Watch Russian Submariners Train To Escape A Burning Submarine Through A Torpedo Tube

Russia is no stranger to submarine fires and other accidents, including a blaze on the spy sub Losharik earlier this year that killed 14.

A Russian sailor prepares to exit the Oscar II class submarine Tver via a torpedo tube while wearing a special escape suit during a drill.
TV Zvezda capture

The official television channel of Russia's Ministry of Defense recently offered a look at an emergency drill onboard the Project 949A Oscar II class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine Tver. It begins with personnel responding to a potential blaze onboard and ends with a sailor practicing how to escape through a torpedo tube using a special suit. These types of drills are routine and hardly surprising given the particular danger that fires pose to subs, which the War Zone has previously explored in-depth. Still, there is no doubt that there is some added emphasis within the Russian Navy on this kind of preparedness following the fire onboard the spy submarine Losharik earlier this year that killed 14 sailors.

TV Zvezda posted the brief segment online on Nov. 14, 2019. We don't know when the drill occurred, but it took place in the frigid waters off the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia's Far East region. Tver, which is assigned to the Russian Navy's Pacific Fleet, is homeported at the Rybachiy Nuclear Submarine Base in Kamchatka.

The video shows personnel racing to seal a compartment and otherwise battle the fire after the drill begins. They can be seen carrying small, portable emergency breathing devices in cases slung around their necks. These systems typically feature a self-contained oxygen supply and some form of hood to protect the wearer from smoke. They are generally intended for short-duration use only to allow individuals to escape to a safe area.

It's not stated in the TV Zvezda clip, but these may be PDU-3s, which provide enough oxygen for the user to breath for around 20 minutes, depending on how active they are and other factors. During the fire aboard Losharik in July 2019, which you can read about in much greater detail in this past War Zone piece, personnel reportedly used these emergency breathing systems, as well as a fixed emergency breathing apparatus, as they fought the blaze.

Working fast to contain a fire onboard a submarine to as few compartments as possible and get it otherwise under control is of paramount importance. As The War Zone has already explored in the past, fires within submarines are relatively unique given the confined environment that gives the heat and smoke no way to escape and dissipate. This, in turn, significantly increases the risks of smoke-related injuries because of how quickly it builds up inside the submarine's small compartments.

However, sealing off compartments can also leave sailors stranded at other ends of the submarine, without an easy means of getting out of the submarine to safety. Many classes of Russian submarines have special escape pods built into their sails, but it might be difficult for submariners to get to them if they're stranded at one end of the boat or another with a fire between them and this method of egress.

Russian Internet

The escape pod on the Russian Project 945 Sierra class nuclear attack submarine Kostroma removed during maintenance.

So, the drill onboard Tver also involved multiple individuals donning special emergency suits and exiting through the torpedo tubes at the front of the submarine. Rather than traditional diving gear, these suits only have a limited amount of oxygen to enable the individual to get to the surface, and hopefully to waiting rescuers. In the case of this drill, a Russian Navy support boat was sitting on the surface waiting for them, which was no doubt welcome given that it is winter in Kamchatka and forecasts show that the ambient temperatures during the day remain firmly below freezing. As a result, water temperatures are generally very cold and this drill also occurred at night. 

Russian Ministry of Defense

A picture of Tver in the ice-filled waters of the Rybachiy Nuclear Submarine Base, giving a sense of how cold things can get in Kamchatka.

TV Zvezda also said that the suits are available for sailors evacuating subs that have sunken to the bottom of the ocean. This is what infamously happened to the Kursk, another Oscar II class submarine, following a torpedo explosion in 2000. Of the submarine's crew of 118, approximately 23 survived the initial mishap, but were unable to escape and died later.

The escape suits are not a perfect solution, of course, and it's not clear what the maximum safe depth for using them might be. Still, they do offer another way to try to get to safety depending on the exact circumstances and it is better to have that option than not.

This incident with Losharik earlier this year only underscores the importance of having emergency systems like the breathing devices and escape suits, as well as the value of regular training to ensure that submariners know how to use them, if necessary. Beyond that mishap, and the Kursk disaster, Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, is hardly a stranger to submarine accidents, in general, too.

The one-of-kind Project 685 nuclear-powered attack submarine K-278 Komsomolets is presently leaking radiation on the bottom of the Barents Sea, where it has been sitting since it sunk following a fire in 1989. Five sailors attempted to use the submarine's escape pod, but it malfunctioned and only one who had also been wearing a breathing device survived.

Right before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Typhoon class ballistic missile submarine TK-17 almost sank after an R-39 Rif submarine launched-ballistic missile exploded in its launch tube during an exercise. In 2008, a fire suppression system on the Project 971 Akula-class nuclear attack submarine Nerpa, meant to quickly suffocate fires with inert gas, inadvertently went off, killing 20 sailors and injuring 41 more. These are only some of the submarine accidents that Russia has suffered and, in recent years, there have been a number of serious fires involving sub simply undergoing maintenance or otherwise in port.

Escaping a burning submarine in a cumbersome suit through a torpedo tube certainly isn't for the faint of heart, but having as many options as possible to get out alive is surely welcome.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com