More details on the Ekaterinburg fire

In the last week, there have been two very interesting reports with additional information on the fire that seriously damaged the Ekaterinburg strategic nuclear submarine back in December. All the reports seem to agree that the submarine’s nuclear missiles and torpedoes had not been offloaded prior to the start of the repair, which meant that there had been a serious risk of a torpedo explosion while the fire burned.

But let’s start at the beginning. The reports indicate that the submarine came to Rosliakovo for a routine inspection, during which it was decided that damage to a cowling that covers the submarine’s sonar. This covering had been damaged either when the submarine was docking, or earlier in the summer or fall, depending on the report. In order to fix the cowling, an opening was made in the outer hull. The fire began during the repair (at 3:45pm Moscow time on December 29) as the result of sparks igniting wooden scaffolding. From the scaffolding, the fire spread to the rubber soundproofing covering that is located between the outer and inner hull. This covering supposedly becomes flammable only at very high temperatures, but once on fire it is very difficult to extinguish. The fire spread in the space between the two hulls, a location that is narrow and filled with various equipment, factors that increased the difficulty of fighting the fire. Three hours after the fire began, flames continued to shoot up to a height of 15-20 meters.

Those in charge at the site early on had the idea to submerge the floating dock in which the submarine was located, but the process was complicated by the presence of the Admiral Kulakov destroyer in the same dock. If the dock was submerged too far, the interior of the ship would be flooded. The Kommersant article that discusses this issue does not really address the question of how this was resolved, though it implies that the dock was partially submerged so that seawater could reach the submarine and extinguish the fire without rising so high as to flood the Kulakov. Afterwards, the fire was mostly brought under control, though it was not fully extinguished until 6:20pm on December 30, almost 27 hours after it began.

Numerous sources agree that both the submarine’s nuclear missiles and its torpedoes had not been offloaded prior to the inspection. The reports indicate that regulations do not require that the missiles be offloaded in this circumstance, but that the torpedoes should be. According to Novaia Gazeta, the base commander allowed the Ekaterinburg to enter the dock without offloading the torpedoes. Kommersant notes that this happens fairly frequently in order to avoid delays.

The torpedoes were located in the first compartment, only 40 meters from the fire. Here’s a picture of the front of the submarine:

The crew quickly realized the danger that extreme heat just on the other side of the inner hull might cause the torpedoes to explode. Since the hydraulic systems for torpedo removal were not functioning, they risked their lives to manually remove the torpedoes from the first compartment. According to Novaia Gazeta, three torpedoes were removed in this way. Had the torpedoes exploded, dozens of crew and firefighters would have been killed. Depending on the number of torpedoes affected, the authors of the Kommersant article raise the possibility that the explosion could have destroyed the floating dock and the Admiral Kulakov and might have led to radioactive contamination from the nuclear missiles or the two nuclear reactors onboard. I have no way of judging how serious that threat was, but whether or not it was real, a torpedo explosion would have certainly led to panic not just in Roslyakovo but also in the nearby cities of Severomorsk and Murmansk, which have a total population of almost 400,000 people. You can see the locations on the map below, from the Kommersant article.

Finally, let me turn to the consequences for the future of the submarine. This topic is addressed extensively in the Novaia Gazeta article. The good news is that according to Dmitry Rogozin the repairs will cost only 500 million rubles — half of the initially announced estimate. The article goes on to argue, however, that it is unlikely that the submarine will be able to submerge to significant depths in the future because the high temperatures sustained by the inner hull in the front section of the submarine may have compromised its strength. The author says that unless the entire front compartment is replaced, the submarine will only be able to submerge to limited depths without risking the lives of its crew.

I am sure that the Ekaterinburg’s first cruise after the repairs are completed will receive a great deal of attention. Given the potential consequences of a problem, hopefully no one will be cutting any corners.

Repairing the Ekaterinburg

There have been some announcements on the repair schedule for the Ekaterinburg Delta IV submarine, which was seriously damaged by fire a couple of weeks ago. These reports confirm expectations that because of the fire, the submarine will be sent for its second major overhaul now, rather than in 2013 as scheduled. In addition to the regular overhaul, the outer hull will have to be repaired and the sonar apparatus replaced. The main disagreement is whether the repair will be completed in 3-4 years (i.e. by 2015 or 2016) or (if we follow Dmitry Rogozin’s tweets) by the summer of 2014. Winter ice means that the submarine will be sent to Severdvinsk in the spring and repairs will actually begin in May or June.

Two years to both repair the fire damage and complete the regular overhaul seems excessively ambitious. The Verkhoturie, the first Delta IV submarine to go for its second overhaul, is scheduled to be returned to the fleet in December 2012, 2.5 years after the overhaul began. Fixing the fire damage will take extra time, so I would imagine the 3-4 year time estimate is more likely than Rogozin’s 2 year claim.

In the meantime, the accident will likely delay the decommissioning of one or more of the three remaining Delta III submarines that are to be replaced by the soon to be commissioned Borei submarines.

A bad day for the Russian military

The Russian military suffered two major accidents today — a fire on the Ekaterinburg SSBN and the crash of a Su-24 on landing in Volgograd.

The submarine fire was quite serious and burned for seven hours.  The Ekaterinburg was in dry dock at the time undergoing scheduled repairs. Its nuclear reactor had been shut down and its weapons offloaded for the repair. The sub eventually had to be submerged in order to completely put out the fire, though it appears from initial news reports that the damage was limited to the outer hull as the fire didn’t penetrate to the interior.

There’s conflicting information on injuries — most news outlets are reporting that there were no injuries, but one report indicated that nine people had been taken to the hospital with injuries caused by the fire. The fire appears to have been caused by sparks emitted during a welding operation, which spread to nearby construction debris and then to scaffolding being used in the submarine’s repair. From there, the fire spread to the submarine’s outer hull, damaging the special noise-reducing rubber coating located on the submarine’s exterior between the outer and inner hull. While it seems to be too early to know for sure, early reports indicate that repair of the submarine will take at least six months.

Meanwhile, in Volgograd, a landing Su-24 on a routine training flight crashed and exploded. Both members of the crew were able to eject from the plane and survived the incident. This is the second crash of a Su-24 in the last few months. In October, a Su-24 on its way to be repaired crashed on landing in Amur oblast after overshooting the runway. In that case, the crew members were killed. It was later determined that that crash was caused by a broken chassis that caused the plane to flip over and also ruptured the plane’s fuel tank, causing a fire. According to RIA-Novosti, at least fifteen Su-24 aircraft have crashed in Russia since 2000.

These two accidents may serve as an early test for Dmitry Rogozin, the newly appointed Deputy Premier in charge of the defense industry. If he wants to show from the start that he is serious about shaking things up, he may use them as an excuse to push through a major house-cleaning of the industry, parts of which are known to have lax quality control and safety standards. Or he may continue to make strong statements that receive a great deal of media attention with little to no follow through, as he did in his previous position as Russia’s ambassador to NATO.

UPDATE: Ilya Kramnik emailed me with a correction — the rubber covering on the Ekaterinburg is not between the outer and inner hulls, but on the outside of the outer hull. There is some minor damage to communications between the two hulls.

Also, there’s been official confirmation that seven crew members and two emergency ministry personnel (i.e. firefighters, most likely) had suffered from smoke inhalation.

The Future of the Russian Navy Part 3: Submarines

Strategic Submarines

The future of Russia’s sea-based strategic deterrent force revolves around the Borei-class submarines, eight of which are planned to be built by 2017. The first was completed in 2008 and is currently undergoing sea trials. Another three are already under construction. While the submarines themselves seem to be in good shape, the project is currently mired in uncertainty because of continuing failures in testing of the Bulava SLBM with which they are to be equipped. The Bulava is the first solid-fuel SLBM to be used in Russian/Soviet submarines. The Bulava is the first SLBM used in Russian/Soviet submarines that was designed by the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MITT), rather than the Makeyev Design Bureau.

The Bulava test missiles are being launched from the Dmitry Donskoy, the last of the Typhoon SSBNs, built in the late 1970s and modified a few years ago to launch the Bulava. Two other Typhoons are currently listed as inactive and may be modified in the future to carry conventional cruise missiles instead of SLBMs.

The Russian Navy currently operates six Delta IV SSBNs, all based in the Northern Fleet. Four of the subs have already been upgraded to carry Sineva SLBMs. Two others are currently being overhauled, with expected relaunch dates in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The expectation is that these subs, which were all built in the late 1980s, will continue to serve through 2020-25.

The Pacific Fleet currently has four active Delta III SSBNs, all built between 1979 and 1982. These subs carry the SS-N-18 SLBM. They are expected to be withdrawn from service in the near future, as the new Borei-class SSBNs enter the fleet. Original plans called for them to have been withdrawn already by 2010, but problems with the Bulava have so far prevented the Borei submarines from replacing the Delta IIIs.

Assuming that the Bulava’s problems are resolved, 10-15 years from now, we are likely to see Russia maintaining a fleet of 12 SSBNs, most likely including 6-8 Boreis  and 4-6 Delta IVs.

Multi-purpose Nuclear Submarines

The Russian Navy currently operates several kinds of multi-purpose submarines. The largest are the Oscar II class cruise missile submarines, built mostly in the 1980s and armed with P-700 Granit cruise missiles. Eight of these submarines are available to the navy, though at least three are currently in reserve or being repaired. As currently configured, their sole real purpose is to hunt down US carrier groups, though this is made difficult in practice by their large size and noisiness, characteristics that make them relatively easy to spot. In the future, they could be equipped with newer cruise missiles to expand their range of missions. Two more Oscar IIs were never completed but could be finished in the future, though it seems to me that this would not be a wise expenditure of limited procurement resources.

The Akula is the main type of attack submarine currently in the Russian Navy. There are eight in active service, mostly in the Northern Fleet, though several more are being held in reserve. The older boats in this class are likely to be retired over the next decade. In addition, the Navy still operates four Victor III attack submarines and three Sierra I and II attack submarines. All of these are likely to be retired in the near future as well.

The only replacement for these submarines, at the moment, is the Severdvinsk class, a modification of the Akula class that is considered by some experts to be the most sophisticated nuclear submarine in the world, able to travel at 33 knots, armed with 8 torpedo tubes and able to launch up to 24 cruise missiles simultaneously. They are similar in some ways to the American Sea Wolf submarine. At the same time, these submarines are very expensive and some analysts doubt the need for building too many of them given that the Sea Wolf program was canceled after only three were built. For the moment, one submarine of this class has been launched and another is under construction. Navy officials have stated that they hope to start building one of these a year starting in 2011, but this seems highly unlikely given the financial constraints and technological limitations of Russian submarine building.

It seems that this is the most problematic category for the Russian Navy’s submarine fleet. Ten years from now, the navy is likely to have at its disposal around 4 Oscar IIs, 4-5 Akulas, and no more than 3 Severdvinsk submarines. And the remaining Oscars and Akulas will have to be retired by 2025-2030. Given these numbers, what the navy desperately needs is a relatively basic, cheap, and easy to build attack submarine along the lines of the American Virginia class. While there are rumors that various bureaus are working on designs for such a submarine, there has been no official word on this process.

Diesel Submarines

The Russian Navy currently operates 12-15 Kilo class diesel-electric submarines, most of which were built in the 1980s. Several additional submarines are in reserve and a couple are under repair and will likely return to operational status. These are extremely quiet submarines, intended for anti-shipping and anti-submarine operations in shallow waters. They are armed with torpedoes and surface-to-air missiles.

The successor to the Kilo is the Lada, the first of which (the St. Petersburg) was launched in 2005 but not commissioned until May 2010. Despite being listed in active service,  the St. Petersburg continues to experience problems with its propulsion systems, which had been the cause of the delays in completing the sub’s sea trials. In the meantime, two other submarines of this class are under construction, though their completion is likely to be delayed until the problems with the St. Petersburg are resolved. The Russian navy hopes to build a total of eight Ladas by 2020, and more thereafter.

Because of the urgent need for new diesel submarines in the Black Sea Fleet and the continuing problems with the Lada, in August 2010 the navy announced that it will build three improved Kilos (of a type previously built only for export) for the Black Sea Fleet. Construction of the first submarine has already begun and all three are expected to be completed by 2014. These are realistic timelines, given the speed with which these submarines have been built for the Chinese and Algerian navies.

Later this week, I’ll have a summary and analysis of what I think the RFN will look like in 10 years based on all the available information.