Monday, 23 September 2013

Russia's sub par submarines- Trouble under the surface of military reform

There have been several recent indications (two submarine accidents and a missile test failure) that the $650 billion being taken away from Russian schools and hospitals and thrown at the military budget may be money down the plughole, and that's even without the corruption to take into account.

The Russian nuclear powered submarine Tomsk was undergoing repairs near Russia's far eastern port of Vladivostok on Monday when it burst into flames and burnt for five hours. The Defence ministry eventually changed its story and admitted that fifteen sailors had been wounded in the fire, contradicting its earlier certainty that everything was totally fine. It was the second fire of this kind on board a Russian submarine in less than two years.

The first was the submarine Yekaterinburg which also burst into flames in its shipyard in north western Russia in December 2011. Officials said at the time that there had been no nuclear missiles on board. That was a lie said one respected magazine afterwards, citing its own sources. This caused an international furore with Norway's Foreign Minister among those demanding the truth.

In August this year an Indian submarine INS Sindhurakshak was rocked by two huge explosions and fire ripped through the vessel as it sat in dock in Mumbai. Eighteen sailors on board were killed by the blasts and the boat sank in the port. It is one of India's worst ever naval accidents. That submarine was bought from Russia in 1997. In 2010 it had been sent to Russia and refitted with Russian cruise missiles. Investigators say it may have been the weapons on board, possibly those missiles, that exploded causing the disaster. There are nine more 'Kilo-class' submarines like that one which India bought from Russia. The Indian government has now been forced to review its safety systems on board all of them.

Russia's submarine woes don't end there. In November 2008 the fire extinguishing system on the Russian submarine Nerpa went off as it was doing sea trials. Compartments on board were flooded with deadly gas, killing twenty. Despite the catastrophe that submarine has since been leased and then commissioned into the Indian Navy as INS Chakra.

But the greatest tragedy of them all since the collapse of the Soviet Union was on the Russian submarine Kursk. In August 2000 explosions on board sank the Kursk in the Barent's sea. Those of the 118 crew not killed by the explosions had time to write notes before the oxygen ran out. All the while the Russian government of then new President Vladimir Putin refused help from other countries which might have saved them. The criticism of Putin, who stayed on holiday in the south of Russia and said nothing to a distraught Russian people for five days as the horror of the Kursk catastrophe unfolded, was vociferous and remains to this day.

All of these accidents have occurred since the year 2000 making Russia's public record on submarine technical safety one of the world's worst.   

Lets go back to those nuclear weapons and missiles, the one's Russia prides itself on above all. In November 2011 then Chief of the Russian General Staff Nikolai Makarov announced that,"I do not rule out local and regional armed conflicts developing into a large-scale war, including using nuclear weapons." That sabre rattling was directed at Europe, the US and NATO.

Except that Russia may not have as much firepower as it thinks. On September the 6th the much hyped 'Bulava' submarine launched ballistic missile (yes we're back to submarines again), made to carry ten nuclear warheads, failed a test launch….again. That's eight times out of at least nineteen launches of the Bulava that the missile has fallen out of the sky, as this one did, or variously been declared a flop. The Russian military maintains the Bulava is the only way to update Russia's nuclear submarines, and of course takes for granted that they must be updated. There is no debate about even the possibility of perhaps not keeping up those huge numbers of expensive nuclear missiles. Instead it's back to the manufacturer once again for more testing.