By Nat South for the Saker Blog
In this article I want to highlight something that will be taking behind the scenes so to speak, following the recent sinking of the Black Sea Fleet Flagship, ‘Moskva’. That is, closure of the ‘Moskva’s untimely demise. This final activity consists of locating, securing, assessing the wreck and salvage of classified equipment and weapons. Moreover, the possibility of recovering bodies isn’t discounted either. It is extremely doubtful that the ‘Mosvka’ will ever be raised and refloated, however, certain parts and equipment will have to be removed from the wreck due to their top-level military sensitivity.
Writing about salvage operations probably isn’t the most interesting topic these days, however it is an integral part of naval activities. Naval salvage is largely unknown and only briefly reported in the media, usually as a footnote to incidents and accidents. Yet, as the U.S. Navy and UK navy know well, salvaging sensitive equipment is of paramount importance, with recent experience of having to salvage from the depths of the Mediterranean and the South China Seas, crashed F-35 wrecks. The aim is not to leave behind any bit of equipment that could be potentially useful intelligence to another military.
The Black Sea Fleet has a range of vessels that can directly participate in Search and Rescue (SAR) operations, survey and salvage operations. Most of which are auxiliary ships and have a dive support or seabed search capabilities of varying specifications.
There will be several phases to consider:
1. Securing of the site;
2. Seabed surveying of wreck site;
3. Close- up visual inspection and assessment of condition;
4. Removal of sensitive equipment / dangerous armament.
Given that the reported wreck site is in waters less than 100 metres, a couple of reports originating from Ukraine suggest around 50 metres, the operations will not be as onerous as for deep-sea salvage operations. Although this depends on the overall condition of the wreck. Various pieces of equipment are required, firstly survey – side scan sonar to map the seabed, then the use of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to inspect and locate equipment, and lastly dive-support equipment such as diving-chambers or even the use of a manned deep-sea rescue submersible, (though highly-unlikely) if so required.
Diagram outlining some of the equipment for rescue and salvage: ROV, diving bell, divers, submersibles. All bar the submersible is likely to be used during salvage operations of the Moskva.
For the initial phase, the surveying phase, the Black Sea Fleet has at its disposal several hydrographic and scientific ships that can carry out initial and detailed survey work of the area, (Epron, Seliger, or the Project 862/II Yug-class Hydrographic vessel ‘Donuzlav’ for example). There are other smaller hydrographic vessels, (Moma or Finik class) in the fleet that can also survey the site.
The Black Sea Fleet has ships with heavy lifting capacity, such as the large mooring/buoy tender/rescue ship Project 141, Kashtan Class, KIL-158 with its 100-ton heavy lift gantry. Then there is the ‘Epron’, designed to perform salvage, lifting and manned diving operations amongst other roles. The rescue tug ‘Spasatel Bekh’, (previously SB-739), which has a dive support capability for up to 60 metres deep, but it can deploy ROVs and other surveying equipment. Likewise, there are several other dedicated rescue tugs, with a multi-role capability, such as the ‘SB-742’ or the ‘Kapitan Gurev’, (Project 22870), to assist in inspection and salvage work, (with dive support complex onboard), able to support diving operations at a depth down to 60 m. These could also assist in salvage rescue operations, with their lift or dive support roles, as was the case in Syria with the salvage of crashed military aircraft. Lastly, there is the salvage vessel ‘Sayany’, (Project 05361- Mikhail Rudnitsky Class) in service with the Black Sea Fleet. In short, there is no shortage of a range of vessels that can participate in operations to retrieve equipment and weapons.
A case is that of the signals intelligence ship (AGI) ship ‘Liman’, that sank after a collision with a merchant ship, ‘Youzarsif H’, on April 27, 2017, roughly 20 miles northwest of the Bosporus Strait. The Russian Navy quickly sent an auxiliary ship to guard the area, then the ‘Seliger’, (Project 11982 research ship), was sent to survey and assess the wreck. Following this, ‘SB-739’, a Project 22870 ocean-going rescue tug was sent onsite as part of the operations to retrieve sensitive equipment. All in all, several ships had different roles in the overall operation, the KIL-158, Epron, Seliger and SB-739. The Liman sank outside Turkish territorial waters, nevertheless, retrieving top-secret material from the vessel was a matter of extreme urgency given the role of the vessel and proximity to a NATO state. A similar situation is expected regarding the ‘Moskva’.
At a push, even the ‘Vsevolod Bobrov’, a Project 03182 logistics support vessel, could also assist in various aspects of operations, since having cranes for cargo work, it can conduct seabed surveys and dive support, (decompression chamber onboard). Additionally, the Black Sea Fleet operates the ‘Kommuna’, (*) onboard there is a ROV, (Pantera Plus), which capable of operating to depths of up to 1,000 metres. (Vesti December 2010), and it also has a rescue submersible, (AS-28) onboard. (Russian MOD 2017).
The Russian Navy has developed considerable expertise with rescue operations, over the last decade, including assisting Argentina in the search for the ARA ‘San Juan’ in 2017. The Russian MoD regularly published information on exercises carried out using a variety of equipment, including mini submersibles, (DSRV), ROV robotics, and the use of deep-sea diving suits, and diving bells. Similarly, the Russian Navy has participated in several expeditions in recent years, which were often complex in nature, to retrieve sunken WW2 equipment in the Barents, to maintain salvage skills.
Another historical case related specifically to the Black Sea. On August 30, 1974, the ‘Otvazhnyy’, a Kashin Class destroyer caught fire and sunk, following an explosion of the aft SA-N-1 SAM magazine. Likewise, the Soviet Navy took the precaution of carrying out a clean-up and retrieval of equipment from the wreck site.
Ukrainian media has reported on the probable salvage operation as an article mentions that 8 Russian auxiliary ships are in the area. The article also suggests that Russia is contemplating using offshore drilling units to “raise the cruiser from the bottom of the flooded with the help of the so-called “Boyko towers” (Ukrainian drilling rigs “Peter Godovanets” and “Ukraine”). Surreal and far-fetched scenario, since these are drilling platforms not heavy-lift crane barges. Read the article at your peril.
*What has to be probably the oldest serving submarine rescue/salvage ship in the world and has the title of the longest serving sea-going commissioned Navy ship too. It is unlikely that the ship will be called into action to participate in any of the ‘Moskva’ salvage operation.