The Akula class submarine has been marketed by Russia to India's Navy
The Russian Navy has witnessed three high profile fatal accidents at sea in the last ten years: the 2000 sinking of the Kursk in the Barents Sea; the 2003 sinking of a retiring sub that went down with 11 sailors on board; and now another mishap on board an attack submarine in the Pacific Fleet this weekend, which suffocated 20 Russian sailors and left 21 others hospitalized.
The incident happened Saturday as the Nerpa, a (NATO designated) Akula II class nuclear-powered attack submarine, was undergoing its first major sea trials after leaving its base near the Russian Far East port of Vladivostok. A freon fire control system unexpectedly activated, suffocating crew members who were caught in the affected compartments. Apparently the crew members did not have access to or were not trained to use their emergency respirator devices to breathe.
Construction on the Akula boat reportedly began in 1991 and funds only became available to complete the submarine in the last few years. Russia's Navy remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor, with poor crewmember pay and thin to non-existent budgets for training in the past fifteen years taking their toll on a service that the Putin/Medvedev Administration seeks to reconstitute. In October 2008 President Medvedev proposed that Russia build new aircraft carrier battle groups, complete with aircraft, support ships and submarines. But this vision seems to be little more than a fantasy, in light of the global economic crisis and falling oil export revenues undercutting the Russian federal budget.
Click on the extended post to read an excerpt from the Associated Press story about this tragedy.
Port of Vladivostok near the Sea of Japan in Russia's Far East
Accident on Russian nuclear sub suffocates 20
By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV
Associated Press Writer Vladimir Isachenkov, Associated Press Writer
MOSCOW -- The fire safety system on a brand-new Russian nuclear submarine accidentally turned on as the sub was being tested in the Sea of Japan, spewing chemicals that suffocated 20 people and sent 21 others to the hospital, officials said Sunday.
The Russian Navy said the submarine itself was not damaged in Saturday's accident and returned to its base on Russia's Pacific coast under its own power Sunday. The accident also did not pose any radiation danger, the navy said.
Yet it was Russia's worst naval accident since torpedo explosions sank another nuclear-powered submarine, the Kursk, in the Barents Sea in 2000, killing all 118 seamen aboard.
The victims suffocated Saturday after the submarine's fire-extinguishing system released Freon gas, said Sergei Markin, an official with Russia's top investigative agency. He said forensic tests found Freon in the victims' lungs.
Seventeen civilians and three seamen died in the accident and 21 others were hospitalized after being evacuated to shore, Russian navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo said. None of the injuries were life-threatening, he added.
"The submarine's nuclear reactor was operating normally and radiation levels were normal," he said, adding the accident affected two sections of the submarine closest to the bow.
Markin's agency, the Investigative Committee under the Prosecutor General's office, has launched a probe into the accident, which he said will focus on what activated the firefighting system and possible violations of operating rules.
Lev Fyodorov, a top Russian chemical expert, said the freon pushed oxygen out, causing those inside to die of suffocation. But he said the limited information released by the government was making it difficult to understand exactly what happened. He wondered specifically about the individual breathing kits that everyone on board is supposed to have.
"People on board the sub may have failed to use their breathing equipment when they found themselves in an emergency," he told the AP.
Igor Kurdin, a retired navy officer who heads an association of former submariners, told Ekho Moskvy radio that the high death toll probably resulted from shipyard workers who lacked experience in dealing with breathing kits.
A siren warning the crew that the firefighting system was turning on also may have failed, the RIA Novosti news agency quoted an unidentified navy official as saying, so those on board might not have realized that Freon was being released until it was too late.
The submarine returned to Bolshoi Kamen, a military shipyard and a navy base near Vladivostok. Officials at the Amur Shipbuilding Factory told Russian news agencies the submarine was built there and is called the Nerpa.
Overcrowding may have been a factor. Dygalo said the submarine had 208 people aboard, including 81 servicemen, and was to be commissioned by the navy later this year. Yet Amur factory officials told news agencies that a submarine of this type normally carries only a crew of 73.
Construction of the Nerpa, an Akula II class attack submarine, started in 1991 but was suspended for years because of a shortage of funding, they said. Testing on the submarine began last month and it submerged for the first time last week.
The U.S.-based intelligence risk assessment agency Stratfor said the Akula is an established design, with the Nerpa being the 11th ship of the class.
"Such a catastrophic accident calls into question the way the Russian navy has sustained its institutional knowledge in terms of design expertise, not to mention issues of quality-control both in fabrication and inspection," Stratfor said.
Saturday's accident came as the Kremlin is seeking to restore Russia's naval reach, part of a drive to show off the nuclear-armed country's clout amid strained ties with the West. A naval squadron is heading to Venezuela for joint exercises this month in a show of force near U.S. waters.
Despite a major boost in military spending during Vladimir Putin's eight years as president, Russia's military is still hampered by decrepit infrastructure, aging weapons and problems with corruption and incompetence.
Gennady Illarionov, a retired submarine officer, told RIA Novosti that the accident appeared to reflect the loss of crucial skills in conducting sea trials, since the navy has commissioned only a small number of new ships since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
"During the Soviet times, we commissioned from three to five submarines a year, and now we get just one in five years," Illarionov was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying. "People forgot caution and lost their skills."
Click here to read more about this story from the BBC world service.