The Long, Jaded History of ‘Steel Tomb’ Submarines

August 14, 2021 Topic: Miltiary Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWeaponsWarSubmarinesIndiaNavy

The Long, Jaded History of ‘Steel Tomb’ Submarines

While the submarines were advanced the training of the crew certainly wasn’t. 


Here’s What You Need to Remember: Since their inception submarines have been called a “steel tomb” due to the inherent dangers involved in their routine operations. It almost seems unnatural to design a boat that would travel under the water’s surface, and that is why it took a brave type of sailor to volunteer for such duty. During the American Civil War, the CSS Hunley became the first “successful” submarine in that it could effectively submerge yet had problems surfacing—and sadly that cost the lives of its entire crew.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Navy suffered a number of submarine accidents, with many being due to fires; while one particular accident involving the K-431 was later revealed to be due to mishandling of the boat’s nuclear rods, which were lifted too high into the air. That resulted in a reactor achieving critical mass, followed by a chain reaction and explosion. 


Other accidents have been what can only be described as “human error” of the most extreme kind. A German Type VIIC submarine sank on its maiden voyage during World War II because the boat’s new deepwater high-pressure toilet was used “improperly,” by the captain no less!

Yet, none of those mishaps compares to what happened to INS Arihant, India’s first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, in 2017. The brand new $2.9 billion submarine was left completely inoperative for nearly a year after a hatch was left open, which allowed seawater to rush in, almost sinking the boat.

The nuclear submarine was the first of an expected five in class, designed and constructed as part of the Indian Navy’s Advanced Technology Vessel project. The Arihant was designed with four launch tubes that could carry a dozen K-15 short-range missiles or K-4 intermediate-range nuclear missiles.

While the submarines were advanced the training of the crew certainly wasn’t. 

Moreover, the Arihant faced a number of problems from the start, and this included delays in its construction and notably major differences between the Russian-supplied design and the indigenous fabrication.

Those were all minor of course compared to the damage that occurred from human error. 

That resulted in a hatch that was left open by mistake while the boat was in the harbor, and in addition to filling the propulsion compartments with seawater, there was substantial damage to the pipes that ran through the submarine. Given how corrosive seawater can be the various pipes, including those that carry pressurized water coolant to and from the ship’s eighty-three-megawatt nuclear reactor, all had to be cut out and replaced. 

The six-thousand-ton INS Arihant remained out of service at the docks while the water was pumped out, and the pipes replaced. The entire process took ten months. Its absence was first noted in the Doklam border standoff with China in the summer of 2017—and the Indian military only confirmed that the submarine had undergone repairs in early 2018. 

As mishaps go the Arihant may have been among the more embarrassing but at least it didn’t result in the loss of life. 

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on This article was first published earlier this year.

Image: Flickr.