The Soviet Union, anxious to recover a nuclear submarine that sank in the Arctic with the loss of 42 lives, faces huge salvage difficulties, Western naval analysts say. Soviet Vice-Admiral Vargin said Tuesday that specialists had been assigned to raise the submarine - nearly a mile underwater and probably still intact - to find out the cause of the April 7 accident.

``It is not out of the realm of possibility but it will present huge technical difficulties,'' said Richard Fieldhouse, a naval expert in Stockholm. ``It may be a very delicate operation to ensure that they do not destroy what they intend to salvage.''

If Moscow tries to salvage the Mike class attack submarine, which sank after a fire and explosion on board, it would be only the second such operation known to have been tried. A former NATO submarine commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Western alliance would watch closely.

``They [the Soviets] know that if they fail, there are plenty of people interested in taking a look at that sub,'' he said. ``It is, after all, in international waters.

The submarine was the only one of its kind and was used to test advanced weapons and propulsion systems.

``But we have a gentleman's agreement with them when things like this happen. We don't mess around with theirs if they don't mess around with ours. We will be discreet, there will be no interference during any salvage operation,'' the ex-commander said.

A secret attempt by the United States to recover the wreck of a Soviet submarine from the bed of the Pacific in the early 1970s failed. Most of the submarine's hull broke off and sank to the seabed. The US was left with a bow section and the bodies of 70 Soviet sailors - but none of the hoped-for code books or nuclear secrets.

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