Russian sub drama shows military decline
The weekend sinking highlights a lack of expertise and funding in once- mighty fleet.
(Page 2 of 2)
"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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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