Streetwise Professor

July 6, 2019

Underwater Russian Roulette

Filed under: Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:18 pm

When my grandfather was barely 17, his mother signed a paper saying he was 18 (he was a hillbilly with no birth certificate, which gives rise to another story I may tell sometime), and he left Burr Oak, Ohio to join the Navy. He went to electrician’s school, and was assigned as an electrician’s mate on a submarine, the USS K-2 (submarine #33 in the US Navy), on which he served in 1921-22. (The K-2 was laid-up the next year.)

As you can see, she was a tiny thing, displacing 400 tons on the surface, and a little over 500 tons submerged.* My grandfather’s stories of his service on her were pretty harrowing. 1920s submarines were not for the faint of heart.

Even so, if given the choice, I would serve on the K-2 circa 1920 than on a modern Russian sub. Since Soviet days, the Soviet/Russian sub force has experienced a litany of accidents, many of them fatal: here is a list of those since 2000. The most notable of these incidents, and the one with the highest death toll, was of course the Kursk, about which Putin famously and laconically said: “It sank.”

Well, this week Putin didn’t have to say exactly those words about another sub, but there was a fatal incident aboard a Russian boat, reported to be the Losharik, reputedly a super-deep diving research and intelligence vessel.

Given the very secretive nature of the sub’s purposes and missions, and the inherent secretiveness of the Russian state, we know very little beyond a few details. These include that there was a fire that killed 17 aboard. (The standard crew of this class is estimated at 25, so arguably the fire killed 2/3s of those on board.) That the surviving crew was able to seal off the affected compartments, and eventually extinguish the blaze. And that’s about it.

It’s one thing for a dry dock carrying a decrepit hulk like the Kuznetsov to sink. It’s another for one of the most elite units in the Russian Navy to suffer such a catastrophic event. It does not speak well of the condition and readiness of the Russian Navy generally.

There are also some curious details. Reportedly 7 of the 17 killed were captains “of the first rank” (the equivalent of an O-6 in the US Navy). I know the Russian Navy (especially the nuclear sub force) is officer-heavy (and indeed, the entire complement of the boat is apparently officers), but that’s an insanely high number. Most US major combatants (including SSNs, SSBNs, and DDGs) are commanded by commanders (O-5), and others have a single captain, who is CO. What were 7 (or more) captains, plus two Heroes of Russia, doing on board? Was it holding some sort of ceremony? Or was it engaged in activities that were of intense interest to the higher ups?

Another possibility is enlisted ratings, and even junior and mid-grade officers, are not deemed sufficiently qualified and trustworthy to crew such an important vessel. But if they are not given substantial responsibility as lieutenants, how can one be confident in the captains? Is the Russian Navy so paranoid about security that they don’t trust anyone but the very senior, to serve on top-secret ships?

Also, are senior officers the best suited to handle the vital, but more narrow tasks that western navies entrust to well-trained, specialized ratings? If not, depending on the very senior to perform these tasks may increase the risk of things like fatal fires.

I doubt we’ll learn much more about the Losharik. But what we do know, especially in light of the record of Russia’s silent service, reinforces the very real perception that anyone in that service plays a submerged version of Russian Roulette every time his boat casts off.

*My grandfather took dozens of photos in his time on the K-2. I am going to digitize them and will post them when I do.

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  1. I used to be familiar with a petrochemical site with many individual plants. Occasionally the plant operators had gone on strike. The company would then operate the plants with people brought in from the research labs, the development sections, the design offices, and the management structure. Experience showed that they operated the plants better than the operators had – more production, less flaring, fewer safety incidents, and so on. The operators would return to work to find the operating instructions had been improved in their absence.

    It seems that perhaps the Russian Navy is unable to duplicate the advantages of using higher calibre people.

    Comment by dearieme — July 7, 2019 @ 10:31 am

  2. @SWP…The first recent stories I had heard about a Russian submarine indicated that a U.S. submarine had intercepted a Russian submarine in U.S. waters. Then, a fire and 17 dead. At the same time, Pence was rerouted back to D.C., and there was a story about an urgent meeting of the EU. Now, leaving your keys back in your VP office, and regular urgent meetings in Europe all happen anyway, but is there some metastory here?

    Comment by Richard Whitney — July 7, 2019 @ 2:52 pm

  3. Speculation around the vodka cooler is that the fire was originated in the battery bay. Being both nuclear and electrical engineer, I have been watching the goings on of the Losharik rather closely, to see if there was more technical detail offered. Russian nuclear technology is on par with the US, however their monitoring and managing of nuclear plants falls far behind the US naval standards. I was prepared to learn that the fatalities were related to a nuclear conflagration, but the lack of seriously injured and otherwise contaminated sailors makes that unlikely.

    Which leads to battery issues. As most technically savvy folk are aware, battery chemistry, and technological advances in the past few decades have been remarkable. In the early 90s almost everything was still Pb-acid(liquid) for large scale industrial applications. Today, we have a variety of anodic and cathode materials, and a variety of substrate forms, like glass mat, gels, and semi-solid doped plates. These have all been rather remarkable in their energy density, which has always been the shortcoming of electrical-ampacity storage systems, and is still far, far behind simple energy storage like gasoline.

    But – there have been vast improvements, along with huge changes in the thermo-dynamics of batteries made of the ‘new’ generation of materials. Many have heard of the issues with Li-ion batts in modern Boeing and Airbus aircraft. These new battery types can truly be a boon to the aviation community where every 170Lbs saved is one more meatsack that can be charged revenue. Alas – Li-ion batteries have a nasty habit of not just catching fire, but once on fire, almost impossible to extinguish. While I’m no mean chemist, it doesn’t take much ionic background to see that Li(reactive with O2) and Manganese, and also Phosphorous can be a nasty combo. Plus, once the conflagration starts, it tends to be self-sustaining, almost(dare said) like a nuclear chain-reaction where the heat of the fire boils off those elements which will only add to the heat, until finally the whole arrangement(bay, tray, cartridge, etc) flashes over into a raging mess.

    Lithium, in small doses, combined with a hydroxide provides for a useful anti-anxiety drug. In slightly higher doses, provides a modest euphoria(so I’m told, see “Crazy water” from Mineral Wells TX). However, combine it with some of the ionic strong bases, and things can go pear shaped rather quickly. Not only will the battery explode, but the gasses given off are highly corrosive, toxic, hot, and etchant. The only thing missing is radioactive! Brings to mind some work I did at Ft St Vrain, on an experimental liquid slurry reactor using UF6(Uranium-Hexaflouride) salt with Boron moderator. What could go wrong!

    At first I was certainly leaning toward a nuclear origin, but knowing what I know about the battery debacles we’ve face here(including exploding cell phones), in some types of current loads, where very low, and possibly very spiked resistance is encountered, it sounds more and more like a semi-simple case of battery overload, followed by excess heat, followed by the breakdown of some ionic compound in the battery core, followed by oxidation, conflagration, quickly spreading fire, toxic gas, hydrates, and etching oxilates, inhaled, or possibly not just inhaled but in some form sufficient to prove fatal.

    A nuclear release would have left many exposed facing radiation poisoning, and all the fun that presents. The 14 fatalities would likely have been joined by the remaineder of the crew deathly ill with all the known effects of radiation, and that does not appear to be the case. With this treatise, I say; YMMV, objects in mirror, contents have settled, pro driver, closed course, don’t try this at home, and may cause anal leakage.

    Comment by doc — July 8, 2019 @ 2:07 am

  4. Always a pleasure to read of your Civil War battlefield visits, Professor, so I hope to hear more of your grandfather’s tales as well!

    Comment by I.M. Pembroke — July 8, 2019 @ 12:48 pm

  5. @I.M. Pembroke–That’s very nice to hear. I will definitely share some of his stories. I’ve been considering doing so as a way of saving them for posterity: I am pretty much the sole repository of the tales of his colorful life and I feel an obligation to preserve them.

    He lived an amazing life that bears some similarities to Hillbilly Elegy, only about 70 years earlier. The Navy was his escape from poverty and family dysfunction.

    When my uncle went to a family reunion in SE Ohio a couple years ago, he said: “Jesus Christ am I glad dad got out of there.”

    Comment by cpirrong — July 8, 2019 @ 5:50 pm

  6. @doc–Batteries were my first guess. Pump failure that caused a reactor problem was my second, but when I think fire on a sub I think batteries. And like you say, a nuke problem that killed 14 would have probably killed the rest.

    Some of my grandfather’s harrowing stories had to deal with batteries. They have been a submariners bane since John M. Holland first submerged in SS-1.

    The concern which occupied his mind (and those of his fellow crewmen) related to the fact that those were lead-acid batteries, and the sulfuric acid in them doesn’t play well with seawater . . . which is unfortunately what submarines are immersed in. Salt water plus H2S04 gives you chlorine gas which is not all that refreshing when you are submerged in a small cylinder of steel under the water.

    As you note, even more modern battery chemistries can be extremely hazardous. It shouldn’t be a surprise. They are designed to store a lot of energy and release it in a controlled, even fashion. If something goes wrong and an uncontrolled chemical reaction occurs, the release of that stored energy is devastating. In such an event, the higher energy density of modern batteries that you note is a major bug, rather than a feature.

    The loss of the USS Scorpion has been blamed on a battery problem in a torpedo. “Hot running” torpedoes caused by battery problems (the rupture of the barrier between battery chemicals, resulting in a violent chemical reaction and fire) was an issue especially in the earlier days of nuke subs. The Scorpion was probably a victim.

    As an EM3 and then EM4, batteries were one of my grandfater’s main responsibilities. Pretty big deal for an 18/19 year old who had attended one-room schools in coal mining country. But the USN electricians’ school was pretty amazing. I have all of his notebooks and tests from it.

    Comment by cpirrong — July 8, 2019 @ 6:15 pm

  7. In lead-acid batteries the sulfuric acid electrolyte can typically be 40%. Mixing that with sea water will produce hydrochloric acid (HCl) vapors, which are corrosive, extremely irritating, and on long exposure will turn eyes and lungs into slush.

    The new lithium batteries have organic electrolytes, generally organo-carbonates, that are flammable. Lithium metal itself is very flammable. Water reacts vigorously with lithium metal, so one can’t put out a lithium battery fire with a water extinguisher. Lithium metal also reacts with the halogen organics in a halogen extinguisher, so they can’t be used either. Hot lithium metal will also spontaneously combust in air.

    The only standard option is smothering a lithium fire with sand.

    Lithium batteries also have a fluoride-containing electrolyte salt, that will produce hydrofluoric acid (HF) in a hot fire. Fluoride is a serious poison all by itself. Inhalation of HF is probably fatal.

    All-in-all a lead-acid battery back-up may be preferable for submarines, just from the safety standpoint.

    Comment by Pat Frank — July 9, 2019 @ 7:05 pm

  8. Russian publication confirms the version of lithium-ion battery explosion due to a short. Sorry, Russian only; hope there will be an English version soon.

    Comment by LL — July 9, 2019 @ 8:08 pm

  9. Yeah, I kinda thought this would ‘boil’ down to a Li-ion conflagration. Here’s a translation of the pertinent section, although the entire article is filled with great info(google will translate for you): According to the interlocutors “Fontanka”, the situation got out of control when the device was “attached” to the boat carrier. A short circuit at the time of docking led to an instantaneous discharge of the battery and its thermal acceleration. Electrochemical processes provoked an explosion (according to another source, there were several of them) and spontaneous combustion.

    Unlike other thermal excursions, the way the Lithium batts work, they just reinforce the thermal runaway, and it happens in hundreds of milliseconds. Where a lead acid battery would almost certainly start to boil, there would be a buffering action involved and without a ignition source, a lead-acid battery would likely have just got real hot, and boiled out some acid, then recovered.

    I noticed that the fire rocked the mother ship, and caused an auto-scram(mis-translated as a ‘jammed the nuclear reactor’). They flooded the sub, which was a scary, but understandable thing to do by the host ship. Although the reactor was SCRAMmed(Safe Control Rod Axe Man), there are still about a 1000 things that can go wrong and cause a reactor to start a meltdown(I’m not going into details here), or worse a uncontrolled fissile event(asplode).

    New generation battery control mastery is still steep on the learning curve.

    Comment by doc — July 10, 2019 @ 8:11 pm

  10. @doc, @LL, @Pat Frank–Interestingly, the article states that new Japanese & SoKo subs will be powered by Li-ion batteries. My take on this is that it makes sense in expected value terms, but there is a huge tail risk. When things go wrong, they will go very wrong.

    I’m amused by the statement that a submarine that was completely flooded will be readily repaired. Well, it’s probably structurally OK, but everything else is almost certainly totally shot.

    Comment by cpirrong — July 11, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

  11. A followup for anyone interested. May be purely victory/hero stuff, but according to this, the fire containment crew locked themselves in the battery bay and fought the fire lest it spread to the reactor station. They ‘saved the world’ from nuclear catastrophe. Seems a bit hyperbolic but anyway, they limited the damage to the batteries, and saved the ship from going nuclear, which would have made rather a nasty mess, but the mess would be on the bottom of the sea, and not much immediate danger to man. Long term, it’s hard to say.

    Side note, as a follow on to the nuke aspect of this. Suppose a relatively highly enriched U235 is lost in the deepest part of the sea. The pressures down there are in the hundreds of atmospheres, still not enough to cause uncontained fission, but it sure would make for a hot time on the seabed for a long, long, long time.

    Comment by doc — July 31, 2019 @ 2:04 pm

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