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CDR Powis is a submariner of many years standing and has commanded the Upholder Class SSK HMS UNSEEN, and the SSBNs HM Ships RESOLUTION and VICTORI-OUS. He is now the RN staff officer for Submarine Escape and Rescue as well as the outgoing Chairman of NA TO ‘s Submarine Escape and Rescue Working Group (SMERWG).

CDR Riches is recently promoted and has served as the XO in SSKs and the SSBN HMS RESOLUTION, (a command qualified appoi11tme111 in the Royal Navy). He is currently the head of the Submarine Escape & Rescue Project Team for tire Royal Navy and led the team that conducted the rescue of AS 28.

The rescue of the Russian Priz-class submersible AS-28 by members of the Royal Navy’s Submarine Rescue System (SRS) was a transformation into action of years of planning and practice assisted by an unprecedented international cooperative effort.

The Royal Navy’s SRS is owned by the government but operated and maintained by the James Fisher Rumic Company at Renfrew in West Scotland. The system consists of the rescue submersible LR5, an A-frame launching system, generators and support services as well as a system for off-loading survivors at pressures of up to 5 atmospheres, all of which can be readily flown by cargo aircraft and operated from a ship of convenience. In support of the SRS is an underwater tracking outfit and the SCORPIO 45 Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROY).

Flying the SRS to a remote location and placing it aboard a ship of opportunity takes time and the survivors in a Disabled Submarine (DISSUB) will have limited resources of air, food, and water. To speed the rescue capability reaction, the Royal Navy’s SRS plans to reduce the time spent in transit by simplifying the deployment process and actively keeping track of available shipping using a database fed from commercial sources. Also, an Intervention System has been devised based upon the SCORPIO ROV and capable of being flown to the DISSUB scene in a single C·l30 Hercules cargo aircraft, although a faster aircraft is preferred.

The Intervention System is lightweight, self-contained and can be mounted on any vessel above a few hundred tons displacement with an area of open deck. It consists of the ROV, its handling system, and a standard 20·foot container configured as the control cab. This intervention equipment will arrive at the scene first to carry out surveys, debris clearance, and resupply of the DISSUB crew using watertight containers or pods that can be posted to the trapped crew via the escape hatches. With these pods the intervention system can maintain survivable conditions until the SRS arrives.

It was the intervention system that was deployed to the scene off Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka. The small PRIZ had no escape hatches; hence no pods or survival stores were transported in the single C 17 aircraft load.

Dimensions 2. 75 x 1.8 x 1.8m
Displacement 1400kg
Max Depth 900m
Max Speed 4kts
Max Payload 1OOkJZ
Tools Cutter. Graso, RadioloJ?ical sensors

SCORPIO 45 is twenty years old and hence a rather dated ROV. It has been updated and carefully maintained and is more than sufficient for its purpose within the SRS. It can dive to depths that exceed the survivable limit of most submarines and can operate in reduced visibility, high currents, and rough surface weather. One of the main factors that contribute to the confidence in both the SRS and the Intervention system is the fact that through civilian operation the crews and maintainers have accumulated many years of experience in operating in a range of operating conditions.

The alarm was raised in Britain by a telephone call from the British Naval Attache in Moscow. The call was received in the UK Submarine Operating Authority at Northwood (NW London) at 0630. It was fortunate that the naval attache is a submarine engineer as his intimate knowledge of the rescue system, the technical language, and Royal Navy submarine rescue policy expedited the Royal Navy’s response. And, his presence in Kamchatka as liaison and interpreter smoothed the way for the SRS deployment.

It was also fortunate that when the PRIZ alarm was sounded the SRS was being prepared for a rescue exercise in Norwegian waters. Much of the preparation for deployment was complete when the balloon went up. The Royal Air Force came up trumps by redirecting one of only four available C-17 transport aircraft and making it available for the long flight to Kamchatka. Without that aircraft a chartered commercial aircraft would have been required or a C-130 used, in either case a delay of several hours would have been incurred.

The Russians opened up access to a military airport some 40 km from the remote port of Petropavlovsk. However, upon arrival of the Intervention System it was found that, despite assurances otherwise, no cargo handling system was available that could lift the largest component of the system. Here lies an important lesson for all submarine rescue planning: airport and seaport combinations need to be inspected, as national policies concerning such matters are often different in crucial ways. In this case the Russians expected that we would have in-built systems for off loading as their aircraft do. Thus there was a delay in the offloading process until the U.S. Navy came to the rescue.

The U.S. Navy’s reaction to the call for assistance was every bit as determined as that of the Royal Navy. The American effort arrived with a huge amount of equipment loaded into four aircraft, which included two Super Scorpio ROVs, with a rather more sophisticated (and bulky) launch and recovery system than that used by the British system. Most importantly the USN planners had the foresight and space to bring cargo-handling equipment from one of their bases in Japan. All this equipment demanded a large team of personnel and the Americans also brought several hundred ration packs. Having arrived a few hours after the British team the Americans found that the British Intervention System was experiencing unloading difficulties and they provided the necessary machinery from that which they had brought to the party. Thus the British offload could be completed, the Russian convoy fonned, and the transit to the port started. The Russians then turned their attention to unloading and preparing the U.S. Navy system. This spirit of international cooperation thus manifest was directly attributable to the numerous meetings and exercises in which the British, Americans, Russians, and others participate. Submarine rescue is a fairly arcane discipline with a small coterie of experts, hence the personalities are welt known to one another. In this case the leader of the Royal Navy’s SRS made the request for assistance in person to his friend running the U.S. Navy’s effort, being in every sense colleagues rather than rivals. The rescue could then start with the U.S. Navy providing the backup system. In this event, this Anglo-American cooperation extended to the use of a U.S. Navy scuba diving team to assist in the deployment and rescue process as well as provision of a medical officer. Thus the team that conducted the rescue was a tri-national team. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the exercises and conferences in which all had participated meant that there was a commonality of purpose, approach and method.

Upon its arrival at the military port of Petropavlovsk the Royal Navy intervention equipment was loaded onto the Sura-class buoy vessel Kil-27. The handling system was welded to the deck and 10 hours after arriving in the country the intervention system and its multinational team was underway for the DISSUB location.

Once at the location it was found that none of the Russian ships had dynamic positioning systems. Two rescue ships, the AL GAZ and Kil-168 (see diagram) had been moored, one ahead and one astern of the DISSUB’s position. The Kil-27 was moored between them and an attempt made to line up parallel to the DISSUB some 200 meters below. Such precise positioning is not required for ROV operations in the British SRS and the intervention of the British naval attache was again central to the liaison process that married the British requirements to the Russian desire to do the best to assist the rescue effort. Enroute to the scene the British operators had briefed themselves on the likely situation awaiting them by watching Russian videos of the DISSUB made by a Russian Navy ROV. This Russian ROV had suffered several software problems and was unable to do more for the DISSUB. However, its contribution was of importance as the British team was well prepared for the DISSUB situation.

Once at the DISSUB scene, the British Scorpio conducted a brief survey to verify that there were only four strands of netting holding the AS-28 down as well as jamming the submersible’s propeller and control surfaces. The Russian Navy had attempted to drag the AS-28 clear of the nets and other obstructions. In doing so they had inadvertently compounded the problems.

However, by the simple expedient of making the AS-28 slightly positively buoyant the British team found that they could reach three of the four strands with the cutting tool attached to the Scorpio. Cutting these strands of netting was fairly straightforward if rather protracted and the failure of one of the cutter guides delayed matters by requiring the recovery, repair and redeployment of the Scorpio. Once three of the strands were cut the final one was broken by the AS-28 achieving full buoyancy, which resulted in an uncontrolled ascent to the surface. Fortunately in her rapid ascent, the AS-28 missed the three ships conducting the rescue. The entire crew of the AS-28 was extracted without further drama.

In addition to the efforts of British, Americans, and Russians, two other countries mobilised resources to assist: The Japanese and the Australians, both important players in the submarine rescue world, got equipment moving towards the DISSUB although the rescue was completed before they arrived. The Japanese effort comprised the submarine rescue ship CHIYODA with its DSRV rescue vehicle, the LST URAGA, and two minesweepers. The Japanese probably have the most sophisticated and capable submarine rescue system in existence and it is maintained at a high degree of readiness: The CHIYODA was underway within two hours of the alert. However, the limitations of tying such a system to a purpose-builtASR are well demonstrated by its inability to reach remote locations at a speed faster than that of the ship. CHIYODA’s estimated time of arrival was late on 9’\ some two days after the rescue was complete and 36 hours after the breathable air would have been exhausted in the AS-28.

Australia has a small rescue system known as REMORA. This system would neither have arrived in time nor have been able to assist in the existing circumstances. However, the commercial contacts of the Royal Australian Navy’s submarine rescue organization identified a ship on contract to the Sakhalin Company subsidiary of Shell Oil working near the disaster scene, the SURVEYOR. The ship was not suitable as a rescue system mother-ship so did not appear in British or U.S. databases. Nevertheless, this ship would have been ideal for this rescue operation and she sailed, on the volition of the master. Two ROVs and an advanced diving system were embarked plus a powerful communications suite. By the time of the rescue she was some six hours from the scene and could have performed the task with little difficulty.

A key factor in the PRIZ rescue and in preparing for future submarine rescues is the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office (ISMERLO), which was established in 2004 to assist the unification of worldwide technical and procedural standards in this area. ISMERLO has demonstrated the coordination of deployment efforts by providing a website chat page for communications during a DISSUB alert. Experience to date in exercises and the fire at sea suffered by the Canadian submarine CHICOUTIMI in 2004 had proven the principal of the use of the website as a communications medium and the PRIZ rescue underlined its usefulness with over 1,500 hits from 19 countries. ISMERLO will also act as the international clearinghouse for lessons learned. Initial reviews of the PRIZ rescue have identified some key points:

  • Logistics -Reliance upon diverse assets.
  • Communications -Conuns in remote parts of the world are difficult; the Iridium telephone system coped well with the crisis.
  • Exchanges -Meetings, conferences, and exercises are vital to success; the membership in ISMERLO needs to be broadened to all submarine operating nations.
  • Language -Language difficulties require positioning of liaison teams in the DISSUB area in advance of the SRS.
  • Facilities -Expectations of facilities and capabilities at seaports and airports are often unrealistically high or tainted by the norm in one’s own country.

The PRIZ rescue points the way to future efforts in this discipline and this level of international cooperation is set to become the norm. The future U.S. Navy’s new SRDRS rescue system and the jointly owned British, Norwegian, and French NSRS system rely upon coordination with each other to guarantee the desired 98% availability. Further, similar requirements for aircraft and ships to conduct deployment dictate that coordination, probably by IS MERLO, will be essential. Acquisition of transportable systems by other submarine operators will exacerbate the need for central direction of effort. Forums for solving these problems are in place and the appropriate persons are attending them, thus the future looks safer and more open for submariners. This is perhaps the most significant legacy of the KURSK tragedy of August 2000.

A final factor in the PRIZ rescue was the fact that the Russian Navy has become very much more open in the arena of submarine emergencies. The Russians are now full participants in the Submarine Escape and Rescue Working Group (SMERWG). This NATO group meets annually (in 2004 it met in St. Petersburg, Russia) and consists of several working panels covering the full range of submarine emergencies. In the last four years 37 of the 42 submarine operating nations have been represented at SMERWG and NATO submarine emergency exercises. Indeed, during submarine emergency exercise Sorbet Royal in 2005 the Russian participants acted as officer in tactical command for a serial with a Turkish submarine. The openness and willingness of the Russians to share the fruits of their efforts in this area is one of the truly important developments in this field in recent years. In this latest event, almost as soon as their inability to free the PRIZ became known the Russian Navy called for assistance via the ISMERLO website and more formal diplomatic means. That action saved the seven-man crew of the AS-20.

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