How NAVAC direct entry engineers made India’s Nuclear Submarine dreams come true

This bunch of engineers above belonged to the 1978-1980 batches of Technical Direct Entry topper graduates who joined a ‘make shift’ Naval Academy (NAVAC) in Cochin dependent on the mercies of INS Venduruthy, INS Garuda and Schools, which proved a boon for training. Admiral OS Dawson a bachelor, and a hard taskmaster, loved taking rounds, which kept Night Duty Officers alert, making the Commander’s (The Author) task easy. Admiral Dawson took the odd lecture too on Officer like quality (OLQ). Military Engineering Services (MES) kept the Academy in shape. As the Commander in charge, I demanded a single cabin for each trainee as in the National Defence Academy (NDA) to avoid ills of double-bunking.

No one dreamt that six of them were destined to make India’s secret nuclear submarine dream come true; by successfully running INS Chakra’s reactor for 430 days on the Project 670 Charlie class K-43, the Indian Navy took on a three-year lease from 1988 to 1991, signed by Capt R N Ganesh. They praised Ganesh but lament that they worked in cocooned nuclear-related appointments. Sadly they faded away unsung by the Navy, as all was kept classified. An Admiral and Capt Alexander Ivanovich Terenov (the Russian captain of K-43, INS Chakra under the Indian Flag) have written some history.

A wife of one Chakra crew claims her husband died of radiation. However, she was told in confidence that every time an officer keeps watch in a submarine nuclear reactor and comes out, he is tested with Roentgen meters and was shown her husband’s records, and they never showed any radiation. But she always joins the brotherhood of what this writer calls ‘The Chakradharians’. The families lived on an island sharing rice, chappatis and dal meals. They drank Vodka and Old Monk to live in minus 20 degrees for long durations in a cramped but very well heated Hostel built by the Soviet Navy in the district of Vladivostok. It fostered brotherhood in the trying times of the Soviet Union. Russians introduced officers to hot saunas in the nude and dipped jumps in cold water to keep fit and drink Vodka after! Bachelors met charming maids!

This writer learnt of their service only last year, having parted company with the Navy in 1988. The Chakradhaians, with others of their batch, including Cmde CD Balaji of LCA fame, invited the Commander and his wife to a four-day get together to relive their days in Cochin and the Alleppey trip we did in 1979. Their wives wanted to meet the Commander’s wife, who had introduced them to table laying and table manners, etiquette and ballroom dancing. They produced a Shakespearean play, not easy for college students with varied dialects. This was disclosed later to the Commander’s dismay, but a large boat as a gift to the Commander with laudable words of gratitude was reconciliation as those Navac officers have done well in India and abroad thanks to the training in Russia. All this writer contributed in NAVAC, not being an Engineer, was drilled them once a week and lecture what the Navy is all about. They remember him for, “I am from NDA, and you must make NAVAC proud and do better than NDA walas, like US Naval War College teaches! “Alma-Mater actions, they call it.

Their story began when Adm Mihir Roy was selected by his UK roommate Dr Raja Ramana to be Director-General Advanced Technology Vehicle (ATV) Project, a subterfuge for a Nuclear Submarine technology demonstrator, and formed a group of officers and sailors for the Systems Analysis and Operations Research course, conducted very secretly in Bombay’s Madh Island. This group was tutored in Russian and in the fundamentals of nuclear energy, reactors and underwater propulsion, supported by Dr Homi Nusserwanji Sethna of the Bhabha Atomic Reactor Centre with visits.

The group included officers and sailors who were unaware they were going to man the Chakra, further doctrined by Vice Admiral Bharat Bhushan. They were involved in the niche area of operation of the propulsion reactor power plant and the diving surfacing systems of the submarine. And my memory fades.

Cmde Prakash Parwardhan – As a Lt/ Lt Cdr, trained on the “Kluch” diving/surfacing system operation as the KeDe3 (senior-most nuclear reactor controller), in charge of operation and maintenance of engineering systems. He took responsibility for certain critical damage control actions in a fire underwater, resulting in savings of all lives. He also served in Defence Machinery Development Establishment (DMDE), Ship Building Center (SBC) and Advanced Technology Vessel Project (ATVP) for about eight years, all classified.

INS Chakra Ice Formation
INS Chakra Ice Formation in Russia

Cdr Sudhir Dua trained for the same functions as Prakash and served on Chakra, looking after the conventional systems. He works in Muscat on power plants. Cdr Ramamoorthy Alavandar and Lt Cdr Lakshminarayan Satyanarayan were the propulsion plant operators for three years from when the submarine came to India after commissioning till it was handed over to Russians in 1992. They both were part of the team which created Visakhapatnam support facilities called SSS (Special safety Services) in the Dockyard before the arrival of Chakra. Post return of Chakra, Alavandar, to his credit, was in ATVP for seven years.

Cdr Bharat Chauhan, post-1992, served in various capacities in Director General Naval Projects (DGNP) and SBC, actively contributing to the yard SBC creation. He recently completed the 21 km Chennai half marathon run. Cdr Surendrakumar Rana was an upper yardman in Naval Academy. In those days, the upper yardman term was used for a sailor selected for training to become an officer.

These fine watchkeeping officers and turbine specialists kept the 90-megawatt plant going. The Russians tested them in stringent psychological tests and then put through the rigorous training process, excelling in theory, practice and emergency responses.

One day when India is power with nuclear submarines, future generations may be looking to write about the pioneers in golden letters of gratitude and report despite their Commandant, they did their duty for the Nation and the fine Indian Navy. Apologies for missing some.

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Cmde Ranjit B Rai (Retd.)
Cmde Ranjit B Rai (Retd.)
Cmde Ranjit B Rai Retd MBIM(UK) was Director of Naval Operations and Intelligence and is an author and writes on naval and strategic affairs. * Views and analysis are personal.
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