Sunday, January 1, 2012

Liar, Liar… Pants on Fire

As if Russia didn’t have enough end-of-year excitement, two nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines were involved in separate mishaps during the last week of December.  On December 28, a floating drydock was pushed by very high winds into the stern section of Aleksandr Nevskiy, the second hull of the new Dolgorukiy class of SSBNs.  The submarine, launched in 2011, is still undergoing pre-acceptance testing.  The incident occurred at the Northern Machine-building Enterprise (shortened in Russian to Sevmash), located in the White Sea port of Severodvinsk.   It is unclear how serious the damage is, but one report indicates the submarine now has a hole measuring 0.7 by 0.2 meters in its outer hull.  This incident has not been officially acknowledged yet.

The very next day, a fire broke out aboard Yekaterinburg, the second hull of the Delta IV class of SSBNs – the backbone of the Russian naval strategic nuclear forces.  The fire began at about 4PM local time as the submarine was undergoing dock repairs in a floating drydock at the 82nd Ship Repair Facility in the port of Roslyakovo (near Murmansk).  Sparks from ongoing hull-cutting operations apparently ignited either oily residue or trash lubricants floating in the free-flood space between the outer and inner (pressure) hulls.  This space, which contains the submarine's cylindrical sonar array, is flooded when the submarine is afloat, but it is supposed to be drained when placed in drydock.  In this instance, openings located under the sonar dome were welded shut, thus preventing the space from being fully drained.  The presence of water in the space should have been obvious to shipyard workers, especially given that the submarine was placed in the drydock three weeks earlier on December 8.  Contributing to the incident was a series of safety violations, to include the absence of a safety observer during the hull-cutting operation and the failure to draft a written order for the operation in the first place (apparently only a verbal order was given).

About thirty minutes after the fire ignited, the rubber material within the free-flood space began to burn.  The flames then spread outside the space and onto the outer hull.  Subsequently the submarine’s anechoic tiles, which are made of rubber and used to reduce the amount of noise emanating from inside the submarine, began to burn, as did the adjacent wooden scaffolding.  The Russian media erroneously reported – and continue to report – the fire was initiated when sparks created during welding work ignited the scaffolding.  While investigators now know the truth, officials apparently have decided the original false reporting serves their purposes for the time being.

Adding to the seriousness of the accident is the fact that at least ten SS-N-23 Skiff ballistic missiles and four combat torpedoes were loaded aboard the submarine.  As this repair period was “unscheduled,” naval officials decided not to fully offload the submarine’s weapons.  For “scheduled” repairs, all weapons are offloaded before repair work begins.  The immediate danger of the fire was to the four torpedoes, which were amazingly still loaded into torpedo tubes that are located in a separate, confined space above the free-flood space containing the cylindrical sonar array.  Crewmembers were able to pull three torpedoes from their tubes, but the fourth torpedo was wedged inside the torpedo tube.  News video from December 30 clearly shows water being sprayed directly into at least one of the starboard torpedo tubes.

By 3PM local on December 30, shipyard workers had flooded the drydock in order to lower the submarine into the water.  This allowed seawater to flood the free-flood space between the outer and inner hulls, thereby dousing all flames and rapidly lowering the temperature within the space.  Shortly afterwards, the fire was reported to be completely extinguished.

Another indication of the gravity of the situation was the number of high-level government and military officials who flew from Moscow to Roslyakovo:  General Nikolay Makarov (Chief of the General Staff), Admirals Vladimir Vysotskiy and Aleksandr Tatarinov (Russian Navy Commander-in-Chief and Chief of Staff, respectively), Denis Manturov (acting Minister of Industry and Trade), and Roman Trotsenko (head of the United Shipbuilding Corporation, the parent company of the 82nd Ship Repair Facility).

Now that most of Russia is enjoying a week-long New Year’s holiday break, investigators and military officials will be able to better craft a story for the public while simultaneously trying to figure out who’s to blame.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.