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Submarine Rescue: Ready For The Unthinkable
Rescue Rescue Efforts Preparing

With the recent tragic loss of a Russian submarine, there has been an increased interest in U.S. submarine survivability and the U.S. Navy's submarine rescue capabilities. These are areas of vital importance that should be understood by every submariner. This article will describe the programs and capabilities we have currently in place and some of the ongoing initiatives that we are pursuing for our submarine survivability and rescue program.

Professional Submariners 

Safe ships and professional, thoroughly-trained crews are our first line of defense. Although going to sea on submarines will always pose a certain amount of danger, the best way to reduce the risk to our Sailors is to prevent accidents from happening wherever possible and to train the crew to respond properly when the unexpected does happen. Following our own tragic loss of the USS Thresher (SSN-593) in 1963, the Navy instituted the SUBSAFE program. By establishing certain operating and casualty control procedures, implementing maintenance and material requirements for greater reliability, and installing emergency recovery systems, we dramatically improved the integrity and recoverability of our submarines in the event of a casualty. Our training programs are also second to none. Thorough crew training and qualification programs further reinforce that foundation of safety. The impressive safety record of the Submarine Force since the implementation of these programs is a testimony to their effectiveness. 

In the unlikely event an accident should occur which puts one of our submarines in distress, we have a very capable, three-pronged "rescue program," consisting of Survival, Escape, and Rescue. In addition to our current capabilities in each one of these pillars, there are also significant modernization programs already in progress. Most of these programs were initiated as a result of a thorough review and subsequent recommendations provided by the Submarine Escape and Rescue Steering Group established in 1999.


The first pillar of our program gives our crews the tools to survive should a potentially catastrophic accident occur. Damage control training and specially trained Independent Duty Corpsmen (IDCs) are important elements. However, the limiting component in extended survival is atmosphere control. Re-distribution of the Lithium Hydroxide canisters, as recommended by the Steering Group, better supports survival of the largest part of the crew in the forward compartment. Passive carbon dioxide scrubbing and Emergency Air Breathing systems can currently support the crew for up to four days. To extend that, we are proceeding with procurement of the Micropore Improved carbon dioxide scrubbing system, which will increase survivability to at least seven days.

The new Submarine Escape and Immersion Equipment will facilitate escape and survival.
The new Submarine Escape and Immersion Equipment will facilitate escape and survival.


We equip submarine crews to escape should it become necessary. While submarine escape procedures carry with them certain limits and risks based on the water depth, we are pushing back those barriers. We are already in the process of installing new Submarine Escape and Immersion Equipment to replace Steinke Hoods onboard all of our submarines. These full body suits include thermal protection and a built-in life raft to allow crew members to escape at depths down to 600 feet and survive on the surface. We are also reviewing our training programs to ensure crews are properly trained, as well as equipped, to perform submarine escapes. 


We maintain state-of-the-art submarine rescue equipment. We have two Submarine Rescue Chambers (SRC) that we can rapidly transport to a support vessel to be used at the location of a disabled submarine. If a U.S. Navy auxiliary vessel cannot respond to the scene fast enough, any one of the world's estimated 4,000 commercial supply/handling vessels can be used if made available. The SRCs, capable of rescue down to 850 feet, can be mated to a disabled submarine by using a down-haul cable attached to a special pad-eye on all U.S. submarine hatches. We also maintain one Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV), capable of rescues down to 2000 feet in a ready status at all times. It too can be deployed rapidly by aircraft to a nearby port where it would be mated to a mother submarine (MOSUB) and then transported to the scene of the stricken submarine. Depending on the distance from the Deep Submergence Unit to the nearest airfield and the distance from the nearest port to the position of the disabled submarine, the nominal timeline places the DSRV at the scene anywhere from 36 to 48 hours after first notification. However, this capability is also dependent on the proximity of a MOSUB to the port closest to the casualty. Following its recently completed and extensive maintenance availability, the DSRV Mystic will remain in a constant rescue-ready status until her inactivation in 2005, with the exception of one 3-week upkeep in 2003. Based on our requirement to keep only one DSRV rescue-ready at all times, our current plans are to lay-up or inactivate the DSRV Avalon in November 2000. Its final status will depend on a review now under way to determine the best course of action.

The Future 

Our future rescue systems will provide even better capabilities. One of the gaps in our current program is the ability to transfer personnel under pressure, which would allow us to rescue crew members at deep depths under immense pressures and transfer them to a decompression chamber. The acquisition of the Submarine Rescue Diving and Recompression System (SRDRS) will fill this gap while also providing a significantly more capable, state-of-the-art system. This will include a dramatically improved deep-diving capability, a pressurized rescue system, and a decompression system. Each of these subsystems will be phased in starting with the Atmospheric Diving Suit in 2001. With this suit, divers can dive to 2000 feet, conduct an initial rapid assessment, deliver Emergency Life Support Stores, and prepare the hatch for mating. The Submarine Decompression System, which includes two air transportable chambers capable of treating 62 patients simultaneously, will be delivered in 2001. The final element of this system is the Pressurized Rescue Module. Also air transportable, it will be capable of diving to 2000 feet, recovering up to 16 rescuees under pressure, and mating directly to the Decompression System. Two of these modules will be delivered in 2003 and 2005 respectively. Each element of the complete rescue system is capable of operation from a "vessel of opportunity," ensuring that a rapid, world-wide response capability is always maintained. As part of the modernization plan for our rescue program, we have carefully coordinated the acquisition and inactivation timelines for rescue assets to avoid gaps in our capabilities. 

Training for proficiency in using diving equipment.   Careful inspection and maintenance of hatches
Elements of submarine safety range from careful inspection and maintenance of hatches to training for proficiency in using diving equipment.

In addition to providing equipment, we have gone to great lengths to ensure the readiness and interoperability of the submarine rescue program. We have partnerships worldwide with other nations with similar rescue capabilities, and our submarines and rescue assets are completely interoperable and compatible with those nations. For example, in addition to the eight compatible U.S. MOSUBs, there are four United Kingdom and one French MOSUBs that could be used with one of our DSRVs. Equally important, we conduct regular exercises to train our crews and practice these procedures with participating nations. Just last year, we launched a DSRV from a U.S. submarine, mated it with a Japanese submarine on the bottom, and transferred personnel. We conducted a similar exercise earlier in 1999 with the French. This year, we conducted one NATO submarine rescue exercise involving our DSRV and another exercise, PACIFIC REACH, using one of our SRCs with the Koreans, Japanese, and Singaporese. 

Submarine survivability and rescue is an area that requires ongoing attention to ensure maximum readiness of our current assets, proper equipping and training of our crews, and introduction of the newest capabilities into the program. The goal is to ensure each submariner is given every chance for survival should the unthinkable happen. While continued effort and resources will always be required to ensure we meet that goal, the U.S. Navy's program today is ever-ready, highly capable, and still improving.



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