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Mr. Bloom is retired from tax law consulting, but has written extensively on military and naval historical topics over a 40 year period, with some 60 articles in military and naval joumals and several encyclopedias. His book on the Roman-Jewish war was published in 2002. He lives in Silver Spring, MD with his wife.

It is not very well known that the Russian Navy operates midget submarines. Or at least it did up until a few years ago. Detailed descriptions, as well as tactical and technical characteristics, were found in the military and naval press and in the pages of Janes All the World Warships between 1989 and 1997. After that, we are told, the Russians laid up the two little vessels of this class in reserve. This is difficult to comprehend, as the leading designers of air independent propulsion {AIP) engines had, in 1991, perfected a propulsion unit expressly intended for the PIRANHAS.

It would be remarkable if the subs were indeed scrapped and the design defunct. In fact, the Russian model, called PIRANHAS, is far superior to counterparts listed in the inventories of rogue nations and the terrorist groups they support. Midget subs are among the favored instruments of the anti-Western jihad as well as the outlandish North Korean histrionics. It is possible that an improved PIRANHA, being assiduously hawked by the Russian shipyards, has secretly found its way into the hands of America-hating ultra national mafiosi. In 1996, one of Russia’s criminal chiefs, Ludwig Tarzan Feinberg, was arrested in Miami while negotiating the purchase of a PIRANHA to smuggle drugs from Colombia to the Southeastern U.S. It is not implausible that someone else with international underground funding has managed to purchase this praiseworthy stealth sub. Moreover, recent interest was expressed by the governments of Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates.

Janes enumerated the particulars of the Pyran’ya (in the Cyrillic transliteration) from 1989, when they first appeared, up through 1997, after which they disappeared from view. According to the respected Federation of American Scientists Military Analysis Network the subs went missing because the design was apparently not considered particularly successful. I differ with this negative assessment. Before getting into the particulars of the PIRANHAS, it might be enlightening to know how the Russians even became interested in subs at the low end of the displacement scale.

It’s a nautical enigma how today’s Russian midget submarines, called PIRANHA, emerged full-blown in the late 1980s. During the heyday of the midget submarine in World War II, the only nations that were known to operate these stealthy diminutive craft were Italy which was paramount in their design and use, Japan, Great Britain and Germany. The then- Soviet Union built and operated ocean- going fleet submarines modeled after successful Kriegsmarine classes deployed in Wolfpack hunter-killer formations. After the war, the Soviets continued to adapt their wartime high seas models until the advent of nuclear powered strategic subs and sub-hunters in the late 1950s.

In late summer, 1942, the Germans, who had recently captured Sevastopol, invited representatives of their Italian ally to visit Feodosia in the Crimea to examine and give their opinion on a small submarine that had fallen into their hands during mopping up operations. Experts from the 11th Squadron of CB midget submarines of the Royal Italian Navy (XI Squadriglia Sommergibili CB Regia Marina Italiana) were quite shocked at the discovery, since they had assumed that they, the Italians, were supreme in this particular branch of naval science-i.e., the midget sub.

Evidently this sub had been a top-secret project in the USSR, code named Project APSS (special-purpose autonomous submersible vessel). Some idea of the radical nature of the design is derived from other Soviet documents that dub the project a telemechanical submarine, radio-controlled TV-equipped submarine and even a telecontrolled self-propelled vehicle.

APSS was a midget submarine with a surface displacement of 7.2 tons and underwater displacement of 8.5 tons, armed with one forward mounted torpedo tube. It could be operated in two basic modes: standard mode (by one man) and remote-control mode. The design bureau studied the possibility of controlling the submarine from surface ships and aircraft (the so-called drivers under the latter mode. A special wave control was achieved by means of a Kvarts system installed on board the drivers. White utilizing the telemechanical mode, the sub carried a 500-kg explosive charge instead of a torpedo.

APSS construction began in 1935 at the Sudomekh Shipbuilding and Mechanical Plant in Leningrad. Two prototypes were built which underwent manufacturer trials in 1936. These concepts were quite bold for the time; in fact too audacious. A project report asserted that the problem of the submarine remote control was far from being solved. The robot concept was not confined to the midget subs. The bureau had a whole fleet of these ships: a destroyer, mine sweepers, and a torpedo boat as well as flying boats to carry out various experiments. The sub (APSS) project was never tested with these ships or with the aircraft. Both submarines were dismantled in 1936.

Later in 1936, the same department designed a second miniature submarine. It was designated APL (autonomous submarine) and nicknamed PIGMEI (Pygmy). Initially, this vessel was to be an autonomous undersea vehicle controlled from an aircraft as was the predecessor. However, continuing problems with the remote control convinced the office to concentrate on manned versions. In June of 1936 a prototype of the PIGMEI midget submarine was built in Leningrad.

The submarine was transported by rail to the design bureau base in Sevastopol on the Black Sea. In October 1936, PIGMEI, piloted by a young naval officer from the Black Sea Fleet, went through a whole range of experimental trials. Even though the PIGMEI sea trials disclosed flaws that needed to be worked out before commissioning, Red Navy leaders nevertheless decided to build a fleet often submarines of that class.

The first six boats were to be completed by the end of 1936, while the entire fleet was supposed to enter service in 1937. The construction of several PIGMEI submarines was launched at the Sudomekh plant in Leningrad. But due to reported design drawbacks and the objective complexity of fundamentally new technological problems, not a single boat was made combat ready. All of them were probably taken apart. Consequently, not a single production version PIGMEI type midget submarine entered service and ultimately there was only one experimental PIGMEI midget submarine in the Navy.

The PIGMEI was 16 m (52.8 feet) long and 2.62 m (8 .65 feet) wide and had a standard surface displacement of 18.6 tons. It could develop a maximum surface speed of 6 knots and a maximum underwater speed of5 knots. The boat’s full-speed range amounted to 290 miles on the surface and between 18 miles (full speed) and 60 miles (economical speed) underwater. The boat’s maximum diving depth was limited to 30 m (100 feet) and its maximum endurance was about three days. Pigmei main armament included two 450mm (18 inch) 45-15 type torpedoes fired from side rack-type launchers. In addition to it, the submarine four-man crew was armed with a 7.62mm machine gun.

There were just a few more experiments with compact submersibles before the German onslaught. After the abortive APSS and PIGMEI projects, the same designers produced a new blueprint: a small submarine with a standard surface displacement of 60 tons. By that time, however, the VI-series (Malyutka) small submarines, with a standard displacement of 158 tons, had been in serial production for several years. The Malyutka transcended the 60-ton Ostekhbyuro’s submersible vessels in terms of seaworthiness and habitability, although it had a long way to go in those respects. Consequently, Russia’s third underwater compact vessel project, like the first two, fizzled out.

It is likely that given a couple of years more, the Ostekhbyuro (agency charged with design and development of the secret craft) might have produced a successful minisub. Just about all of the bureau’s top officials, including those directly involved in design and testing, fell victim to the Stalinist Purges of 1937-38. The Show Trials alleged that the chief designer’s blueprints were treasonously deliberately flawed.

On the outbreak of World War II, the People’s Commissariat of the Navy (NK VMF) described PIGMEI as an experimental submarine, neither officially commissioning it nor assigning it to a fleet. Some sources, state that PIGMEI was left at the former Sevastopol Ostekhbyuro’s base in Balaklava, while other sources say that it was transferred to Feodosia and kept at the NK. VMF naval armament test base. In any event, in the summer 1942, the Germans captured PIGMEI and nobody can say where the boat is now.

As noted above, in August 1942, PIGMEI was shown to Italian submariners. They described it in their records, and it later attracted the attention of Italian naval historians. According to the naval history department of 11th Squadron of CB midget submarines of the Royal Italian Navy:

It was the newest unit in the final outfit stage. Its dimensions did not differ much from those of the Italian CB- type submarine, but its hull was better proportioned and longer. The submarine trapezoidal house was rather large but narrow. There were two long recesses at the boat’s hull mid-height which served to accommodate torpedoes.

So far no reports have been discovered about the submarine being found either ashore or sunk at sea after the liberation of the Crimea and the rest of Russia Black Sea region. Reliable authorities maintain that the Germans had tried to transport it from the Crimea to Germany. They were motivated to import the sub because they were actively involved in the development of their own midget submarines at that time and welcomed the acquisition of the advanced Russian design. Nobody has discovered any records that German shipbuilders inspected the captured Soviet midget submarine. It is likely that its new owners abandoned PIGMEI somewhere on the European railways. Thus it happened that in 1945 the first midget subs formally commissioned into service with the Soviet Navy were German See hunds (Seals) captured by the Soviet Anny. The SEEHUNG is arguably Nazi Germany most successful, or at least promising, midget submarine design. It is interesting to speculate whether or not the Germans may have had the benefit of data obtained either directly or from the Italian inspectors in formulating their SEEHUND concept.

It is thus inaccurate to say that the Russians were novices in the field of minisubs when PIRANHA was first noted in 1989. In fact, they had already been experimenting with bantam subs in 1918.

NATO designated the PIRANY A (Project 865) or Piranha as Losos It is about 95 feet long, with a 16-foot beam and 17-foot draft.

It displaces 218 tons surfaced and 390 tons submerged. It was intended for special operations and to engage surface ships located offshore out to and even beyond the 200-mile economic belt. It is very durably built and is almost completely silent. The hull is comprised of a titanium alloy, which reduces the effectiveness of enemy mines. It is especially suited for deploying divers on sabotage missions. The divers remain in contact with the submarine, which is capable of supplying them with oxygen for breathing and with electricity and warmth. The sub four-man navigational crew is able to monitor to ensure that the swimmer underwater equipment is operating properly. The PIRANYA 1200 kW lead-acid batteries allows the submarine to remain underway for ten days and the submarines at sea replenishment capabilities allows the submarine within 8 hours to receive enough food, fuel and lubricants, and air for an additional ten days. In 1991 the St. Petersburg based Special Boiler Design Bureau (SKBK) completed development of the Kristall-20 AIP system for the PIRANHA. The AIP underwent comprehensive testing and was accepted by the customer- the Ministry of Defense. However, the Federation of American Scientists asserts that AIP systems were never installed in submarines due to reductions in defense spending.

Nonetheless, in May of2000 the Russian Navy announced a new upgrade in the PIRANHA mini-submarine, though the intended client was not specified ; the report stated that the PIRHANA was used for reconnaissance and hit-and-run raids. While not specific, it is likely that the improvements entailed the installation of an improved version of the Kristall-20 AIP propulsion system developed in the early 1990s specifically for the PIRANHAS. The Malachite Design Bureau in St. Petersburg was actively promoting sales of the PIRANHA as recently as the end of 2005. The press releases are coy as to any purchasers- as successful bidders would most likely not want it known that they had such a potent implement of war in their arsenal.

However, some interested customers include the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. The last named nation in particular was quite interested in purchasing some of the improved models as a way of patrolling the notoriously pirate and terrorist infested Straits of Malacca. The Malakhite Design Bureau and the Russian naval export consortium were also negotiating with France to co-produce the PIRANY AS, but as of late 2005, they were awaiting the approval of the French authorities.

More recent versions of the PIRANHA, such as the PIRANHA- T are on a par with such successful contemporary craft as the Italian designs of the Kosmos midget submarine being purchased by Iran, North Korea and agents for the Palestinian groups. The T is about five feet longer than the original and displaces about 20 more tons. Its range is stated as 2000 miles on the surface and 260 dived, both at economical cruise speed. Operational endurance is given as 20 days. There is a crew of four plus up to six combat swimmers who utilize propulsion gear stowed in recessed pods along the upper hull, which also contain airlocks for the disembarkation and recovery of the swimmers. The original PIRANHA is also among those offered for sale, but the specified 1450 mile surface and 250 mile submerged radius is an improvement over the specs listed in Janes for 1995/96, the last time the boats were mentioned.

As for the actual method used to deliver the combat swimmers to their designated targets, the literature is rather vague, only noting that the men and their equipment are carried in external pods on the sub’s hull and that the swimmers remain tethered to the sub during the mission, whether by a form of cable or perhaps a signal. The unspecified tethering method provides the swimmers with oxygen and warmth while the PIRANHA provides navigational and other mission support. It is possible that some form of modified SCUBA or wet suit system is used, though the boat-swimmer link and the relative comfort of the swimmers indicates that the commandos are more protected than is the case with SCUBA; the ability to launch the swimmers at depths up to 200 feet (the sub’s maximum navigational depth is just short of 700 feet) indicates that an innovative type of airlock chamber is used.

For comparative purposes, a word is in order about the US Navy Advanced Seal Delivery System (ASDS). Prior to the development of the ASDS in the early 1990s, the SEAL delivery teams have been using the wet submersibles called the SEAL Delivery Vehicles or SDVs. With the SDVs, however, SEALs often have to spend extended periods of time in cold ocean water during long offshore transits, donning only a wet or a dry suit. They would thus arrive at their shoreline landing points exhausted, cold and not at their best form.

Promotional material for the ASDS provides the following information:

The ASDS is battery-powered, shock-hardened and stealthy. It is approximately 65 feet in length, 8 feet in diameter and weighs 60 tons. It can be transported in C-17 or C-5 military cargo airplanes. When it’s attached to a submarine, it can submerge in waters as deep as 800 feet. The main electric propulsion system is used for high-speed transit and a thrusting capability is available for low-speed maneuvering. The ASDS can travel at approximately 8 knots to about 125 nautical miles.

The pilot is an experienced submariner, and a SEAL navigator sits next to him. Additionally, the ASDS can carry six to eight fully equipped SEALs.

The submarine platforms that transport the ASDS will be specifically configured SSN 688-class boats. According to the Rand report, two 688 SSNs are currently being modified for this mission. The mini-sub has a hyperbolic chamber that is used to lock swimmers in and out from a bottom hatch at a variety of depths. It also serves to create a passageway to the host submarine-mating trunk when the ASDS is attached to the submarine’s hull. ASDS sensors include multiple sonars and its navigation system has both a global positioning system and an inertial guidance system.

It can be seen that this operational concept differs from the PIRANHA design in that the ASDS will only accommodate its two crew and 6-8 SEAL’s for the transit between an offshore position of the large mother sub and the target. The SEALs can be discharged while the vessel is submerged, but in relatively shallow waters. With a maximum range of 125 miles, or a maximum onboard stay of around 12-15 hours it is more of a ferry than an autonomous vessel. As such, it is admirably suited to the task. This is an updated version of the system used by the celebrated British X-craft in World War II. They were towed to their target and on arrival, a combat crew would be substituted for the transit crew. The PIRANHA, on the other hand, is to serve as both lodging and delivery vehicle for the 3-4 man crew and 5-6 combat swimmers for patrols of up to three weeks and passages of up to 2000 miles, allowing for one at-sea replenishment operation. In fact, the berthing and messing facilities for the I 0-man crew are comparable to a full-sized ocean-going boat. The PIRANHA could be more properly described as a coastal submarine. In fact, that is the concept behind the design. The PIRANHA is intended to operate on the coastal shelf, where depths rarely exceed their 650 foot submergence limit.

The U.S. model is better adapted to clandestine insertions on a hostile shoreline, while the Russian counterpart is more suited for patrolling terrorist or pirate-infested straits and attacking enemy shipping or port facilities at chokepoints at a distance from the host country. The external panniers atop the hull accommodate the diver/swimmer equipment as well as torpedoes and/or mines, and latterly, short-range anti-shipping or ship-to-shore missiles. Accord- ingly the PIRANHA is more suitable for the anti-shipping function, albeit on a limited hit-and-run mission. Most worrisome is the use of such a potent sabotage weapon by terrorist networks. Fortunately, such groups have thus far been unwilling or unable to operate and maintain the PIRANHA.

All indications are that the PIRANHA, like its namesake PREDATOR FISH, is very much alive and deadly

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