Submarine Rescue

Submarine rescue systems and capabilities including escape suits, the Royal Navy Submarine Parachute Assistance Group and the NATO Submarine Rescue System (NSRS)

If one operates it stands to reason that a submarine escape and rescue capability is a must, to do otherwise would be criminally negligent. The UK has a very effective, globally deployable capability that it operates alone and in conjunction with allies as a shared service.

With speculation about a possible stricken Russian mini submarine near Sweden, time for a look at those capabilities.

In 1939, the suffered a high number of casualties from HMS Thetis, this is a sobering video that sets the scene for submarine rescue.

The capability as a whole comprises a number of critical components and things have moved on a bit since this film.

The Historic Naval Ships Association has a good page on Escape Procedures from the O Class Submarines, click here to view.

Self Escape

Submarines are equipped with their own escape sets to allow personnel to leave the submarine without external assistance using an escape chamber, or compartment although this would be a last resort.

Escape Suit Mk9

RFD Beaufort Limited in Birkenhead have been supplying submarine escape suits to the naval forces of the world for decades, now part of the Survitec Group, they continue to enhance the ‘state of the art’.

Describing them as a suit is underselling them because with the advent of the Mk10, RFD Beaufort integrated a single person liferaft and extensive hypothermia protection.

The Mk10 has been in service with the royal navy for many years, the image below shows a US Navy one on the surface, although the BFA (now Survitec) Solandri


The Mk10 equipment has been replaced in the Royal Navy with the BFA Solandri system from Survitec. The system is designed to sustain the wearer on the surface for 24 hours and includes water, emergency rations, heat packs and signalling equipment.

SSIE Solandri

The Astute class submarines have a two man escape tower called the Logistic Escape Tower (LET) aft and an Forard Escape Tower (FET), not surprisingly, at the pointed. In 2012 both were validated during an exercise, click here for more information.

Every submariner must pass the escape course

By accident (honest) I found this video of the fetish scene making use of a RFD Submarine Escape Suit (safe for work link), of course, when you spend your working day in tight trunks and a dressing gown, one can understand!

The royal navy has a 30m Submarine Ecape Training Tank (SETT) at Gosport, an impressive installation.

Pressurised escape training at SETT ceased in 2009, the Royal Navy taking the decision in light of the emerging submersible rescue vehicle capability and an examination of risk, although other naval forces continue to maintain pressurised escape training facilities. All diving ceased at SETT in 2013.

Self escape is the least preferred escape option and would only be carried out in extreme circumstances such as on onboard fire, total flooding or radiation leak.

Submarine Parachute Assistance Group (SPAG)

This is a Royal Navy rapid deployment capability that was formed in 1971 to provide a rapid worldwide response to submarines in peril. Their primary task is to remain at 6 hours standby ready to deploy and provide expert assistance to the distressed submarine or ‘DISSUB’

The group comprises approximately 30 personnel, all trained for submarine rescue and parachute insertion. Equipment includes a inflatable boats, liferafts, specialist communication equipment, rations/water and medical supplies.

All of this equipment, including the inflatable boats, can be parachute dropped.

Submarine Parachute Assistance Group training off Gibraltar
Moody SPAG Shot
Moody SPAG Shot

Members of the SPAG wear the RN parachute badge although there has been all sorts of wailing and gnashing of teeth within the airborne fraternity about wings being worn, click here to see what I mean.

Not getting into that argument!

The videos above show the 22ft Steerable Static Line (22’ SSL) parachute Static Line Square (SLS) equipment being used.

It seems the Spanish don’t like the SPAG either, as this report from BFBS details.

The Fleet Diving Unit, RAF and RLC provide specialist support to SPAG.

After establishing communications with the stricken submarine the SPAG might establish a liferaft group, work with others or coordinate an escape, if rescue by the rescue submersible is not possible, for whatever reason.

The NATO Submarine Rescue System (NSRS)

The NATO Submarine Rescue System (NSRS) is a multinational capability that delivers a rescue capability primarily for the partner nations of France, Norway and the U.K.,

NATO and other allied nations use the capability also.

The NATO Submarine Rescue System (NSRS) was designed and delivered by a Rolls Royce led consortium to replace the LR5 under a £47 million contract awarded in 2004.  The consortium included babcock, Perry Slingsby, Divex, Lloyds, Kongsberg, Interpower and a number of others.

Norway and France co-own the system, Turkey withdrawing before contract signature.

Commenting on the contract award, Lord Bach said;

This system will give us and our partners the most effective submarine rescue system available. The system will primarily support the three partner nations but will be on standby to assist any nation anywhere in the world.

Under the terms of the contract Rolls Royce operated it for the first 7 years after which the MoD contracted it to James Fisher Defence.

The operating concept is deceptively simple, an intervention ROV is flown out and operated from almost any ship to establish initial context and carry out a situation assessment. If rescue is viable the larger rescue vessel and portable launch and recovery system is flown out and mated with a suitable vessel, such as an offshore supply or engineering ship. All components are air portable by C17 or A400 and road portable.

In 2013 a contract note was published advertising a possible future in service support contract for NSRS

The Authority is considering establishing a Contract for delivery of in service-support of the NATO Submarine Rescue System (NSRS) for a period of five years from July 2015, plus 3 option years. The service and operation required shall be delivered within the existing infrastructure arrangement, currently at the HQ based at HMNB Clyde. The Authority may be willing to consider a move to an alternate location providing value for money, and no loss of system availability can be demonstrated.

The NSRS is a globally deployable submarine rescue system currently operated under a Government Owned Contractor Operated (GOCO) arrangement. NSRS primary objective is to provide a world-wide, continuously available and sustainable capability to rescue personnel in the event of the sinking of a Participant Nation submarine.

The Project is tri-national; United Kingdom, France and Norway form the Partner Nations. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Partner Nations committing to the equitable contribution to the cost of the support and operation of the NSRS until 2032. The Partner Nations (PNs), United Kingdom, France and Norway, have procured the NSRS in order to have the capability to rescue a crew from a Distressed Submarine. In addition, to direct the operational deployment of the NSRS, they have established a joint committee, the International Project Executive Committee (IPEC), to act as a single, unified supervisory body.
NSRS consists of several key components, together they make up the most capable deployable submarine rescue system available. These key components are:

a) The Submarine Rescue Vehicle (SRV) is capable of lifting up to 12 survivors from a DISSUB at 610m and inclined at an angle of as much as 60 degrees. Powered by innovative Zebra batteries, its maximum speed, endurance and manoeuvrability ensure high confidence in its ability to conduct rescues in all probable situations.

b) Portable Launch and Recovery System (PLARS). The PLARS breaks down for transport (by road and air) and can be reassembled on a suitably prepared ship in a few hours. It is capable of launching and recovering the SRV in up to 5m sea height.

c) The Transfer Under Pressure System (TUP). The TUP accepts survivors from the SRV at an elevated pressure and returns them to surface pressure. It consists of two large recompression chambers and supporting equipment, capable of being broken down for transport (by road and air).

d) The Intervention System (IS). A separate self-contained sub system of the NSRS centred around a capable Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). The IS will arrive on scene first and prepare the DISSUB for the rescue and maintain survivable conditions therein.

e) Supporting Equipment. Various containerised equipments support the NSRS and they provide electrical power, spares, workshops, communications, tracking and navigation. All are air transportable and capable of rapid deployment and assembly.

Estimated value for the 5+3 year contract was between £20m and £40m

The whole thing is containerised, designed by G3

Intervention ROV

The first component is a remotely-operated vehicle which can be used to locate a submarine in trouble, clear debris from the vessel and deliver life-saving pods full of food, water and oxygen through the escape hatch.

The baseline response time for the intervention ROV is 56 hours based on a 6 hour notice to move from receipt of the DISSUB notification.

NSRS Intervention ROV

Supplied by Perry Slingsby (now Forum Energy Technologies), the Triton SP ROV is a standard intervention class ROV in widespread use in the offshore exploration sector.

Portable Launch and Recovery System (PLARS)

The Portable Launch and Recovery System (PLARS) was designed and built by IHC Engineering in South Shields and is a particularly innovative element of the overall system. Fundamental to all the NSRS components is weight reduction, every component has to be air portable to allow rapid global deployments. With this in mind the PLARS is a modular system that can be broken down into transportable sections and assembled on the host mothership.

This is an ingenious system that can be broken down into lightweight air portable sections and assembled on board a suitable vessel, ready to launch and recover the rescue submersible in Sea State 6, without the assistance of divers.

Sea State

The 100 tonne PLARS has a working load rating of 30 tonnes and is fitted with active heave compensation which allows the rescue submersible to be recovered without swimmers. It is air portable by 7x 40 foot ISO container sized loads and when assembled allows the submersible to be docked with the transfer under pressure module that provides personnel a pressurised route to a decompression chamber.

The NSRS control centre maintains a continual track of available and suitable ‘vessels of opportunity’ that can be chartered for use with PLARS.

This timelaspse video shows the installation sequence

It’s very clever stuff!

Submersible Rescue Vehicle

Christened ‘Nemo’ by the pilots who operate her, the SRV is a manned vessel that can dive to depths of up to 610 metres and evacuate up to 15 people at a time.

It is equipped with the latest 17 kW h sodium/nickel chloride Zebra batteries and

The SRV can mate with the distressed submarine at angles up to 60 degrees.

Weighing in at 27 tonnes it has a crew of 3 and is targeted at a first rescue of 72 hours from notification and is also supplied by Perry Slingsby


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NATO Submarine Rescue System (NSRS) on board HSwMS BELOS


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A new feature for NSRS SRV was an ability to carry three stores pods that can be directly passed through the submarine escape hatch without diver intervention. These pressurised pods can contain a variety of emergency supplies such as oxygen candles or CO2 scrubbers, weighing up to 25kg.

Emergency Life Support Stores (ELSS) Pod

Kongsberg designed an delivered the control and communication systems, supplementing the traditional through water communications with a Rolls Royce umbilical fibre optic cable. On the mothership, high quality video and other telemetry information can be received and used to support the rescue.

A number of newsystems have been trialled with NSRS since it came into service, the TELSON emergency underwater telephone from Sonistics 

Another new system is the atmosphere sampler from JFD

DISSUB Atmosphere Sampler

Early in 2014 QinetiQ conducted a fatigue and fracture mechanics assessment of the rescue submersible which included a stress life assessment of the welded joints on the pressure hull. This assessment concluded that the joints would only require visual inspections, rather than pressure testing which would have needed the vehicle to be out of service for a number of months. The findings were accepted by Lloyds Register and the UK MOD Naval Authority.

Transfer Under Pressure (TUP)

The TUP(Transfer Under Pressure) system designed and built by Divex is a portable decompression and medical support unit that allows rescuees to leave the SRV without decompressing, freeing the SRV to quickly dive again. It can be used to treat 84 people with a maximum pressure of 6 Ba and best of all, fully containerised.








Test and Exercise

No capability can be said to be effective until it has been tested through rigorous and realistic exercises or actual deployment.

the AS-28 Priz

in 2005, the intervention ROV was deployed to Kamchatka to help a stricken Russian submerisble, read more here

Exercise Golden Arrow

Exercise Golden Arrow was a deployment exercise designed to provide assurance that NSRS was globally deployable by air.

The complete system left Faslane on 28 articulated trucks and was loaded onto 2 C17’s and 3 Antonov AN-124 in the UK and flown to Norway.

Nato Submarine Rescue C17 Loading
Nato Submarine Rescue C17 Loading

NSRS Transport 01

NSRS Transport 02

NSRS Transport 03

Brian Grant, Base Manager for the NSRS, said:

This is the final tick in the box so that Rolls-Royce, who operates the system, can prove to their customer – the Ministry of Defence – that they’ve got a working system that can be deployed anywhere.

We train constantly and are looking forward to arriving in Bergen for the next stage of the exercise.

After being fitted to a rescue vessel (Rem Star) it was sailed back to the UK in March 2011.

Dynamic Monarch 2014

Read more about the NATO exercise Dynamic Monarch 2014 here

Allies and Friends

Reciprocal agreements exist between many nations that operate submarines and expertise and training shared. As we know, the UK and Norway offered assistance to Russia in the aftermath of the Kursk incident and after the troubles with the Indian submarine force, the Indian MoD awarded a contract to James Fisher Defence for the provision of a submarine rescue capability. After beating a Russian offer James Fisher will supply the Indian MoD with two

The LR-5 was refurbished and is now used by the Royal Australian Navy who contract with James Fisher Defence.

Other export successes have included Singapore, China and South Korea.

From the SPAG, NSRS, training facilities and industry, submarine escape is another one of those innovative and world leading British and European defence capabilities that no one has ever heard of

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