Streetwise Professor

November 9, 2008

A Sadly Familiar Tale

Filed under: Military,Russia — The Professor @ 10:29 pm

Russia, and before it the USSR, have suffered several very serious incidents involving their submarines. The most noteworthy of these was the sinking of the Kursk in August, 2000. Yesterday, another Russian submarine suffered a fatal accident, though the ship survived. While on a shakedown cruise, the Akula class boat Nerpa suffered a malfunction apparently involving a fire suppression system. There was reportedly a release of Freon gas into sealed compartments, resulting in the loss of 20 individuals. The dead were apparently civilian shipyard personnel on board to observe the operation of the boat during its cruise, and make necessary repairs.

The reports of freon gas are somewhat odd. Freon is a refrigerant. My guess is that this has been mis-reported or mis-translated. Halon gas is widely used as a fire suppressant, and perhaps this was actually what caused the deaths. Halon releases in tanks and armored vehicles have caused deaths of American servicemen, I believe.

The Nerpa is actually something of a mystery ship. Laid down during the USSR’s dying days in 1991, it remained uncompleted for lack of funds until recently. It is rumored that it was to be leased for 10 years to the Indian Navy–rumors that Russia has hotly denied. (You can surely take the denials to the bank.)

The safety record of the Soviet and Russian sub fleets is pretty appalling. There is a depressing litany of sinkings, deaths, catastrophic radiation leaks, etc. Russia has made a considerable effort to rejuvenate its moribund surface and sub fleets, in order to be able to stake a claim as a global, rather than merely continental, player. It has announced grandiose plans to expand its navy, especially its submarine and carrier forces. The deadly shakedown cruise of the Nerpa suggests that those plans may founder on the shoals of shoddy construction and operational carelessness.

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  1. Professor:

    What is the point of this blog post? The pettiness and schadenfreude if quite unbecoming of someone of your stature.

    So what, there was an accident. It should be pointed out that the accident was officially announced (i.e. not covered up). Perhaps there was a mistranslation. OK?

    Anyhow, your insistence on continually hammering the Russians on every little petty incident diminishes your other well written and argued posts.

    Do not other militaries also have accidents? So what was your point, with all due respect?

    Comment by Timothy Post — November 10, 2008 @ 2:32 am

  2. Timothy–

    1. As a former Naval Academy guy the subject interests me. I’ve written many posts on the Russian military, the Navy in particular. Note that I have had a “Military” category on the blog since its inception.
    2. I dispute that the tone is one of schadefreude. The first three paragraphs are Joe Friday just-the-facts-ma’am description of what happened. The last paragraph is opinion, but its tone is not gloating, and I certainly take no pleasure in the deaths of 20 people–indeed, the death toll makes it something other than a “little petty incident.” Moreover, as the title indicates, I think this is a “sad” event, and one of many in a long line. I truly think it is sad that numerous Soviet and Russian sailors have perished in senseless accidents. And yes, other militaries have fatal accidents, but the Russian submarine force is in its own league on this score. With respect to the last sentence, it’s a reasonable conclusion that Russian ambitions to reassert a presence on the open seas are problematic given the operational difficulties evident in recent years, especially in the submarine force (cf., the Kursk, the repeated difficulties with the Bulava missile, this incident). That’s the bigger point that connects this tragic incident with the larger political/geopolitical picture.
    3. I agree that the relative openness of the coverage of this incident is a refreshing change, and I should have recognized that in the post. Apparently some lessons were learned from the Kursk fiasco. The mystery that surrounds the ship’s future (i.e., whether it will be leased to India) suggests that transparency is not yet a habit.
    4. So Timothy, I appreciate your concern that I not lapse into knee-jerk criticisms, and will keep that in mind in the future. I respectfully disagree, however, that this post is subject to that criticism. It was motivated by a longstanding interest in and knowledge of naval subjects; treated a tragic event in a respectful, factual, and non-triumphal way; and drew reasonable conclusions.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 10, 2008 @ 8:09 am

  3. Timothy,

    All the online Russian newspapers are discussing this topic extensively. I do not see this post as “schadefreude.”

    With regards to the freon, it is not a mistranslation. However, Novaya Gazeta has a brilliant piece by Alexander Pokrovkii that analyzes the freon question. An excerpt with my rough translation:

    Почему на подводных лодках – современных, суперсовременных – до сих пор в системе объемного пожаротушения применяется фреон? Почему?

    Потому что существует «фреоновое» лобби?

    “Why [is it] that on the submarine – modern, supermodern – that the largescale fire suppression system still uses freon? Why?

    Because there exists a “freon” lobby?”

    The author comments that there exists other options for extinguishing fires that are as effective and safer than freon. He concludes by writing:

    И что же теперь? Почему через 15 лет на современной подводной лодке у нас все еще подается в отсеки фреон?

    Все очень просто. В 90-е годы испытания проводились, но до конца тогда дело дне довели – деньги кончились. Вот и остался на лодках фреон.

    А пока у нас так. Сделают суперсовременную подводную лодку, но что-то на ней все равно оставят из прошлого века. Это как каменные топоры пещерного человека.

    Что-то у нас очень хорошее, современное, новое, но рядом обязательно будет лежать каменный топор… Как мина замедленного действия.

    My rough translation [i.e. not a word for word translation, but a translation aiming at getting the meaning across]:

    And what now? Why is it that after 15 years on a modern submarine we are still relying on freon?

    Very simple. In the 90’s it was tried, but the affair [replacement of freon with other fire suppressants] was not carried out to the end because the money ran out. And because of that freon remains in submarines.

    And for the time time being that is how things are. We make supermodern submarines, but nevertheless something remains from the previous century. It is like a stone ax from a stone-age person.

    We will have something good, modern, new, but next to it will be unfailingly lying next to it a stone ax, like a mine of our slow actions.


    Timothy, I believe that the reason why you are objecting to the post is not because it is a “petty incident” but rather because it is indicative of the larger problem facing Russia. As Pokrovskii illustrates, Russia wants to be a superpower building supermodern weapons, but this is difficult to do in a society that still is encumbered by the stone tools of its past.

    Comment by Michel — November 10, 2008 @ 10:15 am

  4. Timothy & Michel–

    Further my last:

    1. Thanks as always for your comments T&M, and for the translation, M.
    2. Re other nations having accidents, I explicitly mentioned in my post that US soldiers have died from incidents involving the release of fire suppressants, namely halon.
    3. Regardless of whether it was freon or halon, the release of fire suppressants in sealed compartments would be fatal to anyone not wearing an oxygen mask. The whole idea behind fire suppression is to starve the fire of oxygen–which also starves any breathing being of oxygen.
    4. With regards to the larger point raised in my original post, and the Pokrovskii article that Michel translates, the Russian navy in particular, and its military in general, have cannibalized the capital built up in Soviet days. Given the dodgy maintenance and the lack of training and operational experience post-1991 (earlier this year I linked to articles discussing how Russian subs seldom cruise, as admitted I recall by Lavrov), an attempt to ramp up operational tempos rapidly to prove the bear is back will inevitably result in an increased rate of accidents, and quite serious ones too. Operating submarines is a very touchy business, and submarines are very complex, highly connected systems. Problems have a way of spinning out of control unless crews are highly trained and confident, and the equipment is well maintained. This often requires ruthless disciplining of captains and officers of boats whose performance is lax. The US has relieved several sub skippers in recent years, some for apparently minor things (including “zipper problems”), some for major screw-ups (e.g., the USS San Francisco’s collision with an undersea mountain due to a failure to update charts.) There is no margin for error cruising on top of a nuclear reactor at 300 meters depth, and errors are far more likely given the conditions prevailing in the Russian navy.
    5. As a consequence of (4), I do not begrudge the Russian navy’s desire to restore its efficiency and its pride, and its ability to operate professionally on the open seas. What does concern me is that geopolitical vanity and posturing for domestic audiences is causing the Russian political leadership to push its shaky naval and air forces to operate beyond the safe capabilities of its equipment and crews, rather than taking the less glamorous and more painstaking efforts required to reverse the maintenance, training, and morale deficits of the past 20+ years (for these problems date to late-Soviet times.)

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 10, 2008 @ 10:58 am

  5. I didn’t get the impression that SWP expressed anything that could be called schadenfreude or pettiness, though his conclusion is questionable.

    “The deadly shakedown cruise of the Nerpa suggests that those plans may founder on the shoals of shoddy construction and operational carelessness.”

    That standards have slipped over two decades of relative neglect is unsurprising. Workers have gotten older and the most skilled have left, and this will require probably a decade or so to fully rectify. However, if anything the accelerated pace of rejuvenation, even though it will result in a higher rate of accidents, will make those plans feasible earlier than otherwise. Since ordinary workplace mortality is so high in Russia such accidents will be of very limited political import.

    Comment by Da Russophile — November 10, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

  6. DR–that’s what I call finding a silver lining in Russia’s demographic cloud. Don’t know what you mean by “a higher rate of accidents will make those plans feasible earlier than otherwise.” Darwinian selection? Learning by doing? I agree that the political import of the deaths themselves may be limited against the background of high mortality in Russia generally, but if they occur in high-profile accidents involving the most advanced Russian weapons, and especially submarines and surface ships, these incidents would be politically damaging to the government.

    Comment by The Professor — November 10, 2008 @ 7:40 pm

  7. “Don’t know what you mean by “a higher rate of accidents will make those plans feasible earlier than otherwise.””

    Not the accidents per se, I certainly did not mean it to be interpreted that way. What I meant is that practice makes perfect, “learning by doing” as you put it, is the fastest way to regain operational readiness (short of actually going to war). Burdening the armed forces (or any organization for that matter) with stacks of safety regulations and litigation threats has a kind of ossifying effect on effectiveness. Optimally a middle course between the two above should be chosen, but forced to choose I’d opt for the former.

    Comment by Da Russophile — November 10, 2008 @ 9:49 pm

  8. Da Russophile, I have to say that I have little respect for your moral relativism. You may call it “burdening” the armed forces with “stacks of safety regulations,” I call it respecting human life and treating citizens with respect and dignity. Here is what I suggest, given your deep love of Russia, you should volunteer for the Russian army. Go do your part to help Russia regain operation readiness 😉

    Comment by Michel — November 10, 2008 @ 11:42 pm

  9. It is realism. For an example of a failed organized due to excessive concern for safety look no further than NASA since the 1980’s.

    Of course, a military is much more important to keep in good functioning order than a space agency. Russia was lucky that during its period of weakness the only challenges so far has come from small internal revolts and Western-backed states; considering the threat of a US nuclear first strike, keeping the submarine forces in a state of permanent readiness is of the highest urgency. If thinking 20 dead is worse than 20 million dead with no means of retaliation remaining, then so be it.

    Comment by Da Russophile — November 11, 2008 @ 12:39 am

  10. You do like melodrama Da Russophile. Do you really believe that the United States had a desire to launch a “first strike” against Russia? It is sad that you have so little faith in your own country.

    Comment by Michel — November 11, 2008 @ 1:46 am

  11. >So Timothy, I appreciate your concern that I not lapse into knee-jerk criticisms, and will keep that in mind in the future. I respectfully disagree, however, that this post is subject to that criticism. It was motivated by a longstanding interest in and knowledge of naval subjects; treated a tragic event in a respectful, factual, and non-triumphal way; and drew reasonable conclusions. – The Professor

    Fair enough. I find your posts on Russia always intelligent and thought provoking. However, I do fear that you may have a latent tendency to see the Russian-American relationship as a zero-sum game. I hope I am wrong.

    I think it is important for those of you who fear the worst in Russian politics and policies to keep in mind that Russia is currently in a different stage of development than is America. There are numerous reforms and changes which need to be made in Russia. However, it is unrealistic to expect that ALL the necessary changes can be made concurrently.

    For example, over the past 8 years one could argue that Russia should improve its financial stability, as well as, decrease its level of suffocating bureaucracy. At first glance, one might hope that changes would be made in both areas simultaneously. However, I would argue, that such expectations are, not only, unrealistic but also impossible.

    Specifically, there is a “critical path” of changes that countries must progress through as they develop. The reduction of bureaucracy is a “dependent event” which requires that financial stability first be achieved.

    The point of all this is to remind those of you out there who are, IMHO, “overly critical of Putin, Medvedev, and/or the Russian government to remember that “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and that ultimately, or disagreements are not based on whether we wish Russia ill or good; but rather, a matter of priorities (i.e. what changes are most important as the country develops).

    Ultimately, there is constructive debate about Russia and there is petty mean-spirited debate about Russia. I am glad that the Professor has declared that he wishes to be part of the constructive “Russia Watcher” debate. I want to see Russia do well. My daughter is half-Russian and my wife is Russian. I live here, I have friends here, and my professional life is focused on playing a small role in building a new Russia.

    Glad to have you on board Professor. Let’s set sail )))))

    Comment by Timothy Post — November 11, 2008 @ 7:25 am

  12. Timothy–

    I’ll respond at greater length later, but a quick hit while I have a short moment.

    I certainly do not view US v. Russia as a zero sum game. Indeed, one of my criticisms of Putin et al is that THEY see the world as a zero sum game, and that rather than taking constructive steps to help Russia along a reasonable development path, they are obsessed with cutting the US down to size in the mistaken belief that it will somehow build up Russia.

    This betrays a mindset focused on military and geopolitical and power considerations, rather than one intent on economic, commercial, and human development. Military/geopolitical power is typically driven by relative strengths, and inherently has a zero sum orientation. In contrast, economic/commercial development is driven by mutually beneficial, win-win transactions. Those obsessed with political and military power typically think in zero-sum terms; those focused on economic development do not. One exception to the latter point is those who think that economic development can be achieved using mercantilist means.

    I am also extremely skeptical that Putinism is a necessary stage in a healthy, if often painful, development path. In my view, Putinism is a dead end street that indulges Russia’s historical pathologies, pathologies that have impeded its economic and political development for centuries. Putin and his policies have been disastrous for the rule of law and the creation of healthy, independent institutions that encourage trust, trade, and investment.

    A long subject, indeed, and some articles I’ve read this morning may provide a launching pad for further discussion, time permitting this evening.

    Finally, I admire your personal commitment to making Russia a better place. I am a Burkean supporter of “little platoons” that do the real work of building a humane society. This, too, relates to my criticisms of Putinism, but as duty calls, that is for another post.

    Thanks again for your comment.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 11, 2008 @ 10:40 am

  13. “Do you really believe that the United States had a desire to launch a “first strike” against Russia?”

    Consideration of capabilities must come first, intentions second. It takes decades to build up the former, the latter can change in days.

    US deployment of the missile shield in central Europe, combined with the ABM bases at Greely and Vandenburg and sea-based ABM systems, plants the seeds of a successful first counter-force strike capability against Russia (by mopping up any of its deterrent that survives the first strike).

    Thus any responsible Russian government would see the urgent need for rapidly revamping the existing submarine and bomber parts of the triad, which are less vulnerable to destruction in a sudden first strike, and building up new capability (e.g. the PAK DA stealth bomber

    Comment by Da Russophile — November 11, 2008 @ 6:20 pm

  14. DR–Re your proposed method for improving the operational readiness of the Russian military. I don’t think “learning by doing” quite covers it. “Learning by dying” seems more like it.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 11, 2008 @ 7:35 pm

  15. Probably in your world, Russia should shut down its entire road network and make sure all roads have a hard shoulder and all cars are outfitted with seat belts and air bags before reopening it.

    Comment by Da Russophile — November 11, 2008 @ 7:41 pm

  16. DR–re roads. Was that addressed to me? Don’t get it.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 11, 2008 @ 9:51 pm

  17. Erm, what I’m saying is that the weight you place on safety as opposed to progress is disbalanced, and speculate that since Russia has a very poor traffic death rate, you’d have it close down its roads, and make sure all cars have seatbelts and airbags and all drivers retake their driving test, before opening them up again.

    Comment by Da Russophile — November 12, 2008 @ 2:57 am

  18. Timothy Post’s pathetic, childish bitterness as he sees his shameless shilling for the Kremlin explode before his eyes (he’s attempting to do business in Russia and curry favor with Vladimir Putin’s malignant regime in order to line his pockets) would be most amusing were it not indicative of such a great deal of hardship for the people of

    In less than two days the Russian stock market has lost 20% of its value. The ruble is floating free of its tether, inflation is skyrocketing, and all Post can do is babble gibberish about “schadenfreude” in a final pathetic effort to help the Kremlin avoid necssary reform and hide its litany of abject failure.

    With “friends” like Post, Russia needs no enemies.

    Comment by La Russophobe — November 12, 2008 @ 5:37 am

  19. Da Russophile, there are a number of ways you could decrease deaths on roads immediately simply by cutting back on corruption. By cutting back on corruption, you can ensure that fewer drivers will simply pay off the examiner to pass their driving tests and by cutting back on corruption you can ensure that money allocated to improving roads is actually spent on improving roads. Also, by cutting back on corruption, you can also ensure that the existing laws are actually enforced, instead of having police officers being bribed to look the other way when stopping drivers. In other words, lives could be saved on Russia’s roads if Russia wasn’t such a corrupt country, and this has nothing to do with Russia’s struggle for progress or development.

    In analyzing your posts and Timothy’s posts, I have to call upon a pop psychology term: enabling. Alcoholics and other addicts are often “enabled” by the people around them denying the substance abuse and coming up with excuses. By refuse to confront the substance abuser with the consequences of their addiction, the enabler simply makes it easier for them to maintain their habit. Likewise, by refusing to acknowledge anything negative about Russia, you are enabling Russia’s path towards an increasingly centralized and dictatorial power that does not tolerate any dissent. This in my opinion will guarantee the long term economic decline of Russia.

    Comment by Michel — November 12, 2008 @ 9:15 am

  20. Timothy, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” is your best excuse for Putin’s new attempt at hijacking of the constitution to install himself and his cronies for life? He’s more like Rome’s Caligula, pal. Putin’s personal wealth has been speculated as high as 40 billion.

    Every blog critical of Russia attracks Useful Idiots for Russia’s corruption with their personal agendas varying. You are so transparently diminished in any capacity to be objective that it is true what LR observed about you.

    Gregory Pasko nails the re-Stalinization of Russia which you ignore and makes you ignorable in turn:

    Comment by penny — November 12, 2008 @ 8:49 pm

  21. I can just say that’s the way to go!

    Comment by Leah — December 27, 2010 @ 11:04 am

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