Mission Victory India spoke to Commodore Arun Kumar, AVSM, NM (Retd) as part of an exclusive interview series highlighting military literature. The veteran submariner has chronicled the history of India's first nuclear powered attack submarine, INS Chakra in his upcoming book. S71 INS Chakra: THE PIONEER AND HER MEN to be released in September this year.
Excerpts from the Conversation
Q. Sir, you became a published author after spending a lifetime in some of the most coveted naval appointments. That must have been a great story. Could you tell us a little bit about your journey from being a young submariner to penning down an authoritative account of INS Chakra?
Ans: After my graduation from the NDA in Dec 1971, I spent six months on the cadet's training ship INS Krishna (Jan 72-Jun 72) and thereafter a year as a Midshipman on INS Mysore and INS Nilgiri, six months each and was commissioned on 01 Jul 1973. Soon after obtaining my surface watchkeeping ticket on INS Beas in Feb 1975, I joined the 14th Basic Submarine Course in May 1975 at INS Satavahana.
I completed the course in May 1976 (6 months theory + 6 months Sea training), standing first in merit, and was reappointed on INS Vagli for watchkeeping duties. I had done my sea training on Vagli from Jan 76 to May 76. I was extremely fortunate to have Tiger Talwar (Cdr. Lalit Talwar) as my Commanding Officer, who instilled in me the confidence of managing submarine operations.
Not only that he also ensured that the qualities of naval leadership and in particular in submarines, were firmly imbibed by me. This experience stood me in good stead throughout my career. Thereafter I served on various submarines as a watchkeeping officer till I was deputed for the Long Navigation & Direction Course to INS Venduruthy in Jul 1979.
I completed the course in Jun 1980, standing first in merit, and was appointed on INS Vela as Navigating Officer. This offered me a great opportunity to navigate the boat from Bombay to Vladivostok (VV) where she was to undergo a medium Refit for two years.
However, I returned soon after docking her in VV. After that, I served on the Staff of Capt SM 9 in Bombay till Sep 81 and on Staff of Capt SM8 at Visakhapatnam till Aug 1982, whence I was selected for the training for nuclear submarine training at VV for 30 months from Oct 1983-Apr 1986.
The training in Vladivostok, I dare say, was of the highest standards. It was all in the Russian language which posed a greater challenge as we learned complex disciplines such as nuclear physics, nuclear reaction and the hardware associated with the reactor and propulsion systems, Radiation safety and waste management apart from command and control of operating a cruise missile capable nuclear-powered submarine (SSGN) in the Russian language.
I was part of the command team as the First Lieutenant (In the rank of Lt. Cdr). The training was intense and comprised 18 months of language (4) and specialist courses (14) and 12 months of sea training. On successful completion, I returned to India in April 1986.
The time available on return enabled me to finish my mandatory sea time as an XO of a submarine on INS Vagli from May 1986 to April 1987, when I was attached to INS Virbahu awaiting departure to Vladivostok for commissioning the first nuclear submarine of the Indian Navy.
I was to be the First LT and the Operations Officer of the boat. In the meantime, in Jun 1987, I got promoted to the rank of Cdr. I utilised the time at Virbahu to write down the Standing Orders and Standard Operating Procedures for the nuclear submarine, a subject new to us.
The Commissioning crew left for Vladivostok on 07 Aug 1987. After refresher training and practical operations both at Sea and in Harbour, we commissioned the submarine named INS Chakra on 05 Jan 1988, on a three-year lease to the Indian Navy. It was truly a historic occasion, and I was privileged and honoured to be part of it.
After a maiden passage of 18 days, the submarine arrived at Vizag on 03 Feb 1988 and was received by Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India. It was once again an honour befitting the occasion. The Indian Navy had graduated from operating conventional subs to a nuclear powered one in just 20 years since the inception of the Submarine Arm in Dec 1967, a feat unparalleled.
After the first operating cycle in 1988, I was deputed for my Submarine Commanding Officer's Qualifying Course, which I completed in Dec 1988, standing first in merit, and was awarded the coveted CNS trophy for the same. For the next 18 months, I was in command of a Kilo Class boat INS Sindhuraj and joined Chakra again in Jun 1990 as the XO or the second in command.
The third operational cycle was probably the most effective in terms of time spent at sea. In Dec 1990, orders were received to head back for VV to return the boat on completion of the lease on 04 Jan 1991. We set sail from Vizag on 15 Dec 1990 and arrived at VV in the forenoon of 04 Jan 1991. The boat was decommissioned on 05 Jan 1991 and handed back to the Soviet Navy.
On return, I commanded another Kilo class boat INS Sindhughosh till Jun 1991, whence I was deputed for the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington (Nilgiris). In the next ten years, I cruised through various stages of my career progression, which included staff and field appointments.
I Commanded the Submarine Base as the Base Captain and the 10th SM Squadron as Capt SM 10 in Bombay from 1994-95 on promotion to the rank of Capt in Dec 1993 while I was undergoing the Naval Higher Command Course at Naval War College at Karanja, Bombay.
In Jun 1995, I moved back to Vizag as the Commanding Officer INS Virbahu, the alma mater of the arm, and as the Commodore Submarines East, commanding the 8th and the 11th Submarine Sqns till Dec 1996 when I moved to command the missile destroyer INS Rajput for a year. In Dec 1997, I took over Command of the Submarine Training School, INS Satavahana.
In May 1999, I moved to NHQ as the Principal Director Submarine acquisition and held that appointment for five years till I took premature retirement in May 2004.
My last appointment was very educating and satisfying as I steered major programmes for the growth of the submarine arm for the next three decades, including negotiating the contract for indigenous construction of the Scorpene design Kalvari class submarines at Mazagon Dock Ltd. It also afforded me the opportunity to visit various yards the world over.
I have been in the private sector ever since. Years passed, and the history of INS Chakra 1, which was an epochal event in the annals of the growth of the Indian Navy, had not been written down. In 2012 the Chakra 2 also came on a 10-year lease.
With no efforts being made to document the history of Chakra 1, I took on the onus on myself, and the forced lockdown due to Covid 19 in 2020 presented me with the time and opportunity to write the book on the history of Chakra 1. It would be unforgivable if the legacy of Chakra 1 had been interned with our bones.
Q. What particular aspects of submarine operations do the book touch upon? How do you feel the book will empower the reader on the nuances of the subject matter?
Ans: The book is in two parts. The first one encapsulates the period of initial assembly of officers and sailors as the potential crew for selection and screening at INS Hamla in July 1982, finalisation of the crew, deputation to Vladivostok in Soviet Union, the training for 30 months and return to India in April 1986.
It covers the entire gamut of the activities and life of the crew in taxing working conditions and the harsh climate of VV. We had 52 Officers with families and 140 sailors. Managing them was an onerous task, and all the travails and tribulations during the 30 months stay have been elucidated in Part 1. Special emphasis is given to the interaction with the local population and local customs and traditions.
Part 2 lays out the hiatus in India after the return from training in Apr 1986 and re-deputation of the commissioning crew to Vladivostok for the Commissioning of the boat, highlighting the excitement associated with such an event has been clearly brought out.
The maiden passage to India after commissioning and subsequent exploitation of the submarine in India for three years till her eventual return to VV on completion of the lease on 04 Jan 1991 forms the main narrative in Part 2.
Mention has also been made of the creation of specialised berthing facilities and special safety services for radiation safety and monitoring as also waste management. The reader will get an insight of the processes which go into the acquisition of such such specialised discipline and impress upon him the hard work and sweat that goes into such a monumental effort.
The adage "Rome was not built in a day" gets reinforced. Being the subject that it is and some semblance of confidentiality that is associated with it, I was constrained to be more elaborate. One had to remain within the parameters of the extent of disclosures that could be made, I had to obtain clearance of the competent authority at Naval Headquarters to publish the book.
Q. Who in your mind are the core readers for the book? And how do you feel that they further add to the discourse on the subject of India’s submarine history?
Ans: To my mind the core readers or the targeted audience are firstly the crew and all those who were associated with the Project. Secondly, history buffs all over the navies of the world, in particular those that operate nuclear powered submarines. The book should interest even those navies aspiring to get into this field. One thing has to be underscored here. It is not easy to seamlessly transcend the boundary from conventional to nuclear.
Further, the development has to be mainly indigenous. In our case it is only because of the very long and enduring strategic relationship between USSR (Russia) and India that a transfer of a nuclear boat was made to a third country.
There is no other example of this anywhere in the world. Even the British were not given one by their cousins from across the Atlantic. This is a crucial factor which forms an integral part of the discourse.
Q. Could you tell our readers about the research which went into writing both books? What was your process and how did your contemporaries and juniors respond to the finished products?
Ans: I am blessed with a very good memory, so most of the narrative is from my own experience. Gaps wherever encountered were filled with information from colleagues and shipmates in the Project. Also, some aspects have been totally contributed by colleagues.
For example, a chapter "Bachelor's Story" in Part 1 has been contributed by an officer who was a bachelor in our crew and gives a first-hand account of their life in the ZBK (Hostel) in the Training Centre. I could not have done justice to it.
Similarly, while I was away in command of a kilo class in 1989-90, conversion training from Conventional to nuclear submarines was done in INS Satavahana and so a full chapter on this aspect has been contributed in Part 2 by an officer who underwent that training and was part of the crew in the third cycle.
Lot of photographs were made available by members of the original crew, and I had to balance their insertion so that they merged with the text to give a contextual presentation. Lastly, the book "Under Three Flags" written by the head of Soviet Consultants Capt 1st. Rank AI Terenov, proved to be very useful in many aspects.
Q. What did you learn during the writing process? What surprised you the most during your writing journey? Could you tell us about some of the key challenges you faced when writing the book? Did you experience writers block, if so, how did you overcome it? Lastly how did you successfully publish your manuscript?
Ans: I experienced the writer's block as regards taking off was concerned. My publisher and friend Joseph P Chacko kept egging me on to get a move on. Somehow the spark was not getting ignited though the main plot was forming up in my mind.
The Covid pandemic and the enforced lockdown as a consequence provided me the opportunity to start writing and once that happened, the memories kept flooding in. I wrote the entire text by hand and would send the scanned copies of the written pages to a colleague in my office who would put it in a Word document and send it back to me for editing and corrections.
This arrangement worked rather well, and I was able to complete the entire text in about five months. The cover design took some time and after many iterations I arrived at the present one. The logic is that the Chakra (the sub) is superimposed on the national colours in lieu of the Ashok Chakra.
Secondly, since the lease was also meant to facilitate the development of the indigenous design for a nuclear boat, this thought encompassed 'the indigenous' in setting of the national flag colours for the cover.
The Title also has a meaning. The book is not about the submarine perse but also about the personnel who contributed to the successful accomplishment of this unique and major endeavour.
Chakra was the leader in introduction of nuclear propulsion on submarines in the Indian Navy hence is fully represented by the word 'Pioneer'. So 'INS Chakra The Pioneer and her Men' completely conveys the main theme of the book.
Q. What can you share about your book which is not written in the blurb or synopsis? Is there any particular chapter from your book which you would like to share or highlight? If so, what does the chapter specifically deal with and why does it stand out for you?
Ans: Any book must capture the undivided attention of the reader and hence must have anecdotes, humour and some lightness interspersed with the main narrative. I have endeavoured to do that and quoted many anecdotes which induce humour and make the reading not so intense with the seriousness of the subject.
I would specially commend a chapter 'Gallimaufry' in Part 2. It is a collection of true incidents which have really nothing to do with nuclear submarining but give a credence to the story because of their simplicity and reflection of day-to-day life occurrences during the entire period of our association with the Project.
Q. Other than your books are there any other pieces of literary work on naval history, submarine history, naval and submarine warfare from India and abroad which you would recommend being added to a naval officers reading list? Could you elaborate on your reasons for those recommendations?
Ans: I would recommend to the reader the history of the Submarine Arm of the Indian Navy chronicled in a book 'Foxtrot to Arihant' authored by Joseph P Chacko, where I provided consultancy on professional issues. Apart from that, there are many other books on the history and growth of the Indian Navy.
'Transition to Triumph' by Vice Admiral Gulab Hiranandani, 'Blue Waters Ahoy' by Vice Admiral Anup Singh, 'Foxtrots of the Indian Navy' by Cmde PR Franklin, 'Under Two Ensigns' by Rear Admiral Satyendra Singh are some books that easily come to mind. All these books are very good references for the growth and strength of the Indian Navy.
Apart from these I would strongly recommend 'Sea Power of the State' by Admiral Gorshkov. This book is a classic which comprehensively deals with the relationship of sea power with that of a strong maritime state and the essential ingredients that contribute to it.
Another classic which is as relevant today as it was in its time is 'The Influence of Seapower upon History' by Alfred Thayer Mahan. There are many other books on Naval history but these to my mind are of closest relevance.
Q. Why is reading important for our military and/or the nation at large and how has writing made you a more analytical thinker, security analyst and naval historian?
Ans: Reading military history is very important and necessary. For if one is ignorant of history, he is bound to repeat it is a famous adage and absolutely true. Besides, reading about different campaigns gives one the insight into the various factors, conditions and planning and selected courses of actions. They say, 'forewarned is forearmed'.
Accordingly, knowledge of military history may become relevant in the midst of a campaign when faced with similar circumstances and assist in charting out the optimal course of action. I deliberately refrain from using the adjective 'Correct' because the correctness of a course of action or otherwise is only apparent in hindsight.
Q. Are you of the opinion that military veterans should be encouraged write about their unique service experiences or share their professional views in the form of a book? How do you feel this will empower the next generation of military professionals and policy makers?
Ans: Yes. Veterans must put down their experiences on paper whether in book form or in articles. Sharing of knowledge and experiences is a treasure which should be nurtured. It also encourages the next generation to follow suit.
Reading in general and on military history in particular trains the mind to think critically and analyse the events in the light of one's own thought process and training. A thinking and an analytical mind are always an added weapon in the armoury of a military commander.
Q. Lastly, what advice would you like to give a veteran who has a story to tell however does not know how to formulate it in the form of a book, how would you be recommend they go about the journey?
Ans: My advice to a veteran who is hesitant to write a book but has a story or stories to tell would be to express his/her thoughts on a personal blog. The day will come when the material on the blog will transform into a book.
I can cite a personal example. After my young son's demise in 2007 at the age of twenty-three, I was devastated but knew that his story had to be told. But the grief precluded me from thinking how to go about it.
A senior colleague then gave the same advice that I am suggesting herein. I did that and, in a few years, I was able to write the biography of my son compiled from the content on the blog. It was released by Mr. Arnab Goswamy on 26 Feb 2017 in Bombay. The book is titled "Alyosha....A blaze like a shooting Star." Also published by Frontier India.
About the Interviewee
Cmde Arun Kumar graduated from the National Defence Academy in Dec 1971 and was commissioned in the rank of Sub Lt on 01 Jul 1973. He joined the Submarine Arm in May 1975 and served for 28 years in the arm eventually swallowing the anchor as a Cmde in May 2004. In the submarine arm the officer has held all major appointments. He commanded two Kilo class boats INS Sindhuraj, INS Sindhughosh. He also held command of the submarine base INS Virbahu, Submarine Schoo, INS Satavahana and as COMSUB East Commanded the 8th and 11th submarine Squadrons as also the 10th Submarine Squadron as Capt SM.
He played an important part in the growth of the Arm as The Principal Director Submarine Acquisition in steering the 30 year SM building Plan at NHQ in his last appointment. The officer also commanded the missile destroyer INS Rajput. The Officer also graduated in Basic Submarine Course, Long Navigation and Direction Course, Submarine COQC standing first in all. He also underwent the Defence Services Staff and Naval Higher Command and Defence Management courses with distinction.
He was selected for nuclear submarine training in Aug 1982 and completed the 30 months (Oct 83-Apr 1986) training in Vladivostok, USSR. He was part of the Commissioning and Decommissioning crew of Chakra as the First Lt and Executive Officer respectively. For his dedicated services of exceptionally high order, he was decorated twice by the President of India with a Nau Sena Medal (NM) & Ati Vishisht Seva Medal (AVSM) in 1991 and 2003 respectively.