Russian sub accident points to Navy's shortcomings
At least 20 people died on the sub, which media reports say was to be handed over to India.
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The Akula-II class of nuclear subs, a late Soviet-era design, are able to dive deeper, more than 600 meters, run more silently than previous attack subs, and move at speeds up to 33 knots while fully submerged.Skip to next paragraph
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The Nerpa will not be equipped with the Akula class sub's standard complement of long-range cruise missiles, due to international strictures on proliferation of missile technology, says Pavel Felgenhauer, military expert with the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper in Moscow. But Indian media have reported that the Indian Navy may install indigenous nuclear-capable missiles, and use its operational experience with the Nerpa to help develop Indian-built nuclear-powered subs.
The Nerpa's patchwork history may have contributed to Saturday's disaster. "They are using bits of Soviet equipment and hardware, brushing off the rust and putting in new stuff," says Mr. Felgenhauer. "That's just not a good way to develop operational equipment."
Moreover, Russia's military establishment has a crushing shortage of qualified experts. "That submarine was being constructed over a period of 15 years, and was the only one being built at the Amur shipyard during that time," says Alexander Goltz, a military expert with the online newspaper Yezhednevnaya Gazeta. "How many of the original specialists and skilled workers would have stayed on during that period? Very few. Everything conspired to make that ship very vulnerable."
Captain Dyagalo said that 208 people were aboard the Nerpa at the time, including 81 servicemen plus naval technicians and workers from the Komsomolsk-na-Amur shipyard. Fourteen civilians were among the dead, he said.
Initial reports indicated that the accident resulted from a malfunction of the Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) system, which is used to quickly suffocate a major fire with a stream of a freon mixture. The foam is only supposed to be released when a submarine compartment is engulfed in flames. Any contact with it will kill an unprotected person instantly.
"[The Nerpa incident] is a completely abnormal kind of accident, not the sort of thing that's ever supposed to happen aboard a submarine," says Mr. Goltz.
Three years later, a decommissioned nuclear sub, the K-159, sank in the Barents Sea, killing nine members of the skeleton crew aboard at the time. And in 2005, a minisubmarine of the Pacific Fleet got trapped in an undersea fishing net near Vladivostok, and was saved with the help of a British rescue team.