On Sunday 18 November a party of military divers finish decompression on board the rescue ship Igor Belousov. They will have spent three weeks readjusting to surface pressure after a record dive to a stunning 416 meters, which took place on 29 October. That reports flot.com.
You do not need to know much about diving to appreciate the awesomeness of the accomplishment. At 416 meters the pressure is 41.79 bar or 606 psi, which is mind blowing number. The divers from the Russian Pacific Fleet descended and exited the GBK-450 diving bell at 416 meters, although the original goal was to reach 450 meters.
The operation was part of a test of the equipment on Igor Belousov. Last year, a similar test brought the divers down to 317 meters. The theoretical limit of the equipment is 450 meters, so there is room for another record attempt next year.
Igor Belousov is in itself an interesting vessel. It was delivered in 2015 as the first in the project 21300 series of submarine rescue ships. The construction of the ship began in 2005 in the wake of the Kursk tragedy in 2000. It is by all accounts a very capable rescue ship, but so far only one vessel has been delivered. The plan is that the Northern and the Pacific Fleets each will have two such ships, whereas the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets each will get one. But the process has been delayed because the government has decided to build the next five ships with predominantly domestic technology, which must be developed first.
This decision has caused extensive criticism from the Russian military press. flot.com has published several sharp articles about the state of Russian submarine rescue capabilities, pointing out that only the Pacific Fleet is better equipped today than when the Kursk catastrophe occurred. They have questioned whether the desire for domestic technology really justifies a delay of safety essential equipment.
Another problem for Russia’s ability to rescue submariners is the retention of qualified divers. They are highly specialized professionals who can earn a lot more in the private sector. Recently, the Russian government introduced a simplified compensation system for its divers, which makes the problem even worse. Now divers are compensated according to the time they spend in the water regardless the depth. So an hour at four meters gives the same as an hour at 400 meters. No compensation is given for decompression time or the increased risk involved with deep water dives. The monthly compensation cannot exceed 100% of the basic salary of a military diver, which is around 15000 rubles. In other words, for their record dive to 416 meters, the divers from the Pacific Fleet will receive around € 200. The three weeks in decompression are not compensated at all. In fact, one can imagine that they are financially disadvantaged by the decompression because it will be hard to get enough dive hours in November to earn full compensation next month.
So while the 416 meters record dive is amazing, it does not mean that Russia has solved the shortcomings in submarine rescue capabilities that were revealed when Kursk sank.
About the GBK-450 rescue equipment
Below is a short commercial video by Tetis Pro, advertising the submarine rescue equipment. GBK-450 is the entire suite of equipment to support the rescue operation. The idea is that 12 divers in total can work six-hour shifts, so three divers are active at any point. Through the small diving bell, two submariners can be rescued at a time. They must exit through a torpedo tube and be brought to the surface ship before the next two can be evacuated. There were 118 crew members on Kursk, so it is a slow process to evacuate this way.
The Bester mini-submarine can rescue up to 20 submariners at a time. Depending on the circumstances, it may not be possible to attach the mini-sub to the hatch of the wrecked submarine. This could for example be because the wrecked submarine is tilted, or because — as in the case of Kursk — the hatch is damaged. So this method is faster, but not always feasible.
In the end of the video you get an idea of the decompression chambers. It takes about one hour of decompression per meter of water depth, so that’s how you end up at around three weeks for a 416 meters dive.