Behind the Russian Sub Disaster

On Saturday, 20 people died and 21 were seriously injured after an accident on the Russian submarine Nerpa. The Akula-class attack sub was undergoing sea trials in the Sea of Japan prior to being leased to the Indian Navy; there were 208 people on board the submarine, 81 of them military personnel and the rest visiting civilian engineers. NEWSWEEK's Anna Nemtsova spoke to Mikhail Barabanov, editor-in-chief of Moscow Defense Brief (a publication of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategic and Technologies), and to Alexander Golts, defense editor of the Moscow-based Yezhednevny Zhurnal online newspaper. Golts visited the Nerpa in 2000 while it was still under construction in the Amur shipyard in the Russian Pacific port of Komsomolsk-on-Amur and spoke to its crew and engineers. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What do you know about Saturday ' s accident on the Nerpa?
Mikhail Barabanov:
The official version is that a chemical-fire extinguishing system malfunctioned. The Nerpa's automatic fire-suppression system accidentally released Freon gas—known as Hladon 114B2—as the submarine was undergoing sea trials. Accidental activation of the fire-suppression systems is a common accident on submarines. But normally there are no victims, as the crew is trained to put on oxygen masks in time. In this case, it is unclear exactly why there are so many victims. But the most obvious reason is that besides the crew, there was a crowd of civilians aboard—127 of the people on board at the time were civilian port workers and engineers. That means the boat was overcrowded. And the civilian guests on the boat did not know what to do in an emergency situation. My understanding is that the fire alarm failed to work, so the passengers did not realize that the gas started to displace oxygen in the affected compartments.

As for the reason for the fire-suppression system's malfunction, the system is normally controlled by the sub's Malakhit central-control system. Nerpa was equipped with a digital Malakhit. One version is that the accident took place due to an error in the Malakhit's operating program, which is still in development. I believe the reason was more in a malfunction of the sub's new command systems than a mistake by the personnel on board. On the other hand, such [a] highly toxic firefighting system is of course old-fashioned. Maybe this accident will lead the Russian navy to replace the current system with a low-toxic Hladon 13B1—but that would require a big investment.

You visited the shipyard in 2000 and talked to the crew of the Nerpa. What did you learn back then that bears on this accident?
Alexander Golts:
This submarine was under construction for about 15 years. I was told at the Amur shipyard that they started to build it either in 1991 or 1993. The shipyard's director was on the verge of tears as he told me that they had installed the nuclear reactor on the Nerpa but that he didn't have the money to power up the reactor plant to anything over standard operating temperature. The boatyard had no finances to take the new submarine to the Russian Navy's nuclear reactor facility at Bolshoi Kamen to test the full capacity of the reactor.

I am sure that most of the people who worked on building this submarine for 15 years were lacking experience, or had simply lost their skills. In the 1980s, this shipyard turned out submarines one after the other, like pancakes. But over the last 15 years they made just one—the Nerpa. The old specialists had left, the new ones lacked professionalism. I wonder if the crowd of engineers on board at the time of the accident were given oxygen masks at all.

How does the Nerpa differ from the Kursk, which sank in 2000?
The Kursk could fire ballistic missiles at targets on land as well as enemies at sea. The Nerpa is an Akula-971 class attack submarine—it is a multitarget submarine designed to destroy other submarines and ships. Between 1983 to 2001, Russia built 14 submarines of Akula-971 project, of different modifications. Nerpa was number 15. Right now the Russian fleet has 12 working submarines of this type.

Was Nerpa supposed to be leased to India for 10 years? Why have Russian officials been so reluctant to talk about this deal openly?
As far as I know, the submarine will still be leased to India as planned, but the schedule for delivery might be delayed. India demanded secrecy from Russia on this agreement, because they feared that the U.S. might [exert] political pressure to prevent the deal.

Does Russia supply nuclear submarines to anyone else besides India?
Only to India. From 1987 to 1991, India rented an APL K-43, Project 670 submarine from Moscow; that submarine was given back to USSR when the lease agreement expired.

Will this accident affect Russia ' s arms deals with India?
I think this is going to be another serious blow to cooperation with India. India will be even more concerned about the quality of Russian weapons. These kinds of problems are being used by different political groups in India to lobby against buying Russian. I do not think the Indians will refuse to accept the Nerpa, because they don't have many other options. Nobody else is likely to give them a submarine of this class.