Submarine Escape and Rescue
When submerged, submarines may be subject to enemy action, mechanical failure, collision and other accidents that mean it is immobilised and unable to surface. Escape and Rescue are key capabilities.
In 1939, the Royal Navy suffered a very high number of casualties from HMS Thetis, the first video sets the scene for submarine rescue, sobering stuff. HMS Affray was the last British submarine casualty, in 1951. The second video shows the state of the art nearly 50 years ago. The Historic Naval Ships Association has a good page on Escape Procedures from the O Class Submarines, click here to view.
There was also the well known Russian submarine loss, the Kursk.
This is a look at Royal Navy and NATO rescue and escape capabilities
Submarines are equipped with their own escape sets to allow personnel to leave the submarine without external assistance using an escape chamber or compartment.
The image below shows an older Mk9 Escape Suit.
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 into the design
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.
In 2012 both were validated during an exercise, click here for more information.
Every submariner must pass the escape course.
The Royal Navy has a 30m Submarine Escape 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.
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!
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.
If the personnel cannot self-evacuate they will need to be rescued and obviously, time is of the essence. The UK and NATO maintain two important capabilities to provide external assistance to a stricken or disabled submarine; submarine rescue.
Submarine Parachute Assistance Group (SPAG)
This is a Royal Navy rapid deployment capability that was formed in 1971 in order to provide a rapid worldwide response to submarines in peril. Held at 6 hours notice to move their primary task is to rapidly deploy and provide expert assistance to the disabled/distressed submarine, or ‘DISSUB’.
The group comprises approximately 30 personnel, all trained for submarine rescue and parachute insertion. Equipment includes inflatable boats, life rafts, specialist communication equipment, rations/water and medical supplies. All of this equipment, even including the inflatable boats, can be parachute dropped.
After establishing communications with the stricken submarine the SPAG might establish a life raft group, work with others or coordinate an escape, if rescue by the rescue submersible is not possible, for whatever reason.
The videos above show the 22ft Steerable Static Line (22’ SSL) parachute Static Line Square (SLS) equipment being used.
Members of the SPAG wear the RN parachute badge although there have been all sorts of wailing and gnashing of teeth within the airborne fraternity about wings being worn, click here to see what I mean. A recent Parliamentary Question and Answer confirmed that due to members of SPAG not having completed an arduous training course they cannot wear parachute wings.
The Royal Navy Fleet Diving Unit, Royal Air Force and Royal Logistic Corps also provide specialist support to SPAG.
The NATO Submarine Rescue System (NSRS)
The NATO Submarine Rescue System (NSRS) is a personnel rescue system for submariners in peril, co-owned by the partner nations (France, Norway and the U.K.) and managed by James Fisher Defence (JFD).
The concept for a submarine rescue system reportedly came from an ex Royal Navy submariner named Roger Chapman. Whilst laying telephone cables in a small two-man submersible off the coast of South West Ireland they became stranded and were only rescued after a tense three-day stay on the bottom.
NSRS replaced a UK specific capability that used a Perry Slingsby LR5 submersible with a newly designed SR class submersible and supporting systems.
Commenting on the £47 million contract award in 2004, Lord Bach said;
The operating concept is deceptively simple, the 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 submersible and portable launch and recovery system is then flown out and fitted to a suitable vessel such as an offshore supply or engineering ship. Working in conjunction with the ROV, personnel will be recovered and transferred under pressure on the parent ship to a decompression chamber. Once on board, personnel can be medically assessed and treated as required.
Intervention Class Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV)
The remotely operated vehicle (ROV) is used to locate the submarine in trouble, clear debris and deliver emergency stores pods.
Supplied by Perry Slingsby (now Forum Energy Technologies), the Triton SP ROV is a standard Intervention Class ROV (IROV) of a type in widespread use in the offshore energy sector. A new capability for the NSRS SRV and ROV was an ability to carry 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 weighing up to 25kg such as food, water, oxygen candles or CO2 scrubbers.
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.
Kongsberg designed and 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.
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 deployment. With this in mind, the PLARS is a modular system that can be broken down into transportable sections and assembled on the host vessel.
When assembled, it can launch and recover the Submersible Rescue Vehicle in Sea State 6 without requiring any diver support, an important safety advantage. Using a sliding table and modular connectors it provides a pressurised route in the decompression chambers, assembled behind the PLARS.
The 100 tonne PLARS has a working load rating of 30 tonnes and for transport, is packed into seven 40ft ISO containers.
The NSRS control centre maintains a continual track of available and suitable ‘vessels of opportunity’ that can be chartered for use with PLARS.
Submersible Rescue Vehicle (SRV)
Christened ‘Nemo’ by the pilots who operate it, the SRV is 30 a tonne manned submersible vessel from Perry Slingsby can dive to depths of up to 610 metres and evacuate up to 16 people at a time. Its 17 kW h sodium/nickel chloride Zebra batteries provide power and life support is enough for 12 hours of normal use, 96 hours in emergencies.
The SRV can mate with the disabled submarine at angles up to 60 degrees.
Transfer Under Pressure System
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.
The complete system is containerised, the container integration completed by G3
A 2 man portable system is also used for helicopter medical evacuation.
In 2013 a contract note was published advertising a possible future in-service support contract for NSRS;
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.
This support contract was eventually let in 2015, to JFD (formerly James Fisher Defence) for £12.1 million. It was called the NSRS Second In Service Support (2ISS) period, JFD beating competitive bids from Rolls Royce and Phoenix International (who manage the US Navy system)
Because JFD also operates submarine rescue services for Singapore and Australia, the Australian contract using the LR5 submersible and supporting equipment, training and operational improvements opportunities may be exploited. JFD also support submarine rescue systems for the Republic of Korea and Sweden, and will be supplying a complete system to India in the next couple of years.
For Australia, the LR-5 is getting old and so Project Sea 1354 Phase 1 Submarine Rescue will seek to deliver a replacement capability.
In March 2016, JFD were awarded a £193 million contract to deliver two submarine rescue submersibles and associated services for the Indian Navy
Exercises and Deployments
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 submersible.
Exercise Golden Arrow
Exercise Golden Arrow was one of many deployment exercises 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. From there it was transported to the support vessel and deployed in exercise conditions.
Brian Grant, Base Manager for the NSRS, said:
After being fitted to a rescue vessel (Rem Star) it was sailed back to the UK in March 2011.
The system is subject to regular deployment exercises with the partner nations and many other submarine forces.
Read more about the NATO exercise Dynamic Monarch 2014 here
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