Saturday, May 9, 2015

Baltic Fleet Tries to Forget the "Steregushchiy" Fire

"Steregushchiy" undergoing routine dock repairs, early 2015
credit: RF Baltic Fleet
What was supposed to be a somewhat routine exercise in mid-April turned into a real emergency for one of the Baltic Fleet's newest combatants.

Prior to the exercise, Steregushchiy-class frigate "Steregushchiy" had completed a routine 59-day out-of-water repair period at the Yantar Baltic Shipyard in Kaliningrad before returning to Baltiysk Naval Base on March 21. According to the March 21 edition of the fleet's newspaper, Strazh Baltiki (released the same day as the frigate's return to Baltiysk), shipyard work included repairs to hull fittings, propellers, the main engine, and diesel engines, as well as a fresh coat of paint. The ship's commanding officer, Captain 3rd Rank Aleskey Suslov, told the newspaper that "Steregushchiy" was to complete all combat certifications by the end of April.

On April 17, 2015, the Western Military District press service issued a press statement regarding a recently held anti-air and antisubmarine warfare exercise involving all four of the Baltic Fleet's Steregushchiy-class frigates: "Boykiy", Soobrazitelnyy", "Stoykiy", and "Steregushchiy". Also included in the list of participants were two firefighting vessels, an AN-26 Curl fixed-wing transport, and a KA-27 Helix helicopter. The inclusion of firefighting vessels in live-fire exercises seemed odd until you reached the end of the article in which the press release stated that the ships also practiced "rendering assistance to one of the ships, which was simulating a casualty."

It should be no surprise that even before the press release was broadcast by the major Russian news outlets, hints of a true emergency on board "Steregushchiy" began to leak out. According to one source, "Steregushchiy" was supposed to be underway for four days, but the frigate was forced to return within six hours of getting underway due to a fire. Two weeks later, a different source indicated the fire may have started after fuel somehow entered the frigate's exhaust funnel. That source also indicated there were some injuries, although the exact nature of the injuries and the number of injured personnel were not provided.

It is not known whether the AN-26 and KA-27 were part of the exercise, part of the response to the fire on "Steregushchiy", or both.

Thus, the Western Military District's inclusion of firefighting vessels and the rescue drill in its press release appears to be an attempt to cover up a response to an actual at-sea emergency. With NATO's Baltic partners keeping a vigilant eye on Russian military activity in the region, the Russian military press officers have to quickly devise explanations for any unusual military activity, such as an accident. Sometimes, however, their explanations fail.