Submarines: Chinese Breath Easier


February 3, 2021: At the end of 2020 China revealed its new individual SEIE (Submarine Escape Immersion Equipment) suit, This item allows submarine crew to escape from a submarine disabled at shallow depths of up to 183 meters (600 feet). The Chinese SEIE is based on the British SEIE design developed in the 1960s and regularly updated since then, and widely used in Western navies. The SEIE was an improvement on the American developed Momsen Lung from the 1930s and the later 1960s Steinke Hood. These two devices provided escaping submarine crew with an air breathing system that minimized decompression sickness. While these two breathing devices worked, they did not protect escaping submarine crew from freezing to death if they were surfacing in anything but tropical waters. The SEIE incorporated a thermal suit and individual life raft that automatically inflated when the sailor reached the surface. The SEIE was augmented by existing SRVs (Submarine Rescue Vehicles) that had been around in one form or another since the 1930s.

China was ahead of Russia when it came to submarine rescue equipment, and since the 1970s has adopted British gear to equip their submarines and submarine rescue ships that carry SRVs, decompression chambers and related submarine support equipment. These ships spend most of their time serving as “submarine tenders” that supply submarines at sea with needed supplies and emergency services. One of the more extreme emergencies is a disabled sub on the ocean floor with survivors inside.

Russia neglected its submarine rescue capability until the August 2000 disaster that wrecked the five-year-old pride of the Northern Fleet, the 14,000-ton nuclear submarine Kursk. Explosions sank the Kursk and it came to rest on the sea floor at a depth of 108 meters (354 feet). Some of the Kursk crew who survived the initial disaster died inside the sub after their air ran out because Russia had no equipment available to detect and rescue them.

The Kursk was equipped with an automatic locating buoy that would go to the surface automatically if the sub sank. The buoy was disabled duringan earlier operation and not repaired. Same problem with the two SRVs the Russian Navy had. Both had been sidelined for repairs that the naval budget did not have money for. As a result it took too long to find the Kursk, which was sunk when one of its own torpedoes exploded. Only 23 of 118 crew survived. They were all in one compartment that only had air for about six hours, and no access to other equipment that would enable them to get to the surface alive. If the location buoy was working and at least one of the nearby DRSVs were in working order, the 23 surviving Kursk crew could have been rescued. The Kursk disaster was a major scandal for Russia and forced them to do what China had done in the 1970s, obtain the latest submarine rescue equipment and keep it operational.

Russia chose the British SRV rescue sub because Western firms pioneered the development of this equipment and were the foremost manufacturers. Western firms also established international standards in this area. Back in 2008, NATO successfully completed tests of the NATO SRV. This $95 million SRV1 is a deep-water rescue device that can be airlifted to anywhere in the world on short notice, fit on the deck of at least 140 identified ships, and mate with the escape hatches on most of the worlds’ submarines. The SRV1 has a crew of three and can carry up to 15 men at a time to the surface. It can go down once every four hours. This allows time to deal with decompression, battery recharging, and maintenance before each trip down. The two Russian SRVs were in need of repairs because they were used regularly for supporting espionage and naval commando training rather than submarine rescue.

The SRV1 system is shipped in eleven waterproof cargo containers that can be flown by military or civilian cargo aircraft. Including flight time, set up time on the ship, and movement time to the site of the distressed submarine, the NATO SRV should be able to get where it is needed and have the SRV in the water within 72 hours. The SRV itself is 10 meters (31 feet) long, weighs 27 tons, and can go as deep as 1,000 meters (3,000 feet), which is the maximum depth for most submarines.

Britain, Norway, and France cooperated to design and build SRV1. The Americans built a similar system, providing two rescue systems to deal with any of the several hundred subs in service. The NATO SRV is based in Clyde, Scotland and is managed by the UK Ministry of Defense. After 2000 Russia established links with NATO that included sharing undersea rescue capabilities. This was first used in 2005 when an unmanned British minisub was flown Pacific coast in the Russian northeast. Within six hours of landing to work, the minisub had cut free a small Russian rescue sub. This allowed the trapped sub and its crew of six to come to the surface. The Russian sub had gotten snagged in abandoned fishing nets three days earlier. The United States also flew out two minisubs, but the British got there first and were aided by some American transport troops who had already arrived. The Russians thanked the British and other nations who had rushed assistance to the remote area. Russia also decided to buy two of the minisubs that Britain used. These minisubs are used for all sorts of underwater work and cost about a million dollars each. Quickly calling in foreign assistance was a major change in Russian Navy practice. The navy was under tremendous pressure to ask for foreign assistance after they refused to do so in 2000 when the Kursk went down.

The 2005 rescue was a direct result of the 2003 agreement between Russia and NATO to instantly cooperate if anyone's submarines went down and quick rescue attempts were needed. This agreement was a direct result of what happened when the Russian Kursk three years earlier. Back then NATO nations immediately offered rescue ships but the Russians dithered and the Kursk sailors who survived the initial disaster died. The agreement meant more regular transfer of information on who has what submarine rescue capabilities as well as rescue exercises between NATO navies and Russia. Over half the submarines in European navies belong to Russia, including most of the nuclear subs.

China began developing its own SRVs in the 1970s using Western SRVs as a model. The first of four Type 7103 DSRVs entered service in 1987 and all underwent refurbishment in the mid-1990s. While similar to Western SRVs the Chinese 7103s lack several features common in Western models. As a result, a new generation of SRVs are being developed. China has not had a Kursk-level disaster to prompt them to join existing international submarine rescue organizations. One reason for the lack of Chinese submarine disasters is that China does not operate its submarines as frequently as Western navies or as carelessly as the Russians.


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