08 August 2019

The Russian Federation – What happened to the Losharik submarine

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

On July 2, 2019, the Russian media reported that a submarine from its Northern Fleet was involved, just one day before, in a serious incident in the Barents Sea, within Russian territorial waters. Surprisingly, the sources for this information were Russian officials, which was especially unusual for a state like the Russian Federation. The Kremlin does not usually respond after only one day, but keeps silent on the sensible military incidents for a long time to later create a story which fits better, in order to hide the truth if it goes against official incidents.

Image source: Mediafax

High Russian officials offered half-truth, stating that it was about a research submarine which had a fire start onboard. Fourteen members of its crew died trying – and succeeding – stopping the fire, and it seems that survivors managed to save the submarine and steer it into the Severomorsk port.

Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu immediately went to Severomorsk. Later, the mass-media broadcasted live the preliminary report which the minister presented to President Vladimir Putin. According to Shoigu, the incident involved a deep-water research submarine, with nuclear propulsion (in order to keep the secret, as the press broadcasted the event, the minister did not state the submarine’s name or class). The fire was caused, apparently, by a short-circuit in the batteries compartment. The 14 crew members isolated themselves in the capsule where the fire started and managed to extinguish it, but most probably died from smoke intoxication. The nuclear reactor was completely isolated from the rest of the submarine, autonomous (the reactor’s compartment was not maintained by human crew) and did not suffer any damage. The submarine surfaced, with the rest of the crew (5 individuals, according to the minister) managing to take control over it. A tugboat later towed the submarine into port.

On the same day, the Russian press published the names of the deceased crew. Again, surprisingly, among the 14 were no less than seven rank 1 captains (including the submarine’s commander, Denis Dolonski). Usually, in the Russian navy, a rank 1 captain has command of a ship, be it nuclear propelled. Furthermore, some of the 14 were identified as serving under the 45707 special unit, based in Sankt Petersburg’s Peterhof neighbourhood.

Piecing all this data together, including the presence of an unusual number of high-ranked officers aboard, the press speculated that the submarine involved in the incident is the AS-12 (or AS-31) “Losharik”, a deep-water research submarine, which belonged to a special department of the Russian Defence Ministry: GUGI.

GUGI. Between oceanic research and espionage

Deep-water research and espionage activities have a tradition dating back 40-years in the Russian Army. In 1976, the Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research/Directorate 10 was established within the Russian Defence Ministry. In Russian, the structure is named Glavnoe Upravlenie Glubokovodnih Issledovanii, from or the acronym under which it is known by military analysts comes: GUGI.

Special unit 45707 was also established in October 1976 as the first deep-water diving unit (named “hydronauts” by the Russians), its personnel recruited on the same physical and psychical criteria as applied for astronauts. They operated in several “deep-water nuclear research stations” and were tasked with obtaining information on enemy equipment, protecting and ensuring the maintenance of Soviet underwater cables and recovering Soviet secret equipment from the bottom of the sea, after they crashed in tests or accidents.

GUGI developed at a rapid pace, especially in the past two decades, following Russian efforts in the Arctic area, a region which has extraordinary resources and which Russia considers as an area which will be disputed by the great powers in the future.

Alongside the imposing oceanic research vessel “Yantar”, GUGI currently has an entire submarine division (which must not be confused with those of the Russian naval force), Division 29, based on Olenia Guba, near the Nordic Fleet’s submarine base, in the Kola Peninsula. Among the submarines and deep-water research stations (AGS/Atomnaia Glubokovodnaia Stantia) which GUGI operates are the following:

  • the deep-water AS-12 (or AS-31) Losharik nuclear station, the submarine which was apparently involved in the July 1, 2019 incident;
  • the deep-water Kashalot nuclear station (NATO code: Uniform);
  • the deep-water nuclear stations of Nelma (NATO: X-RAY) and Halibut (NATO: PALTUS);
  • the BS-64 nuclear submarine Podsmokovie (Delta IV class), modified in order to transport the AS-31 min-submarine Losharik beneath its hull;
  • the BS-136 Orenburg nuclear submarine (Delta III class), the former carrier of AS-31 Losharik, currently inoperative;
  • the K-329 nuclear submarine Belgorod (Oscar II class), launched on April 23, 2019, the world’s longest submarine, about which the Defence and Security Monitor recently wrote and which was also modified to transport smuller submarines, but also to transport the Poseidon, an intercontinental autonomous nuclear missile, recently developed by the Russians (Among the Russian military threats there is also an autonomous intercontinental nuclear torpedo)

What is known about Losharik?

The Losharik (NATO code: Norsub-5) is one of Russia’s most well-kept secrets, with very little photos of its, and there is more speculation than fact on the margin of its structure and technical-tactical characteristics. It is, at the same time, unclear if there are two submarines in this category, AS-12 and AS-31, or if it is the same ship with a different topside number. Most Western experts lean towards the second option.

Based on high-resolution satellite photos, it was determined that AS-31 “Losharik”, although it looks on the outside as a usual submarine, with a length of approximately 70 meters, has an atypical construction, with seven interconnected titanium spheres on the inside, each approximately 6 meter in diameter (the sphere is more resistant than the cylinder, as is the specific design for deep-water vehicles, such as bathyspheres). This allows the submarine to dive to extremely deep heights, of approximately 6,000 meters, ten times more than regular submarines.

The submarine’s construction began in 1988, but based on financial restrictions, it was only finalized in 2003. The submarine is nuclear-propelled, with the last two sphered towards its rear destined for the machine room and nuclear reactor. It is unknown if Losharik also has a diesel engine, but if it exists, its place would be within one of the front compartments (spheres), next to the battery compartment.

Although it is self-propelled, Losharik acts in tandem with a larger nuclear submarine, which is modified to transport it under its hull to the mission area, where Losharik detaches and dives to the depths of the sea in order to execute a wide variety of missions. Losharik has crew of up to 25 “hydronauts” who can perform missions such as: intercepting communications made through trans-oceanic cables and even cutting them when needed; the recovery of Russian or enemy underwater equipment (such as sonars deployed by the US and Great Britain on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, components of the SOSUS listening system); the testing of sub-aquatic equipment and, possibly, new underwater weapons; salvage operations; carrying out bathymetric studies.Currently, the “mothership” (the carrier of AS-31 Losharik) is the BS-64 Podmoskovie nuclear submarine, who appears to have been involved in the July 1, 2019 incident as well, with several eyewitnesses confirming this.

Controversies on the July 1, 2019 incident

The account of the incident.

The Russian media and independent Russian analysts with access to sources in the world of submarine operators from Severomorsk established an account of events for the July 1 incident. It seems that the incident happened fairly close to the shore, in an instruction polygon used mostly by Nordic Fleet submarines, at a depth of approximately 200 meters, unusual for the Losharik’s modus operandi. According to Russian officials, the submarine was performing bathymetric measurements in the Barents Sea.

The fire would have started around 23.00 (local time, UTC+3), as the Losharik was lifting itself off the seafloor and heading towards its mother-submarine, BS-64 Podmoskovie. The fire would have been caused by a short-circuit at an electrical panel inside the battery compartment, which lighted the padding of an electrical wire. The fire then quickly extended, and the smoke rapidly spread through the ventilation system and surprised most of the crew which, apparently, was resting at the time in a specially-designed compartment. This would explain why the crew did not use its self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), types PDU-2 and PDU-3. Only one person survived from those who were resting, a civilian specialist, who would have been rescued from the compartment by one of the “hydronauts”, who later shut the compartment to stop the spread of the smoke and fire throughout the entire submarine. Alongside the civilian specialists there were four other survivors, members of the watch crew in the control room. They would have managed to isolate the fire, put it out with specific on-board equipment, and later surface the submarine. The victims would have then been transported to the Severomorsk hospital. Only one of the 14 victims would have died on the submarine, with the other 13 losing their lives on route to the hospital or inside the hospital, due to smoke intoxication. The mother-submarine would have been seen by fishermen at the site surfacing abruptly, with febrile activities observed on its deck.

Where did the fire take place?

A first controversy regards the vehicle where the fire took place. There were speculations about it starting on the BS-64 Podmoskovie mother-submarine, the Losharik or even a bathymetric capsule onboard the Losharik which was launched to the seafloor. The first option was eliminated by Minister Shoygu himself and is suggested by the fact that name and class of the submarine was kept secret, which would have not probably happened if a regular submarine were involved. With regards to the bathymetric capsule, it could have never had 14 people onboard and there would be no explanation for the presence of the vessel’s captain inside it. The only plausible hypothesis is the Losharik and the scenario described earlier.

Fire or explosion?

This theory was generated by the Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (NRNSA), which stated that it received a notification from the Russian side about an explosion onboard a submarine. The Russian defence minister denied this, and the Norwegians later retracted it, stating that they would have taken over the information from the Russian mass-media! Both measurements made by the NRNSA and the specific Russian agency indicated the level of radiation in the region to be within normal limits.

What was the mission?

Officially, the submarine was making seafloor research. This aspect was immediately challenged by both Russian and international media, as such a mundane operation would not be able to justify the presence onboard of so many high-level officers. Despite all these, although unusual for Western armies, it is a regular practice for Russian special units – such as 46707 Peterhof – to have specialist offices with higher ranks than conventional military units. Neither did the location of the incident indicate any kind of exceptional mission. An association with the place where the submarine Kursk sank was attempted, but the incident in 2000 took place several hundred kilometres away. It was speculated that the Losharik would have recovered and taken onboard an American sonar from the SOSUS system, but this is also far from the truth. The presence of such a sonar at the place of the incident would not be justifiable, because the data it gathered could only be sent by cable. The installation of underwater cables in Russian territorial waters, even the “playground” of Northern Fleet submarines, seems a less plausible theory.

How did the 14 “hydronauts” die?

There is also contradictory data in this regard. Some sources offered the theory presented earlier, with the 14 transported to the hospital in Severomorsk and dying en route or inside the hospital. Other sources have indicated that not all of the bodies were recovered from the submarine, as the compartment was still flooded. We can only put this disagreement on the confusion and speculations which invariably take place in these situations.

What “global catastrophe” was avoided?

According to the Russian media, a submarine officer who was present at the funeral of the 14 deceased crew members (July 6, 2019) said that the victims were heroes who had contributed, through their sacrifice, to avoiding a “catastrophe with global consequences”. No other details were given, but more information is expected after the end of an investigation launched by a Moscow committee (with specialists from the FSB’s military counterinformation unit). It is possible that the officer made an allusion to a new Chernobyl, through the possible meltdown of the nuclear reactor and the grave ecological consequences that mass radioactive contamination would have caused.

Why is the event shrouded in such a mystery?

Although a lot of information was quickly given to the press (especially when we consider that the Kursk incident was kept under silence for a long period of time), there are still important parts of the puzzle missing. If in the case of recently-developed modern weapons systems, the Russians are not shy to present them with a lot of emphasis, even from the highest level in the state (President Putin), this time the secret is being kept by invoking the classified nature of information regarding research submersibles. It is possible that the Russians are keeping some aces in their sleeves and not offer the potential enemies data which could be used to develop counteractive measures. In this regard, it should be expected that the final investigative report should be classified at the highest level, and the public opinion will be presented an embellished account, which will not say too much about the event.

Instead of conclusions

Despite speculations, there is no solid evidence to suggest that the official account presented by the Russians did not represent the correct chain of events in the incident. It is an incontestable fact that the Russians have a higher rate of accidents onboard submarines when compared to their Western counterparts. In the past couple of years, several fires were reported on Russian submarines either submerged or docked, the most significant being the one which started in November 2008 onboard the K-152 Nerpa submarine, when a defection of a fire extinguishing system led to 20 deaths and 41 injuries among the crew.

The incident is a hard blow for GUGI and its “hydronauts” unit, as the formation of specialists at this level is a cost-effective and cumbersome process.

It is possible that the batteries used by the Russians on their submarines are the cause of most of the problems. If we will see in the short and medium-term efforts to research and replace them on all Russian submarines, this can be a clue that event indeed happened as presented by the Kremlin.

As was stated in the Defence and Security Monitor’s weekly report, the “accident occurs in a very bad moment for Russia’s political-military leadership, who threatens the US with weapons based on new technologies. If the funding continues to decrease, and Moscow remains isolated, without access to technology, such situations may repeat, especially since Russia is forced to dance on the sheet itself has imposed: a new arms race, core part of a new Cold War with the West”.

Translated by Ionut Preda