Streetwise Professor

November 11, 2008

More on the Nerpa

Filed under: Military,Russia — The Professor @ 9:50 pm

Stratfor has some interesting material on the incident aboard the Nerpa:

The incident reportedly took place in the bow of what Stratfor and most other sources believe to be the Akula I-class Nerpa (K-152), where the torpedo tubes are located. [I doubt it was in the bow. The bow in modern subs is devoted almost exclusively to sonar equipment. Torpedo tubes are amidships. SWP] The Russian navy insists that the casualties resulted from a malfunction or the inadvertent activation of the sub’s fire-suppression system, specifically citing crew exposure to freon.

In 2000, it was an incident involving the leak of the flammable hydrogen-peroxide fuel of a training torpedo that resulted in an explosion that sank the Russian Oscar-II class submarine Kursk (K-141) and killed nearly 120 Russian sailors. Given the hydrogen-peroxide propellant and high-explosive warheads of the torpedoes stored in the bow of any Russian submarine, a fire originating there could quickly endanger the entire ship. In the case of the Kursk, the time from the ignition of the leaking hydrogen-peroxide fuel to the catastrophic explosions that destroyed the bow (and consequently sank the entire submarine) is thought to have been less than a minute.

Though the Russian navy is reportedly removing the specific type of torpedo involved in the Kursk incident from service, hydrogen-peroxide fuel is still used by many navies, including Russia’s. Were a fire to have broken out in this case, the commander — mindful of the lessons of the Kursk — would have likely felt compelled to act aggressively to quell the blaze, even if personnel could not evacuate the compartment completely.

Aggressive fire suppression is an essential tool of the submariner’s trade. Modern submarines include fire-suppression systems that use chemical compounds to extinguish fires. The U.S. Navy, for instance, uses halon to suppress fires. Though excellent at fire suppression and comparatively safe, these systems are expensive. More affordable systems can use freon compounds, which displace oxygen and carry a greater risk of suffocation.

. . . .

Should the Russian navy be functioning at some level of proficiency and competence, then the “malfunction” would likely had to have been more than just an accidental bump or nudge of a dial. But ultimately, while the Russian navy’s official story could be plausible under the right circumstances with the right chemical compounds in play, we cannot help but think that — with more than 200 people aboard — something more was going on.

Lot of guessing here, especially regarding the possibility of a torpedo fire, which I highly doubt. Interesting claims: 8 plus years after the Kursk disaster, the Russian Navy is still in the process of removing H202 fueled torpedoes from service, and the use of freon as opposed to halon as a cost saving measure. (Though I should note that after a little googling, I found that “Freon 13B1 is also known as Halon 1301.” Also, Halon is being phased out in many US defense applications.)

So, the issue comes down to whether the fire suppression system was triggered to fight an actual fire on the Nerpa, or whether there was an accidental discharge, either during testing or due to a faulty system or operator error. Any way it happened–it shouldn’t have.

I’ve been harsh about Russian shipbuilding capabilities in some past posts. I should note that American naval construction is also facing serious problems. The recent problems with the supposedly state-of-the-art USS San Antonio (LPD-17) are inexcusable and shocking. Similarly, the litany of cost overruns and construction errors in other shipbuilding programs (e.g., the Littoral Combat Ship) are a disgrace.

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