Russian sub drama shows military decline
The weekend sinking highlights a lack of expertise and funding in once- mighty fleet.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.