New Details On Russian Submarine Fire Emerge Along With An Intriguing Schematic (Updated)
The still very mysterious accident has focused international media attention on Russia's most secretive submarines.
Krasnaya Zvezda, the official newspaper of the Russian Ministry of Defense, has included a heretofore unseen drawing of the Project 09852 Belgorod, a heavily modified Oscar II-class submarine outfitted for various "special projects" missions, in its latest report about a fire that killed 14 sailors onboard a still-unnamed Russian submarine on Monday. Russia officially launched the still-under-construction Belgorod, which is presently the world's longest submarine, in April 2019. At the same time, new details regarding the July 1st accident have begun to trickle out, although they are limited in number and some are unconfirmed in nature.
Though Belgorod is more widely associated with the Poseidon nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed long-range torpedo, this special mission boat will also be capable of serving as a mothership for smaller, highly specialized, and deep-diving submarines, such as the Project 10831 Losharik. Independent Russian media outlets have widely reported that Losharik, also known by the hull number AS-12 and more recently AS-31, was the submarine that experienced the deadly blaze on July 1, 2019. You can find more details about Losharik and what is known so far about this accident in The War Zone's earlier extensive coverage of the incident here.
Krasnaya Zvezda, also known as the Central Organ of the Russian Ministry of Defense, attached the rendering of Belgorod, sometimes referred to by its hull number K-329, to a new story about the submarine fire on July 3, 2019. The drawing shows the boat carrying a smaller submarine underneath. There is no caption for the illustration and the story does not otherwise mention Belgorod, but the shape of the sail and other features make it clear that this is K-329.
This appears to be one of, if not the first official release of a depiction of Belgorod in its final special mission configuration. In 2015, a similar image had emerged on Russian state television, which also revealed the existence of the Poseidon torpedo, then known as Kanyon or Status-6. This "leak" did appear to be deliberately contrived, but was not a formal release.
We have no way of knowing whether this means that the Belgorod was in some way involved in the incident. There are no reports that this submarine has put to sea for any period of time for any reason since April 2019, though details about the boat and the progress of its construction are extremely limited. The Kremlin officially plans to commission it sometime in 2020.
Some earlier reports from Russian media outlets, citing unnamed individuals, had suggested that one of the Russian Navy's other submarine motherships was involved some way in the incident on Monday. Those stories specifically named the modified Project 667BDRM Delfin-class ballistic missile submarine BS-64 Podmoskovye and the Project 09786 BS-136 Orenburg, a converted Project 667BDR Delta III-class ballistic missile submarine, both of which are understood to be special mission boats capable of performing this role.
Local fishermen reported seeing Podmoskovye surface in the Barents Sea near the town of Kildin around the time of the reported fire. The rapid surfacing was quickly followed by a lot of commotion on the large mothership submarine's deck. Soon after, two tugs and a warship met it and escorted it into the Kola Bay. Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing anonymous sources, also said that Losharik had been ascending from the seabed in order to dock with Podmoskovye in a Northern Fleet training ground to the west of Kola Bay when the fire broke out.
On July 3, 2019, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had visited Severomorsk, which is in the Kola Bay, where the still-unnamed damaged submarine is reportedly now pier-side. The day before, Russian President Vladimir Putin had met with Shoigu and ordered him to personally go to the base, which is home to the headquarters of the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet, to meet with officials and get briefed about the accident. A separate, unconfirmed report said that the Russian Navy had actually towed the damaged submarine to Gadzhiyevo, which is situated to the north of Severomorsk.
"It [the submarine] belongs to the highest level of classified data, so it is absolutely normal for it [the name] not to be disclosed," Putin's personal spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said on July 3, 2019, all but confirming that the submarine in question is one of Russia's shadowy special mission boats. The Russian President himself had previously described the sub as an "unusual vessel."
Speaking at an open meeting with officials in Severomorsk, Shoigu also described the submariners who died in the fire as "high professionals" and "unique experts." The highly specialized Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research, a naval intelligence entity also known by the Russian acronym GUGI, operates the Russian Navy's fleet of special mission submarines, including Losharik and Belgorod. Previous reports had already identified seven of the 14 sailors who died as Captains of the First Rank, equivalent to U.S. Navy captains, including two who were Heroes of the Russian Federation, the country's highest honorary title.
In addition, the Russian Defense Minister disclosed that a civilian expert from the country's state-run defense industrial complex had been on the submarine at the time of the accident. This might point to Losharik being involved in a test of new equipment during the mishap.
"The submariners acted heroically in the critical situation," Shoigu said. "They evacuated a civilian expert from the compartment that was engulfed by fire and shut the door to prevent the fire from spreading further and fought for the ship's survival until the end."
The few details we have seem to point to a possible scenario where Losharik was attached to its mothership when the fire broke out or its crew got the sub back to its mothership just before the fire overwhelmed them, with the civilian being saved before sealing-off a compartment—or possibly the entire submarine—to protect Losharik and maybe even the larger submarine it was attached to from being completely lost. It's also possible that eye witness accounts are inaccurate and that Losharik was operating independently and was able to make it to the surface intact. Whatever the situation was, the official narrative from the highest levels of the Russian military is that the highly-trained crew on the small, but extremely valuable submarine heroically died saving at least one civilian onboard.
The exact cause of the accident, or the scope of the damage, remains unclear, as well. Unconfirmed reports have said that a short circuit or battery malfunction may have sparked the blaze. The Russian Ministry of Defense has denied separate reports that there had been an unspecified "gas explosion" onboard the submarine. The Kremlin has also said there was no release of dangerous radiation as a result of the incident. Losharik, as well as the various submarine motherships, are all nuclear powered.
"It's too early to say what caused the fire and whether or not it was human or mechanical error," Jeffrey Edmonds, a researcher Center for Naval Analyses think tank in Washington, D.C. and a former U.S. National Security Council staffer, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on July 2, 2019. "The Losharik incident will likely have a deep operational impact on the Directorate for Deep Sea Research, given how advanced and relatively few these submarines are."
Given the sensitivities surrounding the submarines that appear to have been involved in or otherwise present at the time of the accident, it remains to be seen when and if the Russian government will release any new details about the incident. Defense Minister Shoigu has ordered the Russian Navy to work together with the country's defense industry to repair the submarine and get it back into service. Some independent media commentators in Russia have begun to accuse the Kremlin of covering up the severity of the situation, but it is impossible to tell whether or not this is the case.
What we do know for sure is that the fire struck one of Russia's most important submarines, focusing new and significant attention on GUGI's secretive activities in the process.
UPDATE: 6:50pm EST—
Pictures have emerged that reportedly show Podmoskovye, the submarine mothership that may have been involved in the July 1 accident, docked in Severomorsk after the incident. The pictures show a green tarp over the boat's dorsal payload cradle, but do not appear to show any damage to the submarine, at least to the parts that are visible above the waterline.
The Kremlin has released an English translation of a second meeting that Defense Minister Shoigu had with Putin following his visit to Severomorsk, which includes a number of significant new details. Shoigu said that the submarine was nuclear-powered one, that the fire broke out in the battery compartment, and that the boat's nuclear reactor was undamaged in the incident. He assured Putin that it would be possible to repair the sub and return it to service "quickly."
The complete exchange was as follows:
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Mr. Shoigu, how is the work progressing in Severomorsk?
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu: Mr. President, we have made the necessary arrangements and established a headquarters, which is working very actively. We are using the services of the submarine designers and industry representatives to assess the volume and timeframe of repairs.
Our first conclusion is that the submarine can be repaired. Moreover, this must be done, in this particular case. We are now assessing the timeframe.
We have pinpointed the main reason for the tragedy: a fire in the battery flat that spread out.
Vladimir Putin: What about the nuclear power unit?
Sergei Shoigu: Mr President, the nuclear power unit has been sealed off and all personnel have been removed. Plus, the crew has taken the necessary measures to save the unit, which is in working order. This means we can repair the submersible quickly.
Vladimir Putin: Completely?
Sergei Shoigu: Yes, completely.
Next, we have a group working with the submariners’ families. We are working with each family separately. As per your instructions, we will provide the necessary assistance in accordance with our laws and regulations and, on the other hand, because it is our duty to the deceased sailors.
Assistance measures include good education for those children who are still studying and a decent standard of living for everyone, just as we did following similar bitter tragedies.
The families with minor children will receive their deceased husbands’ salaries until the children come of age.
Vladimir Putin: Mr. Shoigu, please submit your proposals on awarding state decorations to the crew.
Sergei Shoigu: Will do.
The drawing Krasnaya Zvezda used has also turned out to be from MilitaryRussia.ru. The newspaper has removed the image from its story.
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