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Practice makes Perfect Perfection is Paramount in Submarine Escape and Rescue

by Petty Officer 1st Class Kristina Brockman, USN and Jen Zeldis


The Turkish submarine Preveze surfaces following NATO submarine escape and rescue exercises. Preveze is one of four submarines that participated in Sorbet Royal 2005.
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Sorbet Royal 2005 provided eleven days of submarine escape and rescue practice for the navies of 24 different nations. Because submariners accept the fact that even their normal duty has significant dangers, practicing new technologies and techniques for submarine escape and rescue is a necessity. Sorbet Royal was designed to be the most challenging escape and rescue live exercise ever conducted. Held in the Mediterranean Sea near Taranto, Italy from June 19th to June 30th, the event posed some of today’s most intense submarine rescue problems and tested personnel, equipment, and procedures in solving them.

Before the exercise began, a group of NATO officers prepared for several events at the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office (ISMERLO) located at Naval Support Activity Norfolk, Va. ISMERLO is a communication hub for submarine escape and rescue missions. “We look at the availability of rescue assets out there, provide notice for urgent rescue requirements, and post that information on our Web site,” said Bill Orr, ISMERLO coordinator and Submarine Rescue Officer on the staff of Commander, Naval Submarine Forces. “Both the nation that lost the submarine and others that might respond can see that information and identify the best possible assets available to come to the aid of the disabled submarine.”

“We want to be able to provide help to any submarine crew that needs to be rescued. It’s
the humanitarian way.”

During Sorbet Royal, four submarines from Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey were deliberately bottomed on the seafloor. ISMERLO was one of the first organizations to be notified about the details of each “emergency” during the exercise.

“This is my second time participating in Sorbet Royal, and my third submarine rescue exercise overall,” said retired submariner Lt. Cmdr. Fred Bahrke. “This exercise has become increasinlgy more complex, with multiple assets in the water at the same time. This creates an entanglement risk, but the training is such that the risk is reduced by operational planning and thorough briefings. This makes the event much more realistic, because an actual submarine rescue would create this same situation. It’s important to develop the international cooperation and verification that our systems work on other countries’ platforms. Submarines are deployed worldwide, and your home country may not be the closest to rescue you.”

The U.S. Navy’s only submarine rescue team, the Deep Submergence Unit (DSU), was the first group to “move-out” to Italy for the exercise. DSU personnel include both Navy divers and submariners, the ideal combination for its mission of rescuing crews from disabled submarines.

“As a submariner,” said Petty Officer 1st Class (SS) Sam Pilgrim, “it gives me great pride and satisfaction to belong to this organization, because whether our rescue is foreign or domestic, we know we are helping personnel in our own community... our brothers and sisters in arms.”

The DSU participation got underway at their home facility at Naval Air Station, North Island in San Diego. Having participated in previous Sorbet Royal exercises, the DSU Sailors used this opportunity to perfect their skills and work with several of the new nations involved in Sorbet Royal 2005.

DSU had about 154,000 pounds worth of gear to be flown to Italy and loaded on USS Grasp (ARS-51), which was in the area for a six-month deployment. Sailors of the DSU also maintain and operate two submarine rescue chambers (SRCs) – SRCs 8 and 21. “All of our gear is normally sitting in a warehouse, ready to be loaded into an aircraft on four hours notice,” said certified master diver Chief Petty Officer (SW/DV) Tom Perkins, “so we start by getting it all palletized and loaded up, and we fly to the nearest job site. Meanwhile, our headquarters staff is finding us a vessel of opportunity... the nearest vessel that will take our equipment and put us quickly over the submarine site.”

Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit TWO (MDSU TWO) flew from Norfolk to
the Grasp to assist as well. MDSU TWO’s primary mission is to perform sea-based and expeditionary diving and salvage capabilities, including recovery, retractions, battle damage assessment and repair, and harbor clearance.

While there were some differences in technique among the countries represented at Sorbet Royal 2005, similarities in the “language” of the divers outweighed any disparities. “When you have divers on the bottom, you understand the task,” said MDSU Two’s master diver Senior Chief Petty Officer Don Grubbs. “I could see the other diver doing certain things, so it was very easy for me to assist him. Their diving procedures are very similar to ours, and it was very easy to understand, what was coming up next even though there was a language gap.”

Photo caption follows Photo caption follows

(left) A Sailor escapes from the Italian submarine Primo Longobardo in the SEIE (Submarine Escape and Immersion Equipment) MK 10 suit during Sorbet Royal 2005. The SEIE suit allows submariners to do a free ascent from depths down to 180 meters (600 fsw) while providing protection for them when they reach the surface and await rescue.

(right) The United Kingdom’s submarine rescue vehicle LR-5 is lowered into the water by a crane from the Finnish ship Fennica.

On the very first day of the exercise, Grasp – with DSU and MDSU TWO embarked – participated in several evolutions, including a RESCUEX, the rescue of personnel from a distressed submarine; a SURVEYEX, the approach and survey of a distressed submarine by divers; and a MATEX, the mating and de-mating of a submarine rescue chamber with a distressed submarine. By day two, Grasp worked the same type of events with the Spanish submarine Siroco with support from a group of Greek divers.

The media started to gather on day three, and more than 28 reporters from six countries covered the day’s events. At one point, the Turkish submarine Preveze was bottomed in approximately 122 feet of water. During an 11-hour evolution, Grasp tested the atmospheric diving suit (ADS) and the SRC, which made two trips to the Preveze and brought 29 Sailors from the submarine onboard the ARS for simulated medical attention.

Personnel on Grasp deployed ADS 2000 in conjunction with the exercise of an ADS 1000 from the French ship, Ailette’s, whose divers met underwater with those from Grasp to perform the drill. This evolution marked the 700th dive for the French ADS, which is designed to reach depths of 1,000 feet. The American ADS can reach depths of 2000 feet, and this event was its first operational test since the U.S. Navy acquired the suit. Designed by the civilian firm, OceanWorks International, Inc., the unit resembles a moon suit and maintains an internal pressure of one atmosphere. The advantage of using these units is that a diver can return to the surface as fast as he or she needs to without requiring decompression.

During similar events for Grasp and her team on the following two days, many of the U.S. divers had the opportunity to work with their counterparts from other nations, and Sailors from other participating navies visited the ship to see her capabilities. The weekend provided time off for all the crews to get to know each other, while enjoying the nearby Italian countryside.

On the following Monday, Grasp conducted a sonar search for the Preveze and connected an SRC to a downhaul cable so that it could practice removing the submarine fairing, operating the underwater hatch, and transferring personnel to the SRC. Several medical evolutions were part of the scenario as well. The first live stretcher transfer of a patient from a submarine took place. The patient was taken from the Preveze into the SRC and brought to the Grasp, where he was transferred to a decompression chamber for treatment, as medical staff evaluated the Emergency Evacuation Hyperbaric Stretchers (EEHS) and the Morgan Breathing System (MBS 2000) used in the operation.

At the end of the second week, these preliminary events led to a coordinated, large-scale evacuation and rescue of pressurized survivors from a submerged submarine, including many simulated casualties, an event that spanned over 36 hours. The Dutch submarine HNLMS Dolfijn was submerged in 236 feet of water with eighty simulated causalities. Using all the techniques practiced in the smaller exercises, Grasp, DSU, and MDSU TWO Sailors kept the evolution ahead of schedule. By 1700 on the first day, 24 personnel from the Dolfijn were above water and being treated. By the next day, a total of 78 personnel were being treated by doctors onboard the participating ships or on their way to shore-based treatment facilities.

“The massive evacuation showed that we are able to lift 78 people from a disabled submarine,” said Cmdr. Rene Vorbeck, from the staff of Commander, Allied Submarines North, which managed the exercise. “And not only raise them, but get them prompt medical treatment. Honestly, this is the best exercise we’ve done. This number of personnel is the most we’ve ‘saved’ in an exercise so far, so we’re really looking forward to 2008... so we can set another ambitious goal.”

Sorbet Royal 2005 allowed all the nations involved not only to practice their own techniques, but also to gain confidence in their ability to provide support to a submarine of any nationality. “What Sorbet Royal gives us is the ability to practice a full multinational response and to evaluate how we would respond in a multinational way to rescue a disabled submarine,” Bill Orr noted. “We want to be able to provide help to any submarine crew that needs to be rescued. It’s the humanitarian way.”

Petty Officer 1st Class Brockman is the Assistant Public Affairs Officer, Commander Submarine Forces, Pacific Fleet. Ms. Zeldis is the Senior Editor of UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine and an analyst with Anteon Corporation in Washington, D.C.

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U.S. Navy civilian contractor Dave Diepenhorst tests his communications gear prior to climbing into the Atmospheric Diving System (ADS 2000). The suit was launched off USS Grasp (ARS-51) in support of Sorbet Royal 2005.


ISMERLO Comes to Aid of Disabled Russian Submarine

by Phil McGuinn, COMSUBLANT Public Affairs

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The remote operated vehicle control center of the U.S. Navy’s Deep Submergence Unit is loaded onto a Russian ship in Petropovlosk, Russia as part of the rescue mission of the Russian mini-submarine AS-28 Priz.

In submarine rescue, hours and minutes matter. So on Aug. 5, nearly five years to the day after the loss of the Russian submarine Kursk, and six weeks following the most complex submarine escape and rescue exercise ever conducted, the world’s submarine communities immediately responded to the alert that AS-28 Priz, a Russian Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle, was in trouble. This time the world’s submarine operating nations were better prepared to cooperate and to assist in the rescue because of the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office (ISMERLO) and experience gained from the exercise Sorbet Royal 2005 that was held in June.

Established in Sept. 2004, ISMERLO is the international hub for information and coordination on submarine rescue, acting as the liaison office between the nation that has a disabled submarine and the rest of the submarine escape and rescue community that provides rescue assistance.

ISMERLO facilitates the exchange of information, much like a 911 dispatcher, to help get rescue personnel and equipment to a disabled submarine within 72 hours.

In a quirk of circumstance, however, Priz, designed to rescue submariners now needed help and unlike a full sized operational submarine, the rescuers didn’t have 72 hours to get there.

When the Priz alert was issued by ISMERLO, a number of countries including United Kingdom, United States, Japan, Italy, France and Australia began mobilizing people and equipment in the race against time to assist in the rescue. In San Diego, the U.S. Navy’s Deep Submergence Unit (DSU) loaded two Super Scorpio remotely operated vehicles (ROV) and additional equipment on a C-5 Galaxy transport plane and headed to the east coat of Russia. “All of our gear is sitting in a warehouse, ready to be loaded in an aircraft in four hours,” said DSU’s master diver Chief Petty Officer (SW/DV) Tom Perkins.

In a fortunate turn, the Royal Navy had already prepared its Scorpio 45 ROV for shipment to exercise Northern Sun in Norway so they were able to arrive in Russia a couple of hours ahead of the Deep Submergence Unit flight. The Scorpio 45, the size of a Mini car, was launched from the deck of a Russian cable-laying ship, with its cutting equipment slicing through the nets and cables to free the Priz and enable it to re-surface. Royal Navy Cmdr. Ian Riches said that by the time the Russian submariners returned to the surface, “They were running out of oxygen with only enough for another six hours.”

Royal Navy Cmdr. Jonty Powis, who participated in Sorbet Royal, commented that the response time was key. “The sheer speed of the rescue effort from the Russian Navy, assisted by the Royal Navy team, was the key to a successful mission,” he said. “All submariners understand the special demands of working together in a uniquely challenging environment. We are all so very pleased to see our Russian colleagues safely returned from the sea.”

In addition to the U.K team supporting the Scorpio, three U.S. Navy divers and a U.S. Navy doctor from the DSU team worked with their British counterparts during the rescue operation.

Unlike communications following the KURSK, frequent communications from the start of the operation among navy officials in Russia, Britain, Japan, and the United States greatly facilitated the prompt and cooperative rescue efforts.

“The close team work and global coordination between our navies to rescue these sailors in such a short time is testimony to the spirit and determination of our nations,” said Adm. Gary Roughead, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

“When you’re part of the DSU command, you have to be ready to go rescue somebody on a minute’s notice, said Cmdr. Kent Van Horn, commanding officer of DSU. “We have to do it quickly and safely – and we did it.