Fire aboard AS-31 Losharik: Brief Overview

Thoughts and a quick overview of what is known about the fire that took place aboard AS-31 Losharik (referenced as AS-12 in most stories). Also some clarifications since there are conflicting media narratives and facts surrounding this developing story.

BLUF: On July 1 the Russian special purpose submarine project 10831, AS-31 ‘Losharik’, designated as a nuclear deep-sea station (атомная глубоководная станция) suffered a catastrophic fire killing 14 crewmen, with 4 survivors (at first I heard 5 were rescued). The submarine itself seems to have been not far from its base and was towed back. The now official version as I understand it suggests that the fire occurred at fairly shallow depths (at 280m), originating in the battery compartment of the submarine. The cause was a short circuit in the electrical system. Details are unclear but the gist of it is that while the fire started in the battery compartment, the cause was electrical. Supposedly Losharik was conducting bathymetric surveys in the Barents (that’s the official story anyway). Most of the crew died from inhalation of noxious fumes/smoke attempting to save the submarine – this story retold in IZ.

Update as of July 10th: Fontanka which does great investigative journalism ran a story based on several sources claiming that the cause of the fire, and subsequent explosion, was a lithium-ion battery aboard the submarine. Losharik was docking at the time with the carrier submarine, though according to this story it was BS-136 Orenburg (this bit is unlikely since Orenburg is out of service). The battery was used to power  Losharik’s maneuvering systems (this bit kind of made sense, still unclear why the energy from the reactor was not sufficient). According to Fontanka, the submarine recently received a lithium ion battery, which experienced a short circuit during docking operations. This in turn led to a rapid discharge, overheating, and an explosion in the battery compartment. The resulting fire killed all crew members in the first three compartments of the submarine.

Apparently, having little prior experience with lithium ion batteries on submarine, beyond project 677 Lada, which is yet to undergo serial production, they put a Li-ion battery onto Losharik. The advantage of this battery type is that it does not produce hydrogen gas, which must be contained and removed on diesel-electric submarines. BMPD blog ran a great commentary as to the ridiculousness of placing this type of battery onto a submarine so early into development, compared to the Japanese who invested decades into this technology. I’m no expert on batteries so will withhold judgment as to whether or not installing this type of battery, without extensive testing on other submarines, made sense.

Barents Observer ran a story based on sightings by some fishermen as retold in a local news paper, they claim the submarine surfaced near Ura Bay around 9:30 pm (northwest of the entrance to Kola Bay), although this sighting may have been of the carrier submarine BS-64 Podmoskovye. They of course didn’t want to be identified because they were out fishing illegally. I’m skeptical of first hand accounts from fishermen late at night. Media tend to jump on these eye witness tales, but such stories tend to be of questionable veracity.

Most of the versions of this narrative I’ve heard suggest Losharik was quite close to its base, operating near home waters. A subsequent story indicates that there was a civilian on board, and this individual was evacuated prior to the crew’s decision to close the hatch to prevent the fire from spreading – supposedly the died not from the fire but noxious gas inhalation.

On July 5th Putin met again with Shoigu, where Shoigu reported that they are still assessing the timelines and scope of work required to carry out repairs, but given the nuclear reactor compartment was not damaged, he was optimistic the submarine could be made operational within a fairly short time. He further confirmed the fire began in the battery section of the ship and spread from there. In his characteristic style Shoigu said that repairs were not only possible but absolutely necessary. We will see how long it actually takes to get AS-31 operational again.

Electrical fires are not uncommon aboard submarines, as are fires stemming from battery compartments. This problem plagues the Russian submarine service more so than Western counterparts. Of course it is also possible that the Russian MoD has come up with a straightforward explanation for what caused the fire in order to give the media a plausible story to run with, while we do not know what actually happened given the nature and mission of this submarine. Hence the story of some sort of short circuit or electrical arcing leading to a fire makes sense, but at the same time should be taken with some skepticism. Russian submariners carry gas masks and personal life saving kit on them at all times specifically for such incidents.

At first glance the crew complement for that voyage appears unusually composed of senior officers. This is not that unusual for GUGI which is a small, officer heavy service, with technical and engineering specialists. Everyone aboard such a vessel could be an officer given the technical or scientific expertise required, and it could be that such a large number of captains are actually detailed to AS-31.

However it is difficult to believe that the typical compliment, 20-25 crewmen, would consist of 7 Captains first rank, including two who had been awarded as heroes of the Russian Federation (Filin and Dolonsky), unless they were conducting some important research mission or perhaps test. Standard complement or not, either way, the deaths of these senior officers are likely to be a great loss not just for the Russian Navy, but also for GUGI’s technical efforts.

The official casualty list can be found here. It shows a loss of 7 captains first rank, 3 captains second rank, 1 Lt Col from the medical service, two captains third rank, and a captain-lieutenant. I think comparisons to Kursk are unhelpful, and out of place here, but it is a significant tragedy for the Russian submarine service. The crew belongs to GUGI’s military unit 45707 based in St. Petersburg. The two captains who held Hero of the Russian Federation honors earned them as part of earlier research missions in the Arctic and Antarctic. Captain 1st Rank Dolonsky was the actual captain of the submarine.

The nuclear deep-sea station

AS-31 is an unarmed submarine designed for special missions, examination or installation of infrastructure along the ocean floor, research, measurement, and the like. It’s an ideal undersea salvage craft to pick up various bits of technology, munitions, or sensors that sink to the bottom. Yes it can locate or probably cut undersea cables. The submarine has retractable arms to manipulate objects, but is not designed for advanced weapons testing. There is a different set of GUGI subs that perform this mission. The name Losharik is a nickname derived from the visual appearance of its specially designed pressure hull, composed of interlinked spherical compartments made of titanium.

HI Sutton does good cutaways and 3D models, although I fear that this resource is overused as a single-source of visuals on Russian special purpose subs. There’s a strong chance that the interior might not quite match what people imagine it to be. Still the cutaways are quite useful to get a general sense of what it might look like.

HI Sutton cutaway

Rough specs based on conflicting sources, none of which especially agree with each other:

  • approximate length 74 meters (or 69)
  • 2100 tons displacement when submerged
  • composed of 7 spherical compartments (some show as 6)
  • crew 20-25
  • diving depth 3000m + (perhaps up to 6000m)
  • speed 6 knots submerged
Losharik 2
I like this profile diagram – taken from globalsecurity.org

I doubt the submarine’s voyage had anything to do with the timing of NATO’s ASW exercise in the Norwegian Sea, Dynamic Mongoose, though it is possible this submarine would be sent to pick up anything interesting left on the ocean floor – it is capable of such missions. It does not appear the submarine was operating anywhere near the Norwegian Sea.

Losharik was developed during 1988-1990 by the Malakhit design bureau, built at Severodvinsk during the 1990s. Delayed due to financing, it entered service in 2003, and according to some sources was considered operational some years later. The submarine made a well known research voyage to chart the outer edges of Russia’s continental shelf at the Lomonosov and Mendeleev Ridges. According to one story Losharik sustained damage to its manipulable arms during this mission and underwent repair. The submarine then went through sea trials in 2017, together with BS-64 Podmoskovye, which was just launched in 2016.

Although BS-136 Orenburg is often cited as the carrier mother ship for Losharik, a modified Delta III SSBN, BS-136 is probably not operational and most expect this submarine to be officially retired. There was news as far back as 2013-2014 that BS-136 Orenburg was going to be written off in the near future. The submarine is too old to merit life extension, and is likely to be scrapped. Therefore the carrier is most probably BS-64 Podmoskovye which has been operational since 2017. I will edit this post later with links.

New photos from TASS show clearly it was BS-64 involved, as it is now parked at Severomorsk with a tent over the hatch, and vehicles surrounding it.

BS-64 unloading something

BS-64 in Severomorsk

GUGI and the 29th Submarine Division

AS-31 belongs to GUGI, the Defense Ministry’s Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research (10th Department). This is a specialized service that is not part of the regular Russian Navy, but answers directly to the Ministry of Defense as an intelligence and special missions organization. GUGI operates special purpose submarines, ocean going research ships (for example Yantar-class), and divers known as ‘hydronauts.’ Often media accounts conflate the work of GUGI, and its ships/submarines, with that of the regular Russian Navy, and it’s submarine force, which is not the case.

Olenya Guba modded

project 1910 2
Depiction of project 1910 Kashalot (UNIFORM)

Losharik belongs to the 29th Submarine Division (previously listed as a separate brigade). This is a separate division in the Northern Fleet, based at Olenya Guba next to the town Polyarny. It is often erroneously reported as being at Severomorsk, or headquartered there, neither of which is true. The bay is near the main Northern Fleet submarine base of Gadzhiyevo on the Kola Peninsula. Other submarines of the 29th include the smaller special-purpose diesel-electric classes and larger modified motherships, based on reconfigured SSBN or SSGN hulls.

GUGI dock
project 1910 Kashalot in front of GUGI’s floating dock

Submarines belonging to GUGI include:

  • 1-3 project 1910 Kashalot (UNIFORM) atomic deep-diving station
  • 1-3 project variants of 1851/1 Nelma (X-RAY) and (PALTUS) carried atomic deep-diving stations
  • BS-64 Podmoskovye (modified Delta IV SSBN), mother ship for AS-31
  • BS-136 Orenburg (modified Delta III SSBN) non-operational, expected to be written off
  • K-329 Belgorod (modified Oscar II) recently launched from shipyard. Multipurpose platform able to carry smaller submarines, drones, nuclear powered torpedoes, etc.

Other special purpose submarines that may be associated with the service:

  • B-90 Sarov diesel-electric submarine, appears to be a systems development/testing platform (not part of the 29th)
  • Project 09851 Khabarovsk, laid down in 2014, currently under construction – may be just a dedicated Poseidon carrier, or a GUGI submarine with different functions

A brief slideshow of GUGI’s various children

 

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Concluding thoughts: It’s natural to ask what this tells us about the state of the Russian Navy or the submarine service, and the fair analytical answer is fairly little. GUGI and its ships are not part of the regular navy, they are not subject to the op tempo of exercises, patrols, etc. What we can see is that fires remain a problem aboard Russian submarines, even the most specialized ones with crews that consist entirely of experienced officers. This problem is more characteristic of the Russian submarine service. Other countries’ submarine services are great at crew training and maintenance, but have a tendency to run into things (no names). Unfortunately we’re not going to find out if the official story on the source of fire is true, or if some piece of boutique tech was the real cause.

Comments or suggested edits are welcome

Emerging Russian Weapons: Welcome to the 2020s (Part 2 – 9M730?, Status-6, Klavesin-2R)

Putin’s March 1st speech unveiled a host of new weapons currently under development. Some were previously known, or had been rumored to exist, but with sparse information about progress, while others were being tracked by those who follow military developments in Russia. Unfortunately, much of the media dismissed these announcements as a bluff intended for the consumption of domestic audiences ahead of the Presidential election, or selection, depending on how you view it. While Vladimir Putin may have exaggerated how far along these ‘fantastical’ weapons are, claiming successful tests, these are not figments of his imagination.

He wasn’t bluffing – these weapons may all arrive sometime in the 2020s. Some we will meet in the early 2020s, others perhaps later that decade, as William Gibson liked to say “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” In Part 1 I covered Kinzhal, R-28 Sarmat, and 4202, while in this section I plan to look at some of the even more interesting systems, including third strike weapons like Status-6, Klavesin-2R deep diving vehicle, and the nuclear powered cruise missile that raised so many eyebrows.

The Nuclear Posture Review confirms many of these projects, stating, “Russia is also developing at least two new intercontinental range systems, a hypersonic glide vehicle, and a new intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo.” That references 4202, R-28 Sarmat, and of course the now famous Status-6. What about the nuclear powered cruise missile? Former SecDef Ash Carter had a rather cryptic line in an article back in 2017, that perhaps we should look back upon and reflect, “Russia is investing in new ballistic missile submarines, heavy bombers, and the development of a new ICBM. These investments by themselves would not be novel, even if they necessitate continued, strong American deterrence. But they are also paired with novel concepts for how nuclear weapons could be used and some entirely new and even bizarre types of nuclear weapons systems…” Now let’s fast forward to March 1, 2018, and Putin’s presentation begins to make a bit more sense.

As I will discuss in some detail below, most of these weapons are the stuff of science fiction from the 1950s and 1960s, back when science fiction writing was quite brilliant, and the Atomic age was in full swing. The U.S. and USSR considered, designed, and tested, all sorts of nuclear weapon concepts during the early 1950s and 1960s. Some ideas were ahead of the technology of their time, others were feasible but considered too crazy, provocative, or unnecessary. Part of what drove the resurrection of these concepts is Moscow’s desire to hedge against an uncertain future, and technology has changed. The feeling is not uncommon, since I took that notion literally from the language of our 2018 NPR, which also justifies its proposals in the need to ‘hedge against an uncertain future.’

Image result for 1950s asimov

Of course with such broad language once can advocate for all sorts of nuclear weapon programs, and sure enough, various industries in Russia seem to have sold the government on boutique weapons that will plus up Russia’s current deterrent. Moscow has thought to capitalize on some its comparative strengths, including nuclear energy technology, missile technology, and submarine designs, to develop what they believe will prove hedging weapons. These are in part in response to U.S. technological superiority in long range conventional fires, aerospace power, sustained U.S. investment in missile defense, and the desire to develop prompt global strike.

Rumors about the coming missile defense review also suggest that it will be quite provocative, validating Russian concerns that missile defense is no longer just about North Korea and Iran, but instead aimed at Russian and Chinese capabilities as a matter of policy. Thus we embark on mutually assured spending.

I don’t believe that Russia either needs these weapons to ensure the viability of its deterrent, or that their acquisition fundamentally changes anything in the military balance with the U.S. I’m equally skeptical that they offer any particular coercive effect, though I’m traditionally skeptical of the proposition that there is any efficacy to be found in nuclear powers using nuclear weapons for coercion. The history and theory just isn’t there to support that very much. What it does tell me is that Russia won’t be confident in its conventional capabilities for years to come, or ever, and continues to spend heavily on a nuclear offset, making the conventional and nuclear approaches to deterrence complementary – as in my mind they should be. That said, let’s get to the weapons.

Novator’s newest creation – 9M730 (designation is a working theory until a better name comes)

9m730 v2.JPG

The nuclear powered missile with no name is probably designated 9M730, following after 9M728 (R-500) and 9M729 (SSC-8 INF violator). This is Ramm’s hypothesis based on the fact there is a 9M730 project out there and we know what the other cruise missiles in this series are. Given there is no name, for now 9M730 will do, and I suspect it will ultimately turn out that this is the project’s designation. Since Raduga makes air launched cruise missiles (Kh) it makes sense that this project would be one of Novator’s children, and Novator is quite good at what they do when it comes to cruise missiles. The idea behind the missile is to have special compartments where air is heated by a nuclear reactor to several thousand degrees, then thrust is created by ejecting the superheated air. Judging from the video shown there are four rear vents creating thrust for the missile.

9m730.JPG

Putin’s statement that it already passed a successful flight test in December 2017 doesn’t scan, but this empty bragging aside it seems the missile project is quite real and much further along than one would like. Additional reporting from A. Ramm’s article indicates the tests are being done in Nenoksa, Arkhangelsk firing it into the White Sea, although after talking to colleagues the images shown are from Novaya Zemlya. Testing it in the high north makes sense since it’s not the sort of thing anyone would want to test over mainland Russia, and it will likely end up being based there. Due to size and weight considerations a missile such as this would have an unshielded reactor, making it impossible for the weapon to fly without spreading radioactive particles. Furthermore, there were comments from sources familiar with the project that the missile is not being tested with a reactor, but rather an electrical power source to imitate the reactor they have constructed. A. Ramm, who has some good writing on this subject, missile testing is being supported by special Il-976 laboratory planes.

Readers will undoubtedly recognize this concept as following in the footsteps of U.S. efforts to build a nuclear powered supersonic low altitude missile (SLAM), named project Pluto. From 1957-1964 the U.S. worked on a nuclear powered cruise missile, which would carry 16 nuclear munitions to targets in the USSR. The colossal amount of radiation it generated in flight was considered a feature at the time. However, even though a full scale reactor and engine were built, the project was canceled because the system was considered both highly problematic from an engineering standpoint and also provocative. The SLAM was nixed in 1964. Some believed it would motivate the Soviet Union to build a similar device, and all in all ballistic missiles were far less problematic. Well, it’s 2018, and while technology has clearly advanced substantially from 1964, humanity is an entirely different story.

A nuclear powered cruise missile? Silly Russians, we would never have spent 8 years on such a reckless project.

Project Pluto

pluto engine

I was skeptical as to whether this was far along, but here Pentagon came to the rescue. Pentagon officials, afraid that anyone finds out we might have some kind of ‘doomsday gap,’ let it be known that the missile in question has already gone through several flight tests in the Arctic and crashed in all of them. So we’re fine, because its not working yet… Also I think missiles typically crash and do not land, whether in testing or not, this is not a bug but a feature of missile technology. Crashing in testing is typical when working on a new missile design, particularly with a unique form of propulsion, but it was surprising to find out that Russia had already conducted several tests with a prototype.

Image result for dr.strangelove doomsday gap

Since the weapon has no name, I think we should consider calling it ‘prompt drunken strike,’ if anything based on the flight route shown in the video.

Status-6 Ocean Multipurpose System

Image result for статус-6

Much of what is known about Status-6 appeared on 9 November 2015 during a meeting chaired by Putin on problems in the defense industry. Just as last week, the media was skeptical that this weapon was a bluff, together with the arms control community which is often doubtful when revelations are made about new nuclear weapons. Those are unhelpful confirmation biases, since both Status-6 and the 9M729 missile are turning out to be quite real. The system is now officially referenced in the NPR as a Russian strategic nuclear weapon program.

status-6 slide.png

The weapon as conceived will be a multipurpose nuclear powered torpedo, but the initial design is intended to destroy critical economic infrastructure along coastline. By all indications this project is well ahead of the nuclear powered cruise missile, and given the physical size of this weapon, nuclear power poses a much less daunting challenge to integrate. As conceived this will be a third strike countervalue weapon. This nuclear torpedo is meant for taking out U.S. coastal cities, and irradiating an entire area. The reason it comes 3rd is both mechanical, and in terms of function. It would take 35 minutes for ICBMs on a transpolar trajectory whereas this weapon might take days to reach the U.S. once fired, and it is not meant for counterforce targets, but instead to inflict unacceptable damage which historically was calculated as affecting the target’s GDP (people + infrastructure).

city.JPG

This is an innovative vengeance weapon, though I don’t believe it will have 100 mt as the warhead. Something much smaller will undoubtedly suffice to wipe out LA or San Francisco if need be and irradiate parts of the coast. The reason I mention Pacific cities is that a deep diving weapon doesn’t make as much sense coming from Russia via GIUK gap into the Atlantic, simply because of the depths and geographical choke points involved. Something to consider before people get started writing articles about the 6th Battle of the Atlantic. The Pacific on the other hand lends itself handily to deep diving autonomous weapons if they’re ‘fire and forget.’

Does Russia truly needs this weapon to handle U.S. missile defenses? No, and it would be infinitely cheaper to just improve current strategic systems, which they’re also doing. However, need is often only loosely connected to what defense establishments procure. As I mentioned in Part 1, defense spending is at best ‘semi-rational’, representing numerous bureaucratic and domestic equities as much as actual threats and missions.

It is also difficult to discuss Status-6 without mentioning the legacy of Andrei Sakharov’s famous T-15 torpedo, a Soviet project in 1951-1955. The design concept behind that 40 ton, 1500 mm torpedo, was as a first strike weapon, intended to deliver a large nuclear warhead to U.S. naval bases like Pearl Harbor, generating a destructive tsunami. The specialized submarine was called project 627, but back then Soviet General Staff decided that they had no need for such a system, and would be satisfied with a regular nuclear powered submarine. The technology to realize a mega nuclear torpedo was there, but T-15 was the wrong kind of crazy for its time. You can read more on the history of the T-15 from Norman Polmar’s timely piece.

Maybe nuclear weapons are like fashion trends, they come back. Here is the old 627 with T-15 tube down the middle.

t-15-image2.jpg

According to the MoD slide, Status-6 can reach a depth of 1000 meters, speed up to 185 km per hour (100 knots), range up to 10,000 km, and is 1.6m in diameter. According to Putin’s statements it is excessively fast, deep diving, but also very quiet. This is nonsense, since underwater things can be fast, or they can be quiet, but they typically can’t be both. By all considerations this weapon is exceedingly loud if traveling at such speeds, and 100 knots seems somewhat an exaggeration. The video demonstrating its deployment showed project 09852 Belgorod, Russia’s most interesting submarine currently under construction, a heavily modified Oscar-II that will be the longest submarine in the world when it is completed. Belgorod should be able to carry these torpedoes internally, together with other undersea drones. The MoD slide from 2015 indicates that together with Belgorod, project 09851 Khabarovsk (another GUGI submarine laid down in 2014), will also deploy this torpedo.

I got this from HI Sutton – don’t sue me HI.

Pr_08952_pptSTRETCH.jpg

Status-6, and similarly intriguing undersea weapon projects belong to Russia’s ‘other navy’ known as GUGI, or Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research. GUGI is responsible for fielding specialized submarines, oceanographic research ships, undersea drones, autonomous vehicles, sensor systems, and the like. Around mid-2000s there were some tidbits of information about an undersea drone program being tested. Then it became clear that the project involved a specialized barge, the supporting ship 20180 Zvezdochka, and GUGI’s specialized diesel submarine B-90 Sarov. For more reading on the various GUGI subs and covert underwater projects HI Sutton runs a good blog with various renderings.

Here is what appears to be Status-6 container being loaded.

Status-6 tube.jpg

Based on the 2015 MoD slide, Status-6 is proceeding as a project in several phases, with the pilot system being completed by 2019, and testing 2019-2025. Although the nuclear drone probably doesn’t need much guidance, since cities don’t move around, there will need to be a command and control system built if this weapon is to have a conventional variant for wiping out carriers. I’m skeptical of the ‘carrier strike’ option shown in video during Putin’s speech, just because queuing is a perpetual problem for Russian forces, and it’s hard to see how a deep sea traveling weapon could get course correction from something above water. Hitting moving targets at sea is not so simple, especially over great distances, and with a weapon that is loudly steaming ahead in deep waters. More than likely Russia may try to deploy nuclear powered sensor or communications stations under the sea, as some of Rubin’s design projects suggest, to create the infrastructure for such a weapon. Besides the C2 infrastructure, Status-6 will still have to await the two GUGI submarines designed to carry it.

Klavesin-2R-PM Unmanned Undersea Vehicle

Klavesin-2M.jpg

Klavesin is a creation of Rubin design bureau and ИПМТ ДВО РАН, Владивосток. The parameters of this underwater drone include: 6.5m length, 1m in diameter, 3700 kg weight, 50km range with a 2000 meter diving depth. This drone was also shown in the video being launched by Belgorod. The drone program is so super secret that some of the details regarding the vehicle could be found from Rubin’s public tender seeking a company to insure two of these drones for 48 million rubles. Seems they already have two of them, for Belgorod and another GUGI submarine that is already operational, BS-64 Podmoskovye.

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The 2R is, as one might suspect, a further evolution of the 1R variant, designed for oceanographic mapping, research, undersea photography, and probably some covert missions. Not much to add to this project except to say that it undoubtedly helps conduct undersea intelligence and reconnaissance missions for GUGI.

fun times at GUGI

Regarding the laser shown at the end of Putin’s talk, I’m not sure what it is yet, but looks like some kind of air/missile defense system by the module and platform. I’ve honestly not seen that weapon before and do not focus on lasers. They should show it more often.

Laser.JPG

Not keen on the controller. This feels like 1990s gaming.

xbox controller.JPG