by Le Dahu for The Saker Blog


I’m writing at the same time as an international search for the Argentine submarine, ARA ‘San Juan’, is underway. Last reported 250km off the coast of Patagonia, the ‘San Juan’, a German built TR-1700 Class, was already 48 hrs overdue, when the naval authorities made a public announcement.

This comes when in the previous week, Russian Navy divers, have managed a dive down to 317m. (TASS November 2017). The divers from the Pacific Fleet’s newest specialist rescue & salvage vessel ‘Igor Belousov’, are now training to achieve a 450m depth. You probably thinking what’s the connection, well, distressed submarines.

The loss of the Russian submarine K141,‘Kursk’,17 years ago in the Barents Sea, certainly grabbed the world’s attention. The tremendous loss of life not only seriously shook up the Russian Navy’s existing attitude towards submarine search & rescue, but of NATO too.

An outcome of the ‘Kursk’ sinking was the setting up of the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office, (ISMERLO) based in Lisbon, Portugal, with a database of suitable rescue ships & systems. It is able to coordinate the most appropriate systems quickly to the distressed submarine (DISSUB). As such it is supported by practically all of the 40 or so countries operating submarines, including Argentina & Russia.

This part of the rescue process, ‘Time To First Rescue’, (TTFR) is extremely vital. Similarly to what paramedics & doctors call the ‘Golden Hour’, the sooner a rescue system is put into action, the quicker the assets are sent to the scene, then the better the outcome might be.  Any delays in getting rescue will exponentially be worse. Sadly the Russian authorities learned that lesson in the most painful way in August 2000, but did use it successfully in 2005 though, for a stricken mini-submersible off Kamchatka. (SpaceWar Aug 2005).

Nowadays, NATO has a Sub Rescue System, NSRS, that includes a rescue system, known as a DSRV, (Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle).  The UK -based system is on permanent standby,  transportable on an aircraft worldwide & can quickly placed on a suitable ship to rescue a stricken sub, if requested.  Additionally, NATO sponsors a regular Submarine Search, Escape and Rescue exercises, known as Dynamic Monarch. The tenth one was held in Turkey this year.

The US Navy too have a crew & a Submarine Rescue Diving and Recompression System (SRDRS), based out of San Diego, that also can be airlifted worldwide. This has been airlifted down to Argentina on Sunday.

Submariners train for combat, train against adversaries, sometimes other submarines, but that doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t a fraternity of submariners worldwide. Reading comments from other submariners, (US,UK) of thoughts towards the stricken crew of the ‘San Juan’, shows this.   Moreover, regular international exercises, and offers of help in the rare event of an emergency shows the high level of international cooperation.

Back to the Russian Navy, the fatal outcome of the Kursk, seriously changed the way that submarine rescue is organised, how training is done and equipment used.  The process of submarine rescues can vary depending on the depth where the stricken submarine is.  An general overview and brief history  of the various rescue systems used is given here.

Nowadays, the Russian Navy frequently holds submarine rescue operation drills throughout its Fleets & also from time to time with other nations. There is at least one dedicated ‘rescue’ vessel with each Fleet, (this had been the case at the time of the ‘Kursk’ sinking).  Project 21300, ‘Igor Belousov’ is the latest version and it joined the Pacific Fleet in 2016. The crew recently carried a submarine training exercise in the summer with the Chinese Navy, (Janes Oct 2017), while in 2016, in the Indian Ocean, the ‘Igor Belousov’ joined in a search operation for a missing Indian Airforce aircraft AN-32.

It is equipped with a deep-sea rescue submersible, called Bester-1, (a DSRV), and a diving bell with a launch-and-recovery system (LARS). The GVK-450 deep-water rescue system, makes it possible to dive to a depth of up to 450 meters and lift sailors to the surface from a distressed submarine.  Bester-1 is a Project 18271, designated as “AS-40″. There is also a remotely-controlled vehicle, (ROV),that can go down to 1000m, onboard. (Underwater ROVs are linked to the mothership by a tether; these are routinely used in the oil & gas offshore industry). Necessary decompression is provided for as many as 60 submariners in 4 hyperbaric chambers. The ship isn’t just for sunken submarine rescues but also salvage operations for surface ships as well. The chief designer, Alexander Forst said:

“In the 1960s the Soviet search and rescue fleet was recognized as the best in the world. It is true that these traditions became a little lost, but the rich traditions accumulated over decades and sea rescue experiences are embodied in this ship.”(Sputnik November 2016).

Likewise, this class of rescue ship is being developed further by the Almaz Central Design Bureau, is upgrading the project in order to put on more hardware and improve stowage & crew quarters. It is anticipated that the improved Igor Belousov-class rescue ship will go into serial production in the next couple of years. (Almaz 2015).

The Pacific Sea Fleet received the latest rescue ship, largely due to its geographical distribution, with one naval base at Vladivostok and another some distance away on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The rescue of a stricken submarine crew is a complex & challenging operation. Hence regular training is undertaken to maintain proficiency on both sides, involving not only the rescuers but rescuees too. Latest Russian submarines have an enhanced built-in escape capsules for their crews.  In one publicised event in 2014, a physical test of the escape pod onboard the ‘Severodvinsk‘ was done. (Barents Observer Nov 2014)

Northern Sea Fleet Pacific Sea Fleet Black Sea Fleet Baltic Sea Fleet
Mikhail Rudnitsky Project 5360 Igor Belousov

Project 21300

Kommuna Kashtan-class ship – SS-750  Project 141
Georgy Titov

Project 5360

Grigory Kuzmin

Project 5360


Project 5360

    Alagez (?)

Project 537


Russian Navy ships with DSRV capabilities

The Northern Sea Fleet has also two submarine rescue ships, not quite in the same category though as the Belousov Class though, since they are from the Soviet-era. (Sputnik March 20170). The Northern Sea Fleet has 2 DRSVs, Project 1855-1 Priz submersibles, including AS-34. This was one of two Russian DSRVs that attempted to rescue the crew of the ‘Kursk’. A total of 4 of these have been upgraded recently and as a result a test dive was held down to 1000m depth. (The Barents Observer August 2017).

There is also a rescue ship deployed with the Mediterranean Squadron as well, providing the necessary safety & emergency cover for other Russian vessels.  One example back in 2015, is the Mikhail Rudnitsky Class, Project 5360, ‘Saynay’, that transferred over from the Pacific Sea Fleet. (TASS December 2015). It too has a ROV and a pressure chamber.  The arrival of the ‘Saynay’ came at a time when the improved-Kilo class submarines were being commissioned into Black Sea Fleet service.

Lastly, the Project 18551,Priz-class, DSRVs can also be airlifted to other areas, as well as carried by train or road. If this were to happen, then this has to be a really bad situation, not an ideal situation to occur in a time-critical rescue operation.

In Brief – other ships

Russian Navy Project 537 Osminog-class Alagez Rescue ship was reported to get an upgrade of its rescue  systems back in 2016, and was used prior to the commissioning of the ‘Igor Belousov’. (Russian Ships 2017).  Although it is not known what is the current status of this ship but it does a DSRV carrying capability.

The Igor Belousov search and rescue ship during sea trials.

Four modern dedicated rescue ships have come into naval service in the last couple of years including Project 22870. One of these is the ‘Professor Nikolay Muru’,(Russian MOD June 2015), whose tasks include firefighting operations and dive support operations up to 60m depth,(with a pressure chamber and an ROV, Falcon-1000, with a depth rating of 1000m). It too has spent some time in the Eastern Mediterranean, supporting the Russian Navy operations.  This generation of ships use dynamic positioning system, (DPS) which holds it in a precise location without anchors.

In this article I have  tried to highlight the principal ships in the Russian Navy that can directly participate in submarine SAR operations.  Of course, there are others that have a dive support or seabed search capabilities of varying specifications.

Of course I couldn’t write about Russian Navy salvage ship without mentioning the truly historic grand lady of the seas, the ‘Kommuna’, serving with the Black Sea Fleet. 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. To give credit, here are the specifications: (Wikipedia).

Since 2009, the ‘Kommuna’ carries a ROV,(Pantera Plus), which capable of operating to depths of up to 1,000 metres. (Vesti December 2010)

and also a submarine rescue submersible carrying capability too. Russian MOD 2017).

There are other ships in the Russian Navy that have heavy lifting capacity, such as the large mooring/buoy tender/rescue ship Project 141 KIL-158.  These could also theoretically assist in submarine rescue operations, with their lift or dive support roles.

The Russian Navy has significantly developed considerable expertise with rescue operations, over recent years. Exercises are carried out using a variety of equipment, including mini-submersibles, (DSRV), ROV robotics, and the use of deep sea diving suits, and diving bells.

Dear reader, as you are probably wondering, no this isn’t exactly an ‘alluringly trendy’ topic, in the same way as one on frigates or missile cruisers.  You’ll have to take my word that this is nevertheless a highly specialist field, that at times can be also highly covert in nature.  Systems that not only can locate & rescue stricken submarines, but also can find other objects on the seabed, carry out inspection or surveillance tasks, or even sometimes repairing or removing things like hydrophones or checking out your adversary’s  “military toys” on the seabed.

Personally, I think that the Russian Navy’s submarine rescue capabilities & resources go some way in shedding the painful legacy over the Kursk. In particular, the growing use of high-tech sea search & rescue equipment is part of the modernisation program. Yet there are still more concerns on PR handling, leadership attitudes rather than physical equipment. However this is an ongoing and inherent problem for many militaries around the world, as we see of late in Argentina.

Le Dahu

Freelance maritime researcher and commentator


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