The book ‘Under three flags -The Saga of the submarine Cruiser K-43/Chakra’ written by a former Russian Naval officer Alexander Ivanovich Terenov recounts his side of the story as the Commanding officer of the SSGN K-43. The book contains various anecdotes and narration on history, food, whiskey, pets etc. but the most interesting part of the book for any reader will be the story of the submarine and its crew. I am reviewing the book purely for the information on the Soviet and Russian side of the events through the author’s eye and omitted the information we already know from the Indian sources.
In the first phase, Terenov explains the process of preparing the submarine, crew and creating the infrastructure before the Indian navy submariners arrive in the Soviet Union for training. Terenov was the Executive Officer (ExO) of the (Charlie I or Project 670) submarine K-212 in 1982 and was tasked to take over the ExO duties of the submarine K-43 to be viewed by an Indian delegation. India was interested in Project 671 or Victor class submarines with tube-launched anti-ship and land-attack missiles but settled for the Charlie class after the visit to older K-43. The K-43 was a compact submarine armed with an underwater launched ‘Amethyst’ cruise missile and was capable of attack with self-generated target data making it a potent Aircraft Carrier killer. The K-43 was then sent to the Zvezda submarine repair yard for modernization and transfer to the Indian navy.
Terenov, now appointed as the Captain of the K-43 began the task of assembling a crew for the submarine. After a stint in various training centers, the crew was ready for the acceptance of the submarine from the dockyard. A training center was created for the Indian Navy crew in the territory of the 19th Submarine Brigade in Ulysses Bay in suburban Vladivostok in 1983. By July 1984, Terenov’s crew took possession of the K-43 for final workup and familiarization with the new equipment.
The second phase involved training of the Indian navy crew which commenced in 1983 soon after the training center was readied. The Department of Military-Technical and Operational Training of the Soviet Navy prepared and published the required technical manual for the export version of equipment in the submarine which the author terms “almost indistinguishable from those we ourselves used.”
The Indian crew finished the theoretical course in March 1985 and went onboard K-43 for training on the submarine for familiarization of the layout, nuclear power plant drill including start-up, operation at high power, shutting down and cooling down; and damage control. The crew of K-335 Gepard, the only completed Akula III class, were involved in training for a brief period when the original crew was sent on leave. It may be noted that the Indian navy subsequently leased the Akula II Nerpa in 2012 and has signed up for lease of another Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine to be delivered in 2025.
By the end of October, the Indian crew began their sea workup. The author mentions that the Indian Commanding Officers and crew who came from slow diesel-electric submarines like The Project 641 Foxtrot class which was in use with the Indian navy, took time to get adjusted to nuclear-powered submarines which could dive at 25 knots instead of 3 knots of a diesel-electric. After two weeks of maintenance, the submarine and the crew were back at sea for 3 months for weapons training returning to the harbour to reload weapons and change of Indian crew. The weapons training involved torpedo and missile firing trials. After the operational workup was completed in April 1986, K-43 was taken to Bolshoi Kamen by a single crew to undergo preparation for the expected lease in Spring 1987. The Indians and the rest of the Soviet Crew departed to their respective destinations.
The repairs were an intense one-year activity as the submarine was being prepared for a 3-year lease in the southern seas. Terenov was invited by the General Engineering Department (GED) of GKES (Gosudarstvennyi komitet po vneshnim ekonomicheskim sviaziam or State Committee for Foreign Economic Relations) for negotiations for lease contracts with the Indians under the leadership of Vice-Admiral VA Vlasov. In Spring 1987, a combined delegation for the Soviet Navy including the author, GED and the Industry visited the Naval Dockyard at Eastern Naval Command of Indian Navy at Visakhapatnam where Soviet Design Institute at ‘Peter’ had constructed a berth for the K-43. The author writes “to this day I am surprised at the fact that I, a Soviet nuclear submarine commanding officer, was allowed to go out of our ‘Security cordon.’
Upon return from India the author was tasked to prepare a skeleton group of 30 crew including officers, for any moment take over of the submarine in any place and condition, and capable of use of the submarine weapons.
The lease contract was signed in July 1987 and the Indian Navy crew deputed to take over the submarine arrived in September for a refresher course as the skills had started to diminish over the intervening year and a half. The handing over process began in October and abruptly stopped as the author received an order to stop the process of transfer and stop the access of foreign nationals to the submarine. The author advised the Indian Commanding Officer to approach none other than the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as the Americans had put pressure on the transfer. By some coincidence, the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi arrived in Moscow for a short visit and in mid-December, the author got permission to resume the transfer process. On 5th January, the submarine was handed over to the Indian Navy and donned the pennant S-71 and the name INS Chakra.
The third phase involves the departure and return from India. As the departure was decided at 1000 hours on 15th January, the 10 days were spent loading the submarine with missiles, torpedoes and all kinds of stores and supplies. Upon reaching India, the author’s designation was changed to Head of Soviet Specialists Group – Object ‘S’. The Soviet team included 30 instructors and two interpreters. Their tasks included standing watch in the submarine in key control posts in harbour and sea, round the clock. Five officers and an interpreter from the missile technical position oversaw the transportation, loading and storage of ‘Amethyst’ missiles 20 km away from the main naval base. There was also an industrial group that could reach a strength of 40 depending upon the maintenance and repairs. During the submarine sorties, 7-8 personnel of the Object S group were stationed in the submarine.
The author recounts many incidences of submarine malfunction. The outboard pipes and equipment corroded fast due to the high air temperature, humidity and salinity. The main suction line was not renewed during the last refit in the Soviet Union which caused flooding and fire. A major emergency at sea was experienced and it took 3 months to repair the submarine. Other issues included poor documentation, false data and poor discipline in the supply of spares from the Soviet Union. In one instance, the Indian navy refused to take supplies of the batteries due to their poor condition. The batteries had to be set right in India itself.
In1990, at the end of the third year of the lease, the author was summoned to Moscow and was told to let Indian’s know that there was not going to be an extension of the lease. On 17th December, the submarine set sail to Vladivostok to arrive by 5th January 1991. An Indian frigate escorted the submarine to the South China Sea diving point as the route was infested by pirates. Once in Vladivostok, the mini crew took over the submarine from the Indian Navy personnel. The submarine was then sent to Kamchatka for decommissioning. During its operational life, the submarine had travelled 72000 miles, the main power plant had operated for 430 days, fired five missiles and 42 torpedoes.