A woman lights a candle during a church service in Kildinstroy, Russia, to commemorate 14 submariners who died on Monday after fire broke out aboard a navy research submarine of the Russian Northern Fleet. Photo: AFP / Sergey Eshenko / Sputnik

The July 1 fire on board the Russian “submarine” Losharik has raised many questions about its mission, but few definitive answers. The Losharik is a nuclear-powered deep-underwater submersible vessel (known to NATO as Norsub-5) that allegedly can stay on mission “indefinitely” – but that raises other questions. The Losharik is carried underneath a highly modified Delta III-class Russian submarine (the BS-64 Podmoskovye), so it can be transported to where it is most needed fairly quickly. But what would it be doing?

The Losharik’s construction was started in 1988, but halted for some time because of a lack of funds and the crash and burn of the Soviet Union. It went into service either in 1999 (according to some sources) or 2003 (according to other sources). In the fire, the sub’s commander, Captain Denis Dolansky, died along with 13 others.

In all, seven of those who died held the rank of captain, and two of them previously earned the Hero of Russia award. There were five survivors, ranks unknown.

The submersible experienced a “short circuit,” most likely in the battery compartment. The type of batteries on this vessel isn’t known for sure – what seems to be unique is that the batteries were in the forward section, and the nuclear reactor in the rear.

The fire happened not too far from the vessel’s home base of Olenya Guba, in a remote part of the Kola Peninsula. For many years the Soviet Union kept strategic missile forces on Kola and also ran an aggressive naval campaign, including submarines focused on their NATO and non-NATO Nordic neighbors and also on keeping the northern sea lanes open and as clear as possible of NATO (including US) submarine patrols and their ASW (anti-submarine warfare) operations.

Internally the construction of the Losharik is quite unusual. It does not follow traditional double-hull submarine forms. Instead, it consists of seven “orbs” that are made of titanium alloy, each about 6 meters in cross-section. One assumes that either the forward or next-to-forward orb is where the submarine commanders were when they died from fumes caused by the battery fire, but it is unlikely almost the entire crew would be inside one “orb.” Thus the fumes from the battery fire could well have penetrated the whole sub.

Read: The un-submersible US-Iran stalemate

The reason for the special construction is that the Losharik was designed to be able to operate at extreme depths. Some claim that it could go as deep as 6,000 meters, but given its construction and various limitations, that may be a strong claim – 3,000 to 3,500 meters seems more likely. But even that depth is many times further down than conventional submarines can go (about 800 meters). So the question arises, what is so interesting at such extreme depths in the ocean?

There has been in the past two to three decades a lot of interest in deep submersibles, ostensibly for scientific investigation, but also for economic and military purposes. The Russians, who want to be able to block the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and especially US tracking of Soviet submarines including ballistic-missile subs, have been strong on the idea of going after American underwater hydrophone arrays that are strategically located off the North American Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and around sensitive NATO ports and passageways, and also around Japan and other sensitive spots.

Originally known as SOSUS (Sound Surveillance Underwater System), today a more varied and flexible system called IUSS (Integrated Undersea Surveillance System) has supplemented SOSUS and includes fixed, mobile and deployable elements, making Russian interference with the system more complex and challenging.

It is important to emphasize one undisputed point about the Losharik: That sub reports directly to GUGI (the Russian main directorate for deep-sea research), which answers to Russia’s military intelligence organization, the GRU. Gathering intelligence on US and NATO underwater sensors as well as cabling systems and on the location of vital fiber-optic trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific Internet and telephone cables, especially those dedicated to military use, is a crucial responsibility for Russia’s defense establishment.

It isn’t known if the Russians have the ability to tap into fiber-optic cables, but the US reportedly can.

In 2012 the Russians launched a special surveillance ship called the Yantar (“Amber”), a 354-foot (108-meter) ship built as part of Project 22010. The Yantar carries two deep submersibles, both manned, named the Rus and Konsul respectively. These submersibles were either built by or based on a design provided by a Finnish company, Rauma-Repola, through its submersible division called Oceanics. If they are one and the same, they were built in the late 1980s and called Mir 1 and Mir 2.

These are manned deep diving vessels launched from the Yantar that can reach 6,000 meters. Unlike the titanium orbs in the Losharik, Mir 1 and Mir 2 were built from maraging steel blended with 30% cobalt and smaller amounts of nickel, chrome and titanium. Each is 8 meters in diameter, and uses special syntactic foam micro crystals for buoyancy. Each has a three-man crew and each is equipped with powerful lighting, communications to the mother ship, and sophisticated manipulator arms that can cut undersea cables.

In November 2017 the Yantar was sent on a special mission to Argentina to look for a lost Argentine submarine, the ARA San Juan. But Yantar also carried out surveillance operations, operating near the Kings Naval Base in the US state of Georgia and on down the east coast of the United States, apparently following US SOSUS cables. Kings is the home of six US Navy Trident ballistic-missile-carrying submarines.

Part of the strategic nuclear competition between Russia and the United States involves tracking and containing (even destroying) the other side’s ballistic-missile submarines, because these assets are the most difficult to neutralize and are a critical part of the strategic balance between the players. In the US, defense experts refer to the “strategic triad” that consists of land, air and underwater nuclear war fighting systems.

The Losharik no doubt plays a significant role in the Russian effort to identify US underwater capabilities clearly. Whether the Losharik can plant underwater mines, cut cables or track US underwater activity is not clear because we know very little about its capability, but given its design it appears that it is more likely a hub from which other systems launched from the surface can be managed.

What we do know is that Russia is building a more advanced Losharik, called AS-31, that will be carried under a new nuclear “research” submarine called Belogorod. AS-31 is described as an autonomous deep-sea station that may be posted under the Arctic Sea. AS-31 will be bigger than the Losharik, and it may control underwater vehicles to patrol the Arctic Sea, and perhaps elsewhere.

Strong and persistent Russian activity in deep submersible systems tells us the Russian military regards these vessels and vehicles as critical defense assets. If so, the damage to the Losharik, not to mention the loss of life, is a huge setback to Russian ambitions.

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