Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the probable deaths of 18 sailors in an explosion on board a submarine was "all the more painful" given the nation's recent strides in modernising its military.
In an Independence Day speech in New Delhi yesterday, Singh said the nation was "deeply pained that we lost the submarine". "We pay homage to the brave hearts we have lost," he said.
The explosion and subsequent fire inside the Russian-built, diesel-powered INS Sindhurakshak at a navy dock in Mumbai on Wednesday is a setback for the navy as the country seeks to bolster its military amid a build-up by neighbour China. On Saturday, India activated the atomic reactor on its first indigenously built submarine, and two days later showed off its first domestically built aircraft carrier.
The Sindhurakshak, whose name means "protector of the ocean", is a Kilo class submarine. It returned to Mumbai earlier this year after a US$133 million refit at a shipyard in Russia following a fatal blast on board in 2010, according to India's defence ministry.
Wednesday's explosion was the worst-ever disaster for India's submarine programme, according to Uday Bhaskar, a former Indian Navy commodore and now a defence analyst at the Society for Policy Studies in New Delhi.
The blast occurred at a dockyard less than 1.5 kilometres from the city's luxury Taj Mahal hotel. It took the Mumbai fire brigade more than two hours to bring the blaze under control as flames illuminated the night sky.
Navy chief Admiral D. K. Joshi said at a press conference that the fire was caused by two almost simultaneous explosions. While the cause of these is not known, they could have been triggered by ammunition, fuel or oxygen bottles on board, he said.
Divers have managed to open one of the vessel's escape hatches and are attempting to create watertight compartments so the sub can be emptied of water and refloated for examination. The number of casualties was lower than would have been the case if the explosions had occurred in daylight, because only the night-watch team was aboard, he said.
"So far we have not found any survivors but we have not gone through the entire boat yet. Also we have not sighted any bodies in the area searched," a senior navy official said yesterday.
Rahul Bedi, an analyst and correspondent for Jane's Defence Weekly, said the sinking was a major blow to the country's naval ambitions, with only about half the sanctioned number of submarines now available.
"The submarine fleet has been a worry for the navy for many, many years but for reasons of inefficiency the ministry of defence has taken it very lightly," Bedi said.
India plans to increase its defence spending by 14 per cent in the next financial year as it modernises its military to counter traditional rivals as well as China's rising influence.
In the last week, India has achieved two milestones, activating the nuclear reactor aboard the INS Arihant submarine, and displaying its first home-built aircraft carrier at a shipyard in the southern city of Kochi. The 37,500-tonne vessel won't enter active service for several years.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse