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Interview: 'There's An Incident Involving A Russian Submarine Every Five Or Six Years'

A picture taken on July 2 shows an unidentified submarine in the Russian port of Severomorsk, the base of Russia's Northern Fleet.

The Russian Defense Ministry announced on July 2 that a fire aboard a submarine operated by its main naval research-and-development unit the day before had killed 14 sailors. Although the military did not identify the stricken vessel, multiple Russian media outlets reported it as the AS-12, nicknamed Losharik, or the similar AS-31, both nuclear-powered, deep-diving, special-missions vessels.

RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke with Dmitry Gorenburg, an associate with the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University and a researcher with the U.S.-based Center for Naval Analyses, and asked him about the Losharik incident and the state of Russia's nuclear submarine fleet.

Dmitry Gorenburg
Dmitry Gorenburg

RFE/RL: What can you tell us about the Losharik submarine and its function?

Dmitry Gorenburg: This submarine has an unusual construction with a double hull. The exterior is made of titanium, while the internal hull comprises several isolated spheres. It is not, strictly speaking, a "real" submarine because it is transported using large atomic submarines, usually the Orenburg, although the Belgorod can also serve. Because of its internal nuclear reactor, it can remain submersed for extended periods and can operate almost noiselessly. According to some sources, it is the quietest submarine in the Russian arsenal.

It is not completely clear what its uses are. Officially, they don't say that it is used for deep-sea research. U.S. military experts believe that it is designed to attach itself to undersea cables to eavesdrop on communications or to destroy them in the event of a conflict. It is apparently able to disrupt the normal functioning of the SOSUS [sound surveillance system], which is a network of hydroacoustic sensors placed in the North Atlantic between Greenland and Britain to track the movements of Russian submarines from the Norwegian and North seas into the Atlantic Ocean.

In the present case, according to Russian sources, this submarine was located in Russian territorial waters not far from Murmansk and, most likely, was engaged in studying the seafloor in order to improve the navigation practices of Russian submarines.

RFE/RL: Can you tell us anything about the incident that killed the 14 sailors?

Gorenburg: It is difficult to say anything definite. It is clear that a fire broke out on board that they managed to put out, but it was very serious and caused fatalities. We might suppose that the fire was not discovered quickly and that measures to contain it and prevent fatalities were not able to be taken. Of course, it could have been much worse – the loss of the entire crew and the vessel.

In general, fires aboard submarines are quite rare. In the 1960s, there were two or three fires aboard U.S. submarines at sea, if I remember correctly. Most such incidents occur during repair work. This is also true for Russian submarines. Overall, this is an unusual occurrence.

RFE/RL: The Russian statement said the sailors died from "poisoning by the by-products of a fire." Surely there are systems for cleaning the air on modern submarines. What do you make of this strange formulation?

Gorenburg: One problem with submarines is that they are a very restricted space. All submarines have life-support systems. There are spaces from which crew members can be evacuated in an emergency. Without knowing more about the construction of this vessel or what actually happened, it is impossible to say why people were not able to escape the fire.

RFE/RL: Does this incident tell us anything about the reliability of Russian submarines?

Gorenburg: You can't draw conclusions based on one incident, but if we look at long-term tendencies, we can see some unusual things.

For instance, over the last 20 years, there have been several incidents in the U.S. Navy involving ship collisions, both submarines and surface ships. In part, this can be explained by the scale of U.S. naval operations. But there have been almost no problems caused by the technical condition of the vessels or the breakdown of crucial systems or unreliable technology.

The Russian fleet has considerably more incidents. It isn't clear if this is because of the failure of crews to follow established procedures and instructions or because of the physical condition of the ships or defects in their construction. However, if we look at the statistics, every five or six years there is an incident involving a Russian submarine -- a fire or a breakdown requiring serious repairs. For U.S. submarines -- not counting problems caused by navigation faults -- such incidents happen once in 15 or 20 years.

RFE/RL: This submarine has a nuclear reactor on board. Is that a cause for concern?

Gorenburg: If they brought the vessel back to the base at Severomorsk and moored it there, then I'd assume that means there is no danger of radiation leaks. In general, modern nuclear reactors are designed with built-in fail-safes and they are rather reliable and capable of withstanding a very serious fire. It might have been that the fire did not start in the reactor section and that the crew was able to prevent its spread to the reactor.