INS Ranvir Explosion Reveals Navy's Challenges With Ageing Vessels
The victims and their families deserve an answer: did their kin die in vain? Was it a preventable accident?
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In an unfortunate accident on 18 January 2022, an explosion onboard the Indian Navy’s guided missile destroyer INS Ranvir claimed the lives of three senior sailors, and 11 others have been admitted with injuries to naval hospital INHS Ashwini at Colaba. The ship was reportedly at anchorage at the Mumbai harbour at the fag-end of a three-month cross-coast deployment from the Navy’s Eastern Naval Command, Visakhapatnam to Mumbai on the west coast.
An official update was posted by the Navy’s spokesperson on the morning of 19 January. The deceased (all Master Chief Petty Officers, the highest rank among sailors) have been identified as Krishan Kumar MCPO I, Surinder Kumar MCPO II and AK Singh MCPO II. As per news reports, the blast took place in the AC compartment adjacent to the cabin occupied by these sailors. The cabin reportedly caved in due to the blast, causing fatal injuries to the three sailors. A Board of Inquiry (BoI) has been ordered into the accident.
Fire and flooding are omnipresent hazards on any warship. All three elements of the ‘fire triangle’ – oxygen, heat and fuel – are always available in abundance aboard ships.
Managing these hazards within constrained spaces and enclosed compartments while running a daily exercise routine that includes planned forays into harm’s way (weapon firing, missile launches, embarking fuel and ammunition, etc) is achieved safely through a combination of high-grade equipment and recurrent training of all onboard.
Our ships sail today like never before, clocking thousands of miles in each commission, cumulatively totalling millions of nautical miles. It is too early to weigh in on the safety culture (or the lack of it) based on the crumbs of information available on this accident. Even as the BoI gets underway, a few generic points can be made.
INS Ranvir Was an Old Ship
INS Ranvir (D54), the first of the two Ranvir class destroyers, was commissioned in April 1986, roughly a year after the 1985 discovery of the ozone hole. She is the fourth among five Russian Kashin class destroyers (also known as SNFs or Surendranath Frigates). At about 36 years, D54 is older than most capital ships in commission today. However, the ship has undergone modernisation and periodic refits, some of which included mid-life upgrades (MLU), deep inspections and maintenance. While more ‘teeth’ have certainly been added during such MLU and refits, whether fire hazards and fire mitigating equipment like fixed and portable fire fighting systems received an equivalent update needs scrutiny.
Russian ships, like Russian aircraft, are low on ergonomics and crew comfort. Often, the crew appear to have been added as an afterthought. Habitability onboard SNFs has always been a sore point, with crew stuffed into obtuse corners and ‘hot bunking’ being the norm. Having experienced the luxury of ‘Studio 29’ briefly, I can only empathise with the sailors and their mess decks.
HVAC, Refrigerants and Fire Safety
The heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system onboard a warship runs 24/7/365. Refrigerants used in air conditioning systems of the early 1900s were either flammable or toxic. Over time, these were replaced by chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (CFCs and HCFCs). They are non-toxic and non-flammable but were later found to cause ozone layer depletion. Based on the Montreal Protocol, a worldwide agreement was reached to gradually phase out the consumption and production of CFCs and HCFCs in 1987.
At this time, INS Ranvir was one of the most potent weapons in the Indian Navy’s arsenal. The refrigerant in use onboard Ranvir’s HVAC would in all probability be hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) – again, a greenhouse gas. With the gradual drawdown of HFC, CFC and HCFC, the HVAC industry again veered towards some of the early refrigerants (carbon dioxide with butane, propane and propylene). These are either flammable or operate under very high pressure. In an enclosed space, if such gas leaks out and the concentration exceeds its ‘lower flammability level (LFL)’, an explosion is imminent. If indeed the explosion took place inside Ranvir’s AC compartment as reported in media, the nature of refrigerant used onboard would be a key point of inquiry. In responding to an environmental concern, did we increase the fire risk onboard?
NBCD Readiness and Accident History
Very little data is available in the public domain on fire/flooding accidents in the Navy versus vintage equipment and the operational cycle of warships. However, personal experience tells me that the Indian Navy has managed to keep these hazards under tight control given the wide spectrum of ships, their origins (western/eastern), maintainability challenges and the increasing days spent at sea due to our global footprint.
From a nuclear, biological and chemical defence, including fire fighting (NBCD) perspective, both men and material readiness have seen a sea change over the last three decades.
The state-of-art resources at NBCD School, Lonavala, the setting up of the office of the Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST), the Indian Naval Safety Team (INST), Kochi, the submarine fire and flooding simulator at Shipwright School, and the Hull Inspection and Testing Unit (HITU), Visakhapatnam, among others, are all milestones in this journey.
Yet, the risk from fire and flooding can only be mitigated and managed, not precluded. The sinking of Andaman (flooding, 1990) and Vindhyagiri (fire, then flooding due to excessive water intake, 2011), the dismembering of Agray due to an underwater explosion (2004), the collision and sinking of Prahar (2006), the pier-side explosion and sinking of submarine Sindhurakshak (2013), the sinking of Torpedo Recovery Vessel A-72 (2014), among others, informs us that we have miles to go before saying “all is well”. Eternal vigilance is the price of safety.
The Men & Women Behind the Machines
The human factor behind any accident brooks a deeper enquiry than what obtains traditionally in the services. The Navy is modernising at a rapid pace, with a mix of indigenous and imported ships that fight for attention. No other Navy has to contend with the challenges of operating and maintaining such a diverse mix of platforms. When a fleet puts out to sea, this mix faces the same vagaries of weather, the same punishing routine of a deployment programme. However, the load is hardly even on, say, a Kora class with a complement of 100 and a Shivalik class with three times that. Fatigue management systems are either absent or on paper.
The HR department has the daunting task of keeping everyone motivated.
When I was a young subaltern, SNFs were prima donna, attracting the hottest of the lot. Specialists were deep-selected, often toppers of their course. But times have changed for these graceful warriors. The oldest ships are not necessarily manned by the best of the lot.
An old cloak of the personnel branch “equal distribution of talent” may be coming apart at the seams. While the most upwardly mobile helm the Navy’s latest ships, the mid-order and night watchmen should not be left holding together vintage ships with doubtful watertight and gastight integrity.
INS Ranvir was on a cross-coast deployment of three months. Such deployments often test the limits of the ship and its crew. Now, they will return home without three shipmates. The effect of any such accident on the ship’s morale lingers long. The crew of 36-year old D54 deserve our greatest respect. The victims and their families deserve an answer: did their kin die in vain? Was it a preventable accident? Did pushing ageing vessels out to sea contribute to this tragedy? Corrective measures must flow sure and fast.
I pray for an early closure for the affected families, speedy recovery for the injured and an early return to ‘sea and action’ for “Veer Veer Ranvir“. Sham nau Varuna (May the seas be auspicious unto us), Samare Vijayee (Always Victorious).
(While “Veer Veer Ranvir” is the battle cry of D54, “Samare Vijayee” is their motto.)
(The author is an ex-navy experimental test pilot. He is dual ATP-rated on Bell 412 & AW139 helicopters and a synthetic flight instructor on ALH Dhruv. He can be reached on Twitter @realkaypius. Views are personal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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