosives to moored British ships. As loss of lives on submarines under development mounted, it became apparent that submarine rescue capabilities had also to be given importance. The British submarine program was launched in 1900, but even by the start of World War I in Aug 1914 there was no significant progress as far as rescue facilities were concerned. The Royal Navy which had the largest submarine fleet of 74 boats did not devote much attention towards rescuing the crew from disabled submarines and no major innovations were made. 

Historical Perspective

Breathing apparatus used by coal miners which utilize a soda-lime cartridge that binds large quantities of carbon dioxide for cleaning the air was used as the initial escape systems around 1910. The German Dräger breathing apparatus system utilized in the first submarine escape was used when the German submarine U3 sank in 1911. The Russian Submarine Tender and salvage ship Volkhov carried out its first submarine rescue operation in 1917 continues to remain in service till 1999 after a turbulent string of modifications changing her role from salvage and submarine support to rescue. It was only after the losses of USS S-51 in 1925 and USS S-4 in 1927, the Americans began thinking of ways to rescue sailors who were trapped on sunken submarines and conceived the idea of a diving bell. The diving bell was completed and christened as a Submarine Rescue Chamber (SRC) in late 1930. In 1939, USS Squalus sank due to mechanical failure, resting on the sea bed at a depth of 75m. The SRC was put into operation and the lives of 33 of the 59 Sailors were saved, marking the first successful submarine rescue becoming the trailblazer for the future of submarine rescue.

Image Attribute: A diving bell on the after deck of Falcon (ASR-2) during the early stages of the Squalus (SS-192) salvage operations, May 30, 1939. This is not a McCann Rescue Chamber, but the Momsen-McCann diving bell. This was originally the Seaplane hangar on submarine S-1 (SS-105). When the S-1 program was canceled the Seaplane hangar was salvaged by Charles Momsen, the submarine Commander, for conversion to a rescue Bell. / Courtesy: Photographed by the Portsmouth Navy Yard, Kittery, Maine. Official USN photo USNHC # NH 57503, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Partial text and photo i.d. courtesy of Jeffery G. Scism.

Image Attribute: A diving bell on the after deck of Falcon (ASR-2) during the early stages of the Squalus (SS-192) salvage operations, May 30, 1939. This is not a McCann Rescue Chamber, but the Momsen-McCann diving bell. This was originally the Seaplane hangar on submarine S-1 (SS-105). When the S-1 program was canceled the Seaplane hangar was salvaged by Charles Momsen, the submarine Commander, for conversion to a rescue Bell. / Courtesy: Photographed by the Portsmouth Navy Yard, Kittery, Maine. Official USN photo USNHC #NH 57503, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Partial text and photo i.d. courtesy of Jeffery G. Scism.

A number of similar systems followed like the Davis Submarine Escape Apparatus (DSEA) which was adopted by the Royal Navy in 1929 and the Momsen Lung which was exploited by the United States Navy  (USN) until 1957.

Video Attribute: The Demonstration of Davis Submarine Escape Apparatus (DSEA) / Source: British Pathé

The Royal Navy replaced the DSEA in 1946 with the ‘free ascent’ or ‘blow and go’ technique. Free ascent involved the crew members commencing the ascent with compressed air in their lungs. During the ascent, the escapee breathed out at a controlled rate, allowing air to escape. To aid in the escape, a crew member was made to use a life jacket or buoyant ring. Buoyancy assisted free ascent continues to be practiced by many navies even today.

The sinking of USS Scorpion and Thresher in 1963 at a depth of 2400m which vastly exceeded the capability of 250m by the SRC led the US Navy to think about developing greater dive and rescue capabilities. The realization that the SRC would not work in deep waters led to the initiation of the deep sea rescue program being initiated. After taking into consideration a variety of options, including Russian submarines with in-built escape pods and with entire forward ends that could be blown to the surface, the USN developed the Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV). This was a new mini-submarine capable of deepwater operations which would have to be deployed to independently maneuver and attach itself to the disabled submarine.

Image Attribute: The U.S. Navy Los Angeles-attack submarine USS La Jolla (SSN-701) with the deep submergence rescue vehicle Mystic (DSRV-1) attached, is escorted by the Japanese Coast Guard as it pulls out of Sasebo harbor to participate in the submarine rescue Exercise Pacific Reach 2002. / Source: U.S. Navy, Journalist 3rd Class Wes Eplen - This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID 020425-N-0401E-003 (next).

Image Attribute: The U.S. Navy Los Angeles-attack submarine USS La Jolla (SSN-701) with the deep submergence rescue vehicle Mystic (DSRV-1) attached, is escorted by the Japanese Coast Guard as it pulls out of Sasebo harbor to participate in the submarine rescue Exercise Pacific Reach 2002. / Source: U.S. Navy, Journalist 3rd Class Wes Eplen/ This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID 020425-N-0401E-003.

For timely rescue in distant waters, the new system had to be transportable by air. A highly maneuverable DSRV was developed to meet these requirements which could be flown to the nearest seaport in the vicinity of an accident and then loaded aboard a surface support ship or one of several nuclear submarines which were specially modified to serve as Mother Submarines (MOSUB). The DSRV carrying capacity was of 24 people at a time and offered great flexibility. A ready duty DSRV could be maintained in an operational state so that it could be flown in a heavy-lift cargo plane to a port nearest to the disabled submarine. It could then be placed onboard either a modified VOO or allied submarine.

Image Attribute: The Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle Mystic (DSRV 1) is carefully loaded onto a Russian-built An-124 Condor (Antonov) by Sailors assigned to the U.S. Navy's Deep Submergence Unit (DSU) and the aircraft's crew. The An-124 is owned and operated by the Volga-Dnepr Group based in Russia. The Mystic and 13 members of her crew are being flown to South Korea to participate in Exercise Pacific Reach 2014. / Source: U.S. Navy, Photographer's Mate 1st Class Daniel N. Woods / This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID: 040429-N-7949W-003,

Meanwhile in 1959, the entire crew of a Chinese submarine that collided with a frigate and sank perished. Immediately after this incident, China ordered a rescue ship to be built named Hai Jiu 512 which entered service only in 1969. Subsequent modernized submarine rescue ships were assembled indigenously as Type 946 in 1979 and Type 946A in 1982 and assigned to North, South and East Sea Fleets. India acquired a Submarine Rescue Vessel Nistar from Russia in 1971 which remained in service till 1988, thereafter the Submarine Rescue Chamber was transferred to an indigenous diving support vessel INS Nireekshak.

Image Attribute: The file photo of INS Nireekshak deployed during Very Severe Cyclonic Storm (VSCS) Ockhi for SAR operations, near Vizhinjam, Kerala / circa 2017 / Source: Indian Navy

Image Attribute: The file photo of INS Nireekshak deployed during Very Severe Cyclonic Storm (VSCS) Ockhi for SAR operations, near Vizhinjam, Kerala / circa 2017 / Source: Indian Navy

In 1989, the designation to Deep Submergence Unit of the US Navy was again later changed and re-designated as Undersea Rescue Command (URC) in 2012. Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, assumed overall responsibility for submarine survivability, escape and rescue matters in 2013. URC’s submarine response and rescue capabilities can be broken down into three categories: shallow-water rescue, deep-water rescue, and intervention. Thus submarine rescue since its inception more than 80 years ago provides the idea of submarine rescue capability to submarine operating countries against potential mishaps beneath the sea. 

Other navies developed their own portable rescue capabilities following the lead of the USN. NATO established the Submarine Escape and Rescue Working Group (SMERWG) which became a forum for making equipment interoperable and establishing common doctrine. The LR5 Submarine Rescue Vehicle (SRV) of the Royal Navy is similar to the DSRV in most aspects which uses a VOO as the Mother Ship (MOSHIP) instead of using a modified vessel. UK’s multifaceted Submarine Rescue Service comprises of the LR5 and the Submarine Parachute Assistance Group (SPAG) and the Scorpio Remote Operated Vehicle  (ROV).

Image Attribute: LR5 Submarine Rescue Vehicle (SRV) / Source: James Fisher and Sons

Image Attribute: LR5 Submarine Rescue Vehicle (SRV) / Source: James Fisher and Sons 

The NATO Submarine Rescue Service (NSRS) is a system developed jointly by Britain, France, and Norway has replaced the LR5. Meanwhile, the USN developed the Submarine Rescue Diving and Recompression System (SRDRS). Both systems are similar and are equipped to carry out rescue operations in three phases, reconnaissance, rescue and crew decompression. The reconnaissance stage involves an ROV locating the disabled submarine and recording data before a manned vessel conducts the rescue. The final stage, crew decompression involves a Transfer Under Pressure (TUP) chamber which enables direct transfer of the rescued submariners from the rescue vehicle to a decompression chamber, thus preventing exposure to any unsafe atmospheric changes.

Prior to 1995 the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) had no organic submarine rescue system but had a standing agreement with the USN for use of a DSRV in any emergency submarine distress situation, subsequently, the RAN had taken the lead in designing its own rescue system which encompassed the Submarine Escape and Rescue Suite (SERS) including the SRV Remora, the SRV’s launch, and recovery system and decompression chambers with a TUP capability .

Image Attribute: Igor Belousov (Project 23100) maritime search-and-rescue support vessel is designed by JSC CMDB Almaz and built by JSC Admiralteiskie Verfi (Admiralty Shipyards) in St Petersburg, Russia.

The Belousov Class, Design 21300, submarine rescue ship (ASR) Igor Belousov was designed by the Almaz Central Naval Design Bureau, St. Petersburg (JSC CMDB Almaz) and built at the city’s Admiralty Shipyard (JSC Admiralteiskie Verfi). It was designed to rescue submarine crews, provide assistance to surface ships, feed compressed air and electric power to submarines and surface ships, and detect and examine ships in distress in specified areas. Major features of the new vessel include a DSRV with a submergence depth of up to 700m, a deep-water dive suit for operating at a depth of about 500 meters, a decompression chamber for 60 men, one-atmosphere rigid diving suits, and two rescue boats. The upper deck of the vessel accommodates a helicopter landing pad.

Any country’s capability to conduct a rescue is vital but is meaningless if countries are unable to employ elements of another’s rescue capability for want of compatibility. International cooperation and collaboration remain vital in complementing a nation’s capability. Inspired by the Kursk tragedy, International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office (ISMERLO) was established in September 2004 under the auspices of NATO and SMERWG. This was a significant step towards global assistance in submarine search and rescue operations. With its web-based coordination tools, ISMERLO is able to facilitate rapid call-out for international rescue systems in the event of a submarine accident. The works of SMERWG and the importance of ISMERLO are gradually being recognized, especially in the international response and aid administered to the Russian AS-28 Priz submersible incident. Through these lessons, nations are now practicing their coordinated rescue efforts regularly. Multilateral search-and-rescue at sea exercises such as Sorbet Royal and Pacific Reach are held regularly with participation from NATO members and Asia-Pacific nations respectively. Pacific Reach 2019 is scheduled to be held in November 2019 in Australian waters.

Development of more robust coordination, especially in establishing standardization, will continue to be a challenge. Mutually accepted standardization in terms of aspects such as submarine rescue seat design as well as communication script for the SRV and Disabled Submarine (DISSUB) is recognized to be crucial for submarine rescue. This allows consistency and compatibility to be established upfront among the different submarines and submarine rescue systems in the world, thus saving time during an emergency rescue. SMERWG, in particular, covers technical and procedural issues concerning all aspects of the subject with the aim of disseminating information and establishing mutually accepted standards for the design and operation of submarine escape and rescue systems. The most critical factor in submarine rescue has always been time, and only a multinational effort can provide timely rescue in distant waters. Common technical standards, common doctrine, and close communication are required, as well as, frequent multilateral and bilateral exercises, to build proficiency, mutual understanding, and trust.

Submarine Rescue Methodology

Indication that a submarine is in distress or sunk is received from a variety of sources which include merchant ships observing any untoward incident, warships operating with a submarine or the submarine operating authority not having received communication from a submarine scheduled to communicate at a particular time and lastly, detection of submarine distress signals from the disabled submarine by any craft. In the unlikely event an accident should occur which puts a submarine in distress, a very capable rescue program exists consisting of Survival, Escape, and Rescue. 


The first pillar for the submarine crew is the rigorous training to survive should a potentially catastrophic accident occur. Damage control training and specialized equipment training are the most important facets. Extended survival is possible through atmosphere control within the submarine. Usage of oxygen canisters for inducing oxygen into the compartments and operation of passive carbon dioxide scrubbing systems and Emergency Air Breathing systems can currently support the crew for a short duration. Thus the effectiveness of survival capability lies solely on the training standards achieved by the submarine crew in survival techniques.


Submarine crews have a built-in capability to escape should it become necessary from a sunken disabled submarine. While submarine escape procedures can only be carried out within certain limits and risks based on the water depth, they are limited to merely exiting from the DISSUB. Escape equipment generally comprises of a full body suit which provides thermal protection with a built-in life raft to allow crew members to escape from depths up to 120m and survive on the surface. Additionally, the breathing apparatus or the Steinke Hood provides a controlled breathing facility catering to the differing pressures during the ascent. This method is normally called ‘Wet Escape’ but it presents greater risks to the escapees. Escape is either carried out by the ‘Tower Escape’ method wherein two escapees dressed in escape and survival suits climb into the tower. Once both the hatches are shut, water flooded and pressure equalized escape is carried out by opening the upper hatch and moving towards the sea surface with the help of the positively buoyant survival suits. Depending on the depth, this can be achieved by either a controlled ascent using a calibrated rope or a free ascent. The other method of escape is the ‘Compartment Escape’. In some classes of submarines where there is only a single compartment the entire compartment is flooded and after pressure equalization the escapees can escape after opening the escape hatch. The general limitation of escape is from depths only up to 30m. Attempts from deeper depths have resulted in high casualty rates. Some submarines are fitted with escape capsules wherein either the whole or part of the crew can be carried. This capsule is then released and which due to its positive buoyancy floats to the sea surface and gives a higher chance of survivability to the crew. 


Intervention is the use of external sources to increase survivability. During the waiting time between the location and rescue ventilation or survival, packs can be provided using a Remotely Operated Vehicle tethered to the mother or rescue ship to supply life-saving services like fresh air, liquid food, water, etc till the main rescue can be affected.


Rescue is undertaken by outside parties who take out the trapped crew from the submarine. Thus assisted rescue can be achieved through two types of rescue methods which are the tethered and untethered. SRCs can be rapidly transported to a support vessel to be used at the location of a disabled submarine. In case a Naval auxiliary vessel cannot respond to the scene fast enough, any one of the world's estimated 4,000 commercial supply/ handling vessels called Vessels of Opportunity (VOO) can be used if made available. The SRCs which are generally capable of rescue up to 250m can be mated to a disabled submarine by using a heavy cable attached to a special pad-eye welded on all submarine hatches. This is then tethered to the mother ship to enable the rescue of the trapped crew by the ‘Dry Method’. This method of escape is the oldest and most simple and still in service in many of the world navies. The limitation of this method is that the time taken for the ship fitted with the SRC to reach the disabled submarine could be very largely dependent on its location from the disabled submarine. This could result in the inability of the crew to survive for such a time duration. 

The untethered method is of the DSRV, which is capable of rescue up to 600m as a free-swimming mini-submarine capable of carrying about 24 rescuees. This mini-submarine can be airlifted and rapidly deployed by aircraft to a nearby port where it would be lowered onto and mated to a MOSUB mostly nuclear-propelled to get the advantage of speed or MOSHIP and then transported to the scene of the disabled submarine. Depending on the distance from the DSRV to the nearest airfield and the distance from the closest port to the position of the disabled submarine, the average timeline places the DSRV to be on scene anywhere between 36 and 48 hours from the first notification of the submarine accident. However, this capability is mainly dependent on the proximity of a MOSUB/ MOSHIP/ VOO to the port closest to the casualty. The major disadvantage is that it takes a long time for this equipment to assemble at the site of the disabled submarine.

Modern rescue systems provide even better capabilities. The ability to transfer personnel under pressure is now also possible which would allow the rescue of crew members at deeper depths under immense pressures and transfer them to a decompression chamber on the sea surface. The SRDRS provides a significantly more capable, state-of-the-art system. This includes a dramatically improved deep-diving capability, a pressurized rescue system, and a decompression system. Initial reconnaissance of the disabled submarine is done by divers with a special diving suit to 600m depth, conduct an initial rapid assessment to deliver Emergency Life Support Stores and prepare the submarine hatch for mating with the DSRV. 


To enhance security in submarine operations during peacetime, navies recognize that the submarine rescue capability is an important aspect to boost the psychological well-being of the submariners. As efforts continue to break technology barriers to attain higher effectiveness and responsiveness in missions such as rescuing the DISSUB crew, there is much more that needs to be done to ensure rescue success. Submarine safety programs worldwide have to have interoperability with elements of submarine safety ranging from careful inspection and maintenance of all submarine escape hatches to training for proficiency in using diving equipment. Worldwide partnerships with other nations have to be forged who possess similar rescue capabilities and rescue assets have to be made completely interoperable and compatible with each other. International cooperation and collaboration remain vital in complementing a nation’s capability.

Global Submarine Operating Pattern

The entire submarine operating countries in the world can be divided into three segments namely the ‘Americas’  which includes USA and Canada in North America and Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Peru, Columbia, Chile and Ecuador from South America. The second segment comprises of submarine operating countries from Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) which includes countries like Germany, Italy, France, UK, Greece, Poland, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Romania and Bulgaria from Europe. Turkey, Israel, and Iran are the submarine operators in the Middle East followed by South Africa and Algeria from the African continent. The Indo Pacific (IPAC) region has Australia, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, Pakistan, Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea, Russia, and China operating both nuclear as well as conventional submarines.

A glance at the different types of submarine operating countries region wise indicates that in the ‘Americas’ predominantly there are 72 nuclear submarines (SSBN/ SSGN/ SSN) mainly operated by the US and 27 conventional submarines mainly operated by South American countries and Canada. Whereas, in the EMEA region there are two countries namely UK and France which operate only 8 nuclear submarines and the balance in this region operate 93 conventional submarines. The IPAC region has the largest number of submarine operators with Russia, China, and India operating 57 nuclear submarines and the remaining countries operating 162 conventional submarines in the region. 

USA, France, and the UK operate only nuclear submarines (SSBN/ SSGN/ SSN) exclusively, whereas, Russia, China, and India operate both nuclear and conventional submarines. What emerges is that about 150 nuclear submarines are operated by just 6 countries, whereas, the balance 260 submarines are of the conventional type and operated by 44 countries. Globally, about 90 submarines are on order and likely to be added in the next five years taking the total to about 500 submarines. An analysis of the submarine rescue systems providers in the world reveals that basically, only about 6 or 7 countries can claim of providing global coverage for submarine rescue. The current day capability of USN SRDRS deployment is extended to about 5 countries with 20 countries having proven compatibility. Whereas, the NATO operated NSRS which has been jointly developed by UK, France, Norway with Italy as an observer can extend this facility to other countries of NATO including extra-regional countries like India on the invitation. Russian submarine rescue systems have been designed for their own submarines, however, post the Kursk incident in 2000 and the mishap with the submersible AS-28, Russian participation has increased with an increasing focus on compatibility with Western systems. The Chinese submarine rescue systems were very ancient and obsolete but off late, there is an increasing interest taken by China to participate in multilateral submarine rescue exercises with modernized indigenous systems. Sweden which is not a member of NATO has developed its own system which is compatible with the NSRS. The other submarine rescue systems operators are Singapore, Australia, South Korea, India and a few other countries who operate either the NATO or the US systems and their derivatives.

Global Reach – Local Capability

Generally, countries with small submarine fleets do not invest in procuring their own submarine rescue systems immediately but try to rely on the common facilities and expertise provided by the technologically superior developed countries. Some countries tend to procure a submarine salvage or rescue ship which at best can give intervention support through its ability to render assistance for providing either forced ventilation or liquid survival rations to a DISSUB in shallow waters. The other method is to identify and prepare a database of VOOs locally available and hire the services of the high-technology submersible capable of being airlifted to a suitable mother port closest to the accident site for embarkation on the chosen VOO. This “Flyaway” kit offered by the US has been utilized by numerous submarine operating countries for many years like Singapore, South Korea, India, China, and Japan who possess their own intervention systems of varying readiness.  Going a stage further, countries expected to operate large submarine fleets in the future are most likely to procure comprehensive submarine rescue systems themselves. The earlier model was Government Owned and Government-Operated (GOGO), however, the recent trend is Government Owned Company Operated (GOCO). Singapore recently took delivery of a complete rescue system based around the locally manufactured M/V Swift Rescue support ship and DSAR-6 rescue submersible and India has placed orders for procurement of similar systems from James Fisher Defence. Operators without current rescue capabilities, such as Malaysia and Taiwan, have contracted rescue services from private or military sources.

Image Attribute: MV Swift Rescue is a submarine support and rescue vessel (SSRV) that is operated by the Singapore Navy. It was built by ST Marine, a subsidiary of Singapore Technologies Engineering and currently manned by Swire Pacific Offshore Operations Pte Ltd, the marine arm of Swire Group.

Image Attribute: MV Swift Rescue with DSAR-6

Image Attribute: MV Swift Rescue with DSAR-6

Regional submarine operators also recognize that international cooperation is vital for submarine rescue. A successful rescue would require the prompt assistance of the closest available rescue assets, regardless of the countries owning these systems. In addition, ISMERLO which has been set up gets activated to coordinate rescue efforts during disasters. Furthermore, regular exercises and different avenues through conferences and seminars have provided regional submarine operators valuable practice in multinational rescue efforts. These events provide a platform for participants to make every effort for the attainment of best practices and common standards in submarine rescue. Thus, responses to future submarine accidents are likely swifter and more effective than earlier.

The major players in the submarine rescue field are USA, UK, Russia, China, and Sweden. While Russia and China have submarine rescue facilities catering to their own types of submarines, it was clearly evident from the two Russian mishaps of Kursk and the submersible A-28 that on humanitarian grounds for submarine rescue, the assistance of other countries having the capabilities would have to be sought. What emerges is that the mating surface for the rescue submersible or rescue bell would have to be standardized worldwide and that is what this global cooperation is attempting to do.

Since 1986, the United States entered into agreements with some countries to provide rescue services in the event of a submarine accident. The U.S. Navy began to conduct inspections under these agreements to ensure that submarines belonging to other navies were compatible to receive a DSRV or SRC and could accommodate these during wet mating operations. The US Navy has conducted surveys of airports, roads, and seaports in client countries in order to document the most efficient path for delivering a rescue vehicle to a VOO so as to minimize the Time-To-First-Rescue (TTFR). 

International Submarine Rescue Exercises

From 2001 onwards the Asia-Pacific Submarine Conference (APSC), began to meet annually to discuss submarine operations in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions. APSC discussions included submarine escape and rescue which was common to the interests of all participants. Then sometime in 2003, NATO established the SMERWG as a forum towards making equipment interoperable and establishing common doctrine. SMERWG was open to NATO member nations by invitation. Thus this movement led to conduct of a series of multilateral maritime exercises like the Bold Monarch, Pacific Reach, Black Carrilon and Smerex which are conducted at varying time intervals.

The present arrangement of providing submarine rescue assistance by the US ‘Flyaway’ kit method is formally extended by the US to Singapore, South Korea, India, China to a limited extent and Japan at a charge. Additionally, the US has through participation in various exercises ensured that the mating surfaces and ‘padeyes’ are compatible on submarines of the countries like Norway, Netherlands, Poland, UK, Australia, Canada, Russia, Pakistan, India, Italy, Israel, Sweden, Spain, Singapore, France, and China. Singapore and Australia have also recently added an independent submarine rescue system facility asset to their fleets, whereas, India has recently inducted an NSRS from the UK. Sweden which is not a part of NATO has developed its own submarine rescue facility which is in operation till this date. Russia off late since the Kursk and AS-28 incidents have shown interest in interoperability. NSRS of NATO gives direct submarine rescue coverage to UK, France, and Norway with Italy as an observer and the balance countries belonging to NATO have a fuzzy understanding of being provided submarine rescue coverage only during times of crises.

Indian Navy’s Rescue Mosaic

INS Nireekshak is a diving support vessel (DSV) of Indian Navy which was originally built for offshore oil exploration work, fitted with a dynamic position facility and a recompression chamber. It can also function as an interim SRV. Initially, it was acquired on lease by the Indian Navy and after the purchase was commissioned on 8 June 1989. Nireekshak was modified and refitted with the diving bell and other rescue equipment removed from the former Russian Submarine Rescue Vessel  Nistar. Over the years, attempts to acquire a dedicated submarine facility were marred in controversy and also due to paucity of funds. In December 2018, the Indian Navy inducted the British DSRVs from James Fisher and Sons plc (JFD) at a cost of $269 million with two comprehensive submarine rescue and escape systems.

Image Attribute: Indian Navy's latest DSRV at Submarine Rescue Unit (West), Western Naval Command, Mumbai / Circa: December 2018.

Image Attribute: Indian Navy's  DSAR 650L DSRV at Submarine Rescue Unit (West), Western Naval Command, Mumbai / Circa: December 2018.

A 25-year in-service support contract covering all aspects of the operation and maintenance of the system by JFD has commenced. The rescue systems of the Indian Navy include DSRV, Launch And Recovery Systems (LARS) equipment, TUP systems and all logistics and support equipment required to operate the service. Additionally, in 2018, the Indian Navy awarded a contract to Hindustan Shipyard to build two diving support vessels that will act as MOSHIPs to support the operations of the DSRV fleet. The diving support vessels, which will be about 118m long, are expected to be ready by 2021.

Image Attribute: Animated spin of DSAR 650L / Source: James Fisher and Sons plc (JFD
Image Attribute: Animated spin of DSAR 650L / Source: James Fisher and Sons plc (JFD

Newly Acquired Capability Demonstration

The Indian Navy recently conducted a test of the DSRV systems by carrying out a "Wet Mating" on June 2, 2019, off Visakhapatnam which involved the transfer of personnel from a submerged Kilo-class submarine INS Sindhudhvaj. The submarine simulated as being in distress and resting on the seabed from which the DSRV was able to transfer stranded personnel successfully. A previous exercise was also conducted in October 2018 at a depth of over 100m wherein the DSRV demonstrated its capability of diving to 650m below sea level.

The recently inducted DSRV into the Indian Navy is equipped with sophisticated radar and an ROV, which extends the vessel's operating depth and can be used for clearing debris and obstructions. The crew of the DSRV comprises three personnel and can rescue up to 14 personnel from a stranded submarine at a time.

These DSRVs can be transported by specially equipped Vessels of Opportunity or the Indian Air Force's heavy-lift aircraft, such as the C-17, to the closest airfield in the vicinity of a submarine emergency.

Way Ahead

The 21st century Indian Ocean Region (IOR), one of the most complex regions has become an oceanic highway for the resource hungry growing economies of the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. The existing locations of oil and gas production platforms, ocean-based resources and movement of energy resources through the Indian Ocean region (IOR) Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) are vital to the region’s economic productivity particularly that of the developing countries. Numerous countries in the region are submarine operators having deployed submarines to protect their energy flow. These countries possess very limited submarine rescue facilities. India enjoys a geo-strategic advantage in this region overlooking a large portion of the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region. 

It is estimated that about 94 submarines (SSBN-9, SSN-18, SSP-41, SSK-26) are on order globally up to 2022. About 64 submarines on order, which form a majority, are from the Indo-Pacific region. There have been significant investments by regional countries to acquire new submarine capabilities or to improve upon their existing fleets. 

With this increase in submarine fleets, as well as, the planned expansion of current submarine operating countries in the Asia-Pacific, the risk of peacetime submarine accidents is likely to escalate. Navies that acquire new submarines are extremely vulnerable to such accidents due to their inexperience or until their crews are comfortable with their dangerous environment after mastering the skills of their operation. Besides, the relatively confined waters in the Indian Ocean Rim and the Pacific Rim with their busy waterways, straits and shipping routes heighten the probability of a mishap. Thus global collaboration in submarine rescue facilities and frequent conduct of multi-lateral submarine rescue exercises are the need of the hour. 

The Indian Navy's recently conducted exercise was a historic achievement towards DSRV integration that would pave the way for India to emerge as a submarine rescue provider in the Indian Ocean region. Several friendly countries like Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, and Taiwan have either begun inducting submarines or are expanding their nascent fleets. With this recent proof of capability, the time is ripe for India to assume the pivotal role of becoming a submarine rescue provider in the Indo-Pacific region. In fact, the ideal situation would be to collaborate globally irrespective of politics or ideology and form a united common force set up specially to rescue submarines in distress within the Indo-Pacific. To promote cooperation in this field and assume the lead role, India could form an essential part of the global submarine rescue network assuming the dominant position in the Indi-Pacific region. India requires to leverage this tool of submarine rescue capability to further her national interests through the employment of Undersea Diplomacy.

About the Author:

Commodore Aspi Cawasji NM, VSM (Indian Navy)
Commodore Aspi Cawasji NM, VSM is an alumnus of National Defence Academy (NDA), Khadakwasla having served for 35 years in the Indian Navy. He has held various important command assignments of Commodore Commanding Submarines (East Coast), Commanding Officer Submarine Base Virbahu, Captain SM 11 Submarine Squadron, Commanding Officer Guided Missile Frigate Gomati and Commanding Officer Submarines Shishumar, Karanj and Shalki in addition to staff assignments as Director (North East) in Defence Intelligence Agency and Commander Submarine Operations at Western Naval Command.

He has also served as the Principal Director Strategic Operations (Systems) and (Sea Vector) at the premier Strategic Forces Command and Project Director at Naval Alternate Operating Base, Rambilli. He has crossed the portals of Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, Naval War College, Mumbai and National Defence College, Delhi holding a degree of MPhil (Defence & Strategic Studies) from Madras University. He has been awarded by the President of India, the Nao Sena Medal in 1996 for devotion to duty and Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM) in 2013 for rendering distinguished service of an exceptional order. He has presented a paper in 2000 on "Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean" at Dalhousie University, Halifax Canada and presented numerous papers in national Submarine Seminars. In July 2017, he has jointly authored a book “Strategic Vision 2030: Security and Development of Andaman & Nicobar Islands”. He has delivered numerous lectures at the United Services Institution of India and in the Eastern Naval Command.

Cite this Article

Cawasji, A., " Undersea Diplomacy — An Opportunity for India" IndraStra Global Vol. 05, Issue No: 6 (2019) 0061. https://www.indrastra.com/2019/06/Undersea-Diplomacy-Opportunity-for-India-005-06-2019-0061.html | ISSN 2381-3652

Cawasji, A., " Undersea Diplomacy — An Opportunity for India" IndraStra Global Vol. 05, Issue No: 6 (2019) 0061. https://www.indrastra.com/2019/06/Undersea-Diplomacy-Opportunity-for-India-005-06-2019-0061.html | ISSN 2381-3652

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.  

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IndraStra Global: Undersea Diplomacy — An Opportunity for India
Undersea Diplomacy — An Opportunity for India
By Commodore Aspi Cawasji NM, VSM (Retd.), Indian Navy
IndraStra Global
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