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Commander Powis joined the Royal Naval College Britannia in 1974 and served in a number of surface ships before specializing in submarines in 1978. He saw action in the South Atlantic as the Navigating Officer of HMS CONQUEROR. After passing the Perisher Command Course in 1986 he commanded three submarines, the SSK HMS UNSEEN and the SSBNs HM Ships RESOLUTION and VICTORIOUS. He is currently serving as the Senior Operations Officer to COMSUBEAS7LANTin Northhwood England.

Since the KURSK tragedy there has been a sea change in the way that Submarine Escape and Rescue (SMER) is conducted. Once a strictly national or bipartisan affair it has rapidly become a shared discipline with NATO becoming the de facto lead and centre of excellence in the world. For a number of years NATO has run an annual SMER Working Group (SMERWG), chaired by a serving UK submariner and aimed at the standardization of NATO member nations’ equipment and procedures. In recent years SMERWG has been expanded considerably by the inclusion of invited non-NATO nations with observer status. Consequently SMERWG represents the only truly international forum for SMER. The next step is to form within NATO a dedicated SMER Liaison Office (SMERLO): this is about to become a reality.

The SMERLO will consist of a small staff led by a senior submariner. Perhaps 5 or 6 personnel in total whose tasks will be as follows:

  • Monitoring the availability of Submarine Rescue Systems (SRS) of those Submarine Operating Nations (SON) that possess them.
  • Provide a first point of contact in case of SUBSUNK.
  • Maintain an up to date list of SMER personnel and facilities of potential SMER utility throughout the world. This list will include the following: o Suitable vessels to act as Mother Ships (MOSHIPS).
    • Suitable ports of embarkation.
    • Suitable airfields to be used by large cargo aeroplanes.
    • Diving decompression and related medical facilities.
  • In case of SUBSUNK advise on availability of rescue assets.
  • Produce and distribute relevant publications.
  • Work with and within the SMERWG in standardising procedures and specifications.
  • Provide advice and if necessary training and inspection teams on all matters concerning SMER.
  • Coordinate and advise upon SMER training and participation in exercises.
  • Provide a first point of contact for SMER related press inquiries.

Participation in SMERLO will be voluntary. SON will be invited to contribute details of their SMER systems. Technical details of hatches, seats and internal submarine escape arrangements should not compromise national security and once provided will be incorporated into the relevant publications. SMERLO will establish a secure, read-only website. Access to the website will be limited to subscribers but all Internet users will be able to reach the initial page or pages which will contain contact details as well as general SMER information. In view of the supra-NATO international nature of SMERLO, all business will be conducted in English, although NATO usually works in both French and English.

The final physical location of the SMERLO is not yet decided. There are a number of options. It will either sit within an existing Submarine Operating Authority (SOA) at Northwood England or Norfolk Virginia, or within the NATO HQ at Brussels Belgium. The preferred option is Norfolk Virginia. However, as SMERLO has no command and control function and is purely an advisory service and custodian of the SMER database it does not need to be located within an existing HQ. In the interest of permitting access by non-NATO states it may be necessary to choose a site that has few security implications.

Publications concerning SMER are already largely declassified. Some states may have difficulty in coming to terms with the declassification of certain information about their submarines. Nevertheless, it is envisaged that all SMER related publications would be made available either in hard copy or on the Internet to subscribers.

Membership of SMERLO will be open to all states that operate submarines. Should a country decline the invitation to participate, that is their own affair. However, they would still have limited access to the website and a call for assistance in case of SUBSUNK would not be ignored.

The establishment of SMERLO will not happen overnight. Wherever it should be located it is unlikely to be ready to undertake its responsibilities before 2006. Therefore on 1 July 2002 COMSUBEASTLANT (CSEL) with the agreement of COMSUBACLANT and COMSUBSOUTH stood up an Interim SMERLO (ISMERLO) with three personnel drawn from his extant submarine staff at Northwood England. Contact details are listed at the end of this article and ISMERLO is already represented at the SMERWG.

ISMERLO will not undertake all of the responsibilities of the full organization. Until the full establishment, publications will remain with the designated custodians and visits for liaison and training will not be made except under national arrangements. The initial database will be developed from the extant UK database. A read-only ISMERLO website will be created giving contact details and the proposed Concept of Operations. In due course it will be expanded to include much of the information currently held in MTP 57. It is envisaged that this website will become the principal medium for obtaining contact details and basic SMER information. The website address is www.eastlant.nato/smerlo.

It is of interest to note that the nascent SMERLO and ISMERLO are similar to a concept briefed by the Indian Navy delegate (Commander Deep Mathur) at the 2001 Asia Pacific Submarine Conference. Commander Mathur named his idea the Multilateral Submarine Rescue Arrangement (MSRA). MSRA called for legally binding agreements between states concerning SMER and the establishment of designated regional coordinators. Having met with Cdr Mathur during the recent SMER exercise Sorbet Royal 02 we took advantage of the opportunity to compare notes and explore the similarities of the two methods. In essential purpose and ideas the two proposals are identical. However, it is considered within NATO that the difficulties of arranging binding international agreements would detract from the essentially voluntary and humanitarian nature of international SMER. Nevertheless it is pleasing to note that the concept of a central exchange for SMER information has already achieved wide acceptance. I hope that, in the dreadful event of a future submarine disaster; ISMERLO and SMERLO will make some contribution to saving lives.

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