As I mentioned at the tail-end of yesterday’s post (here), the Russian Priz mini submarine stranded on the floor of the Pacific Ocean has been rescued. All seven crewmembers are reported to be in good condition. They’ll still need to undergo medical examiniation but, judging by this picture, they were fit enough to walk down a gangplank under their own power so I’d expect them to pass their medicals without too many problems.
Details of the rescue itself are still a little sketchy but, according to this RIA Novosti report, it looks as though a British Scorpio mini-submarine cut the Russian sub free, allowing the crew to surface without any further assistance. There is still some debate as to whether the Priz was entangled in fishing nets, antennae from a Russian underwater monitoring / early warning system, or both. The same RIA Novosti report I’ve just quoted hedges its bets, referring to both nets and cable:
The British robot craft Scorpio involved in the international rescue
effort worked on the seabed for six hours, trying to cut the submarine
free of the fishing nets and underwater antennas in which she was
caught up, Ivanov said, adding that the Scorpio had been flown to
Kamchatka and taken out to sea on a Russian vessel.
A BBC report, though, quotes the owner of the British Scorpio submarine claiming that there were definitely no cables:
"There were a lot of fishing nets which we had to cut
away, but there were no steel cables, although some of it did look like
steel. Initial reports could have suggested there were steel rather
than nylon nets," Roger Chapman told the BBC.
(The BBC, by the way, also has a number of pictures of the submarine and its returned crew)
Putin has instructed Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov (pictured here either looking heroically out to sea, or deeply regretting eating such a substantial breakfast that morning) to conduct a review of the indicident. Not a particularly surprising move in any country, but especially not surprising in Russia where Putin is regularly seen on tv either issuing orders or dressing down his ministers.
There certainly are plenty of serious questions to be asked about this incident, especially when one considers that this could so easily have been the third Russian submarine to sink in the last five years. Previous submarine sinkings were the Kursk in 2000 with the loss of all 118 crew, and a decommissioned K159 nuclear sub in 2003, in which 9 of the 10 crewmembers lost their lives. (As an aside – all of these incidents took place in August – a month now regarded by many in Russia as cursed due to the high incidence of disasters in this late summer month).
The BBC’s Sarah Rainsford points out a couple of the hard questions that will now be asked in Russia:
- why Russia still has no modern deep-sea rescue
equipment, five years after the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine
in which 118 sailors perished.
- why information on this accident from the navy was again late in coming and then deeply contradictory.
Once the initial shock and euphoria over the rescue wears off, I’d imagine that the first of these two questions will be uppermost in the minds of many. Russia’s navy – once one of the world’s best – is clearly struggling to keep its ships and submarines afloat, making a deep sea rescue ability even more important than ever. The irony that the very submariners who were trapped were a rescue crew themselves (although clearly not deep sea rescue crew) will also not be lost on the Russian press and public.
Having to call in for help, while praised by many in the West as a positive reaction that demonstrated that Russia’s Navy top brass had learnt at least some lessons from the Kursk disaster has clearly not gone down all that well at home. One retired Russian Admiral blasted the decision to bring in foreign help as tantamount to giving away Russia’s military secrets (conveniently forgetting, most probably, that the US, British, French, Japanese and Chinese navies, if they are worth their salts, probably all know quite a lot about Russia’s naval surveillance techniques already). The Russian Navy, while quick to thank and praise the British and Americans for their assistance, have not been tardy in pointing out that the rescue crews will be going straight home, either.
The varying information released by the Russian Navy, particulary estimates about how much oxygen was left in the submarine are important, and will certainly be looked at carefully. The Russian government – particularly the Russian military – have a terrible record when it comes to releasing information, and are rarely given the benefit of the doubt these days. However, it’s worth noting that incidents such as these are always confusing, and I doubt if any government or military press office in the world would be able to produce 100% accurate information. Also, an additional factor may have been at play in this case, as submariner Lubbers Line points out:
This submersible was primarily submarine rescue vehicle and therefore
the crew would have been trained in all aspects of submarine rescue
problems, including air quality and conservation.
Once the crew knew that they needed to await outside rescue that
training would have kicked in and may have been what pushed the air
supply to the more optimistic estimates.
Finally, it’s been interesting to note, also, that the Russian Navy is not the only one being criticised today. The US Navy in particular has come in for some stick at submarine blog Ultraquiet No More for taking so long to get to the Far East.
The British reached the scene first in part because they had a
shorter flight to get their Scorpio to Russia. But it also took the
Americans four hours longer than expected Friday to load the Scorpios
onto a cargo plane in San Diego, with both the Air Force and the Navy citing each other for contributing to the delay.
Thankfully – and here, as a Brit, I shall indulge myself in a small piece of gloating – they weren’t needed.