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May 8, 2020: Russia continues to improve its submarine rescue capability, which was largely unavailable in August 2000 when the five year old pride of the Northern Fleet, the 14,000 ton nuclear submarine Kursk sank. Some of the Kursk crew who survived the initial disaster died inside the sub as their air ran out because Russia had no equipment available to detect and rescue them. The most recent addition to Russian submarine rescue capabilities is fourteen more Malrin-350 unmanned submersibles used for finding sunken ships or anything else of interest on the seafloor. Russia received the first of these in 2016, to replace the British made Tiger submersibles. By the end 2020 Russia will have 57 of them. The 50 kg (110 pound) Malrin-350 is one meter square-shaped and has six propulsion units enabling it to quickly and precisely maneuver. It is connected to the surface by a thin fiber-optic cable enabling data from its high-resolution camera and sonar to be viewed by its operators on the surface. Malrin-350 can go down as far as 350 meters (1,100 feet). Malrin-350 can leave acoustic markers near items it has found.

Russia also developed a larger MSS-3000 submersible that can go down to 3,000 meters (9,600 feet) to examine wreckage of lost ships or aircraft and document what is down there and recover some of it. MSS-3000 carries a 150 kg payload which can include tools to cut into wreckage and recover items like black box flight recorders. MSS-3000 will soon enter service along with new types of submarine rescue ships. This effort brings Russia into the lead when it comes to underwater search, rescue and recovery. Twenty years ago Russia was in last place in this category but the loss of the Kursk changed all that. Not just the loss of the sub but the fact that 23 sailors survived and could have been rescued if Russia had the equipment then that it has now.

In 2000 there was no instant fix for the submarine rescue problem but Russia managed to organize a long-term and well managed effort to build the sub rescue capability. Some of the new equipment had actually been ordered long ago but was never considered important enough to have any priority. By 2013, after decades of delays, Russia finally put ten new rescue ships into service. This rescue fleet included a specially designed seagoing tug and small rescue craft for the Baltic and Black seas. The larger craft are stationed in the north and on the Pacific coast. These two bases are home ports for all Russian nuclear subs.

Chief among these rescue ships is the 5,000 ton Igor Belousov, which is equipped with a Western submarine rescue system. Completion of the Belousov was delayed several years because of money shortages and a failed effort to develop a Russian made submarine rescue system. The Belousov has a helicopter pad, a decompression chamber that fits 60 people, and two ARS-600 mini-subs. Each of these seats 2 and are used to check out subs in trouble. There are also unmanned Panther Plus (goes down to 1,000 meters/3,100 feet) and Tiger (150 meters/460 feet) unmanned submersibles. The actual rescue is handled by a Divex system from a British firm. This can handle rescues down to 450 meters (1,400 feet), has a crew of 3, and can bring up 12 people at a time.

Russia chose the British 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 Submarine Rescue Vehicle (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 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 did not 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.

 


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