Another Russian submarine disaster

July 05, 2019

THE latest Russian submarine tragedy is causing some commentators in the West to point out that Moscow’s renewed and reequipped armed forces are still subject to the procedural shortcomings that saw the humiliating 2000 loss of the nuclear sub Kursk in which the entire 118 crew perished.

The Kremlin has been seeking to control the amount of detail coming out about the death of 14 crew members onboard a top secret submersible in deep waters of the Barents Sea off Russia’s northern coast. So far it has been admitted there was a fire in the battery department aboard the unnamed craft and the fourteen victims apparently died from smoke inhalation. Other crew members, including a civilian, survived. What is notable is that everyone on the stricken submarine was an officer, two of them highly decorated. This strongly suggests that this was a trial of the vessel or perhaps a test of new equipment that had been attached to it.

Foreign intelligence reports are claiming the craft was an AS-12 or AS-31 mini-sub which is capable of diving to depths of 6,000 meters. These vessels are carried underneath a larger submarine, partly to save fuel and also to allow them to be maneuvered into position without being tracked by other powers. It is also being said the stricken vessel was operated by the Chief Directorate for Deep Water Research (GUGI). This organization’s job is to monitor foreign underwater communications lines, recover equipment and weaponry from deep water and to protect Russia’s own subsea communications cables.

During the Cold War, the United States endeavored to monitor Soviet submarine movements by dropping sonar devices onto the seabed. It was also alleged the Americans frustrated a Soviet attempt to tap into a key subsea military cable. The modern AS submersible program has therefore been of considerable interest to Washington, not least the US Navy’s highly secret Detachment Undersea Research and Development (DURD) organization. This has developed its own spy device, the 30 meter-long, 2,500 ton Multi-Mission Platform which was first revealed three years ago when it was deployed by the Seawolf attack submarine Jimmy Carter. It is supposed to be able to carry a wide range of equipment including underwater drones and even elite US Navy SEALS.

The Russian military has always taken a tough outlook on casualties. Before the World War II it was deploying troops without parachutes by having them roll off the wing of an Antonov transport flying low and slow. The calculation was that a third of these men would not be injured and could therefore go into battle. Nazi Germany was ultimately defeated by sheer weight of numbers and the quantity, rather than quality of much of the equipment they used.

But it would be wrong for outsiders to crow about this latest Russian submarine disaster. The highest ever underwater loss of life, 129 sailors, came in 1963 when the USS Thresher sank during diving trials. Five years later the USS Scorpion sank killing 99 crew, a disaster blamed on an exploding torpedo, the same reason given for the loss of the Kursk.

Surviving deep beneath the ocean is every bit as challenging as going into space. Whenever boundaries are being pushed the risks inevitably rise, especially in top secret intelligence operations.

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