Russian sub drama shows military decline

The weekend sinking highlights a lack of expertise and funding in once- mighty fleet.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor and Fred Weir

As the eyes of the world focus on Russia's attempts to rescue more than 100 sailors from their stranded submarine, experts debate whether its Navy even has the ability to tackle such a mission.

Russia's naval fleet has fallen into disrepair since its days of cold-war parity with the United States. It doesn't have stabilizing equipment to deal with the stormy weather hampering rescuers. Due to budget cuts, it no longer has deep-dive rescue vehicles. Morale is low and inexperienced crews are not uncommon.

There has been no effective communication with the crew of the Kursk, but experts estimated on Tuesday that the Oscar-class submarine had 72 hours worth of battery power remaining to operate life-support systems.

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The crew's safety is a top priority, though with enough time, the vessel could be lifted with a combination of slings and air bags according to John Witte, executive vice president of Donjon Marine, a New Jersey-based salvage company that is one of the principal contract salvagers for the US Navy.

"Given the time, money, and a desire to do it, a lot of things can be done," Mr. Witte says. "It's not beyond technology. But working at that depth is very dangerous, expensive, and time consuming. Weather is a huge wild card." Forecasts of continued choppy seas for at least three days caused Russian Navy Adm. Vladimir Kuryedov to declare the crew's situation "extremely grave."

Complicating the situation have been often contradictory statements from Russian officials. Though some senior Russian military officers have downplayed the chances of a rescue, Northern Fleet commanders voiced optimism that they "have enough resources to deal with the issue" without asking for outside help. (The American and British governments have offered.)

"Unfortunately, unlike the American rescue vessels, the Russian ones have no stabilizing equipment" making storms a particular hazard, says Leonid Melodinsky, the former head of the Russian Baltic Fleet's rescue service in St. Petersburg. "If two compartments are filled with water, it will be very difficult to lift the submarine, so the thing is to save the crew," he says.

"They have everything to sustain their lives, such as food, water, air - for at least a week. When the crew is safe, it will be possible to save the sub, but that will not take less than two or three months."

But like the rest of Russia's military forces, the Navy has suffered from extreme budget cuts and low morale in the decade since the end of the cold war, when military parity with the United States was a top priority.

Deep-diving rescue vehicles - similar to an American one offered for help by the Clinton administration - were once part of the Arctic fleet, but experts say they have not been used for 10 years.

Maintenance is almost unheard of these days, and with submarines often berthed and rusting at their base docks, crews rarely have the opportunity to hone their craft. Resources are so low that the Northern Fleet used up the "bulk of the fleet's fuel stock" in April, according to the private AVN military news agency in Moscow, during exercises attended by then president-elect Vladimir Putin. Heat in classrooms on naval bases was reportedly turned off last winter for lack of payment.

"The crew seems unable to use the escape capsules that should be provided on all Russian submarines," says Alexander Pikayev, a military expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow.

The problem appears to be that the emergency hatches are sealed and cannot be opened from inside, which is strange. It's not clear why the capsules are not an option. It's very surprising. Either they are all damaged, or were not installed in the first place," he adds.

"Of course, it is psychological stress," says veteran submariner Anatoly Potapov, who served on Soviet subs in the 1950s. "The main feeling is that of alarm and anxiety, though it is much more difficult for today's sailors psychologically, compared with our epoch, because they are overburdened with bad news [about what is happening in their society]."

The key in such an emergency is to "mobilize yourself," says Mr. Potapov. "The main thing to think about when you are under water is to come back and still be loved and not forgotten."

A more fundamental problem that may complicate rescue efforts is the relative youth of the crew. "A number of [these sailors] will undoubtedly be out on their first tour, and you don't have much tolerance for mistakes in a nuclear submarine," says retired US Army Gen. John Reppert, executive director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who has served several times in Moscow.

The Russians are "technically capable" of bringing the submarine to the surface, though they don't have such well-honed deep-water rescue capability.

"Our Navy may be able to provide that if the hatch fittings are compatible, but that is always a challenge," General Reppert says. In the 1970s, for example, he worked on the president's hotline at the White House, and it took a full year to work out a matching, airtight mechanism for the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz space docking.

"That was a huge exercise. We had to change almost all our equipment to make it compatible."

For now, the crew of the foundering submarine can communicate only by tapping out signals on the wall of the vessel. It is a primitive and traumatic image reminiscent of the famous 1981 German film "Das Boot," about a World War II submarine crew that turns dramatically silent as they sink, while unprecedented water pressure bursts one bolt after another. "I can't conceive of the emotions that would be running through their heads in a situation like this," Witte says.

"Submariners are subject to claustrophobia even under normal conditions, but in an emergency like this, if the lights go out and the temperature drops, it can be unbearable for them," says Tatiana Postoyeva, a trauma psychologist with the independent Moscow Journal of Psychotherapy.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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