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Time To First Rescue


The NATO Submarine Rescue System (NSRS)'s Intervention Remotely Operated Vehicle (IROV) above a bottomed submarine (Photo courtesy of Emmanuel Donfut/BALAO).

by Capt. David M. Osen

Everyone associated with undersea warfare appreciates the importance of submarine rescue, but most have little idea of what a rescue operation is like. Every rescue operation — indeed, every exercise — is unique, with a distinct mix of personnel, equipment, and procedures tailored to the specific situation. The following notional scenario is designed to give readers some understanding of what rescue assets are available, how a multinational rescue effort is organized, and how the U.S. Navy's submarine rescue organization can contribute to a successful outcome.

The call
Imagine you've recently taken command of Submarine Development Squadron Five (SUBDEVRON 5), in Bangor, Wash. You're responsible for the Navy's three Seawolf (SSN 21)-class submarines. You're also responsible for several other subordinate commands and detachments. One of these is the Deep Submergence Unit (DSU), in San Diego, Calif., whose mission is deep-ocean submarine rescue.

Now, in the middle of the night, your phone rings. You answer, and a recorded voice begins: "This is the Newport News Naval Shipyard submarine emergency alert system…." After asking you to confirm your identity, it reports that a submarine is disabled and asks you to confirm that you will support the response.

As an experienced undersea warrior, you know submarining is inherently dangerous. Even the extraordinary safety precautions taken by today's submarine forces can't guarantee that submariners will never need to be rescued from a sunken boat. That's why the DSU exists. You visited it briefly before taking command of SUBDEVRON 5. You spoke with its skipper, met the crew, and got a quick tour of the DSU compound on the tarmac of North Island Naval Air Station.

You found it hard to talk over the roar of aircraft taking off and landing, but you learned that this is the best location for quickly loading submarine rescue gear onto aircraft for transport to an emergency anywhere in the world. As a submariner, you didn't have to ask why speed is essential, or why the DSU's goal is to reduce the time to first rescue (TTFR) from a disabled sub anywhere in the world to three days (72 hours) or less.

Getting organized
If the disabled sub is American, you, as COMSUBDEVRON 5, will most likely serve as coordinator, rescue forces (CRF), the officer responsible for coordinating the entire effort. You log onto the website of the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office (ISMERLO) to see what additional information is available and learn that the submarine isn't American.

When a submarine goes missing or sinks, the operational commander of that country's submarines — the SUBOPAUTH, in submarine parlance — automatically becomes the submarine search and rescue authority (SSRA) directing the overall response. The SSRA initiates an alert on the ISMERLO website, which sends out an instant short message service (SMS) text message alerting submarine rescue professionals around the world. That was what triggered the call you received from Norfolk.

SUBDEVRON 5 has no wide-area search capability, so if the submarine has just gone missing in some general area, there's little you can do for now except stand by and explore alternatives. But in this case, the sunken submarine apparently came to rest on the bottom above crush depth, and the crew released an emergency buoy like the Submarine Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons (SEPIRBs) carried in U.S. submarines. The buoy rose to the surface and broadcast a unique identification number registered to one of the submarine's escape compartments, alerting the SSRA and providing the sub's approximate position.

Since the submarine isn't American, you'll probably just oversee the U.S. contribution—unless the SSRA specifically asks that you also serve as CRF for the overall rescue effort. You soon learn through official U.S. Navy channels that the SSRA has indeed called Commander, Submarine Force, to ask that you be assigned as CRF, and the official written request is on the way from the submarine's country to the Pentagon via the State Department.

The SSRA appoints an on-scene commander (OSC) to control all efforts at the site of the accident. As the senior officer at the scene, the OSC will need your support as soon as possible, so you notify your chain of command and hurry to board a plane at Seattle-Tacoma airport, accompanied by your squadron's master diver, medical officer, and reserve detachment CO.

Everyone is concerned about the 35 crewmembers on the disabled sub. As a submariner, you know that if a boat sinks without any immediate danger like fire, flooding, or rising pressure, uninjured crewmembers can survive five to seven days. On the other hand, the crew may be struggling with reduced oxygen, increased carbon dioxide, cold, heat, toxic gases, increased pressure, or some combination of these. If nothing else, they're bound to be traumatized.

If the depth is less than 600 feet, they could theoretically escape from the sub without assistance, but the sub may be deeper than that, and in any case, it's usually better to wait for rescue than to risk trying to escape with no help on hand at the surface. That's why it's important to minimize the time to first rescue (TTFR).

image caption follows
The U.S. Navy's Submarine Diving and Recompression System, including the Pressurized Rescue Module shown here, can be transported in a variety of large transport aircraft. (Photo courtesy of DSU).

ISMERLO's role
Minimizing TTFR requires the sort of cooperative central planning that ISMERLO was designed to facilitate. Hosted by NATO's Allied Submarine Command and the U.S. Atlantic Submarine Force, in Norfolk, Va., ISMERLO has no command and control authority, but the databases and interactive tools on its website make it the world's primary source of information on submarine escape and rescue.

In a submarine emergency, the ISMERLO website becomes a virtual meeting place for the organizations involved—a clearing house for calls for assistance; informal offers of equipment, systems and medical personnel; and updates on the rescue effort. Experts around the world are now using the website's chat rooms and status boards to track the availability and status of rescue assets, follow events, and make recommendations. Everyone using it has access to a common picture of the evolving rescue effort.

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