Rescuing the Russian Navy

The AS-28 mini-submarine Priz has been salvaged, and the seven crewmembers on board have been miraculously saved. Britain and Russia were at their best in this time of need. The U.S. Navy was also nearby with its own rescue submersibles.

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Britain, the United States and Russia have the biggest nuclear submarine fleets roaming the oceans. The two Western nations have developed submarine rescue services that are ready for immediate worldwide deployment via military cargo plane. Yet Russia does not have adequate submarine rescue capability. The disaster that sunk the Kursk nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea five years ago and the mini-submarine accident in the Pacific happened only several dozen kilometers from major Russian naval bases, but in both cases the Navy was unprepared and unable to do anything to save crew lives.

The commander of the Northern Fleet at the time of the Kursk disaster, Admiral Vyacheslav Popov, stated last week that the Navy had procured underwater gear that could have been used to cut loose the trapped mini-sub, but "we still do not have a specially equipped ship from which divers can go that deep."

The British have demonstrated that their rescue service works well: An unmanned Scorpio submersible was promptly taken by air to the other side of the globe along with control equipment and service crew. The Scorpio was fitted on a Russian ship that was never designed to carry such a device, and it was immediately operational. The remote-controlled submersible, after several hours of work, cut the steel cables that had kept the Priz on the bottom.

The seamen aboard the Priz displayed the best aspects of the Russian national spirit: They survived for over 70 hours in the cold and dark with a limited supply of air, holding out much longer than anyone anticipated. Russians are natural-born survivors, and their leaders regularly put them in dire straits. Surviving in the cold and dark without decent food or water is an experience millions of Russians can easily relate to.

The Navy commanders seem to have learned at least one lesson from the Kursk disaster. This time, they called for foreign assistance much more promptly and were ready to accept foreigner rescuers without delay or bureaucratic wrangling. When the Kursk went down, Britain offered to airlift a rescue mini-sub to the Murmansk area, but the Russian military first spent several days negotiating and then insisted the British rescuers sail from the Scottish coast instead of arriving by air. It took them more than a week to get to the Kursk. This erased the faintest glimmer of hope for the Kursk explosion survivors.

Back then, the military seemed determined not to allow any Western military personnel anywhere close to the Kursk and its secrets at any cost. In the fall of 2000, Russian patrol ships guarding the Kursk wreckage detonated dozens of underwater bombs to counter what they believed were U.S. attempts to come close and spy on the wreck. But in the end, it was Westerners who salvaged the remains of the Kursk.

The remarkable rescue of the Priz and its crew has not stopped a prominent retired admiral, Eduard Baltin, from harshly criticizing the naval command for inviting Westerners to assist and thus compromising security. The AS-28 is a rescue mini-submarine and does not contain any important secrets, which may explain the prompt decision to call for help. When a Russian nuclear sub is in trouble again, will the Navy be so eager to ask for Western help?

The continuing deterioration of the morale and professionalism of Russian sailors and the inadequate maintenance of their ships make future major naval disasters virtually inevitable. At the same time, Russia does not have an adequate maritime rescue service, ready for instant deployment. Now there is talk of building up the existing service and of possibly purchasing a Scorpio submersible. After the Kursk, there was also plenty of talk of improvements, but nothing really changed.

And just as in the past, the Russian Navy was again telling conflicting stories about how much air the crew had and what was actually trapping it on the seafloor. It has not been explained why the mini-submarine was sent on a mission in such dangerous waters. Baltin believes the Priz was inspecting an underwater antenna -- and got trapped in its cables -- while seeing if the Americans had planted bugs on it. A rescue mini-submarine is clearly not designed for such missions.

Many questions remain about the Priz accident, but in today's Russia there is not much chance the public will ever get any real answers.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow. The Kursk Tragedy