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Definite and Serious–The RSN's Commitment to Submarine Rescue

By Col. Ngong Boon Kheng, RSN
Commanding Officer, 171 Squadron

Incapacitated, alone and under the menacing depths of the vast sea, the only protection from the unforgiving pressures outside is the submarine steel hull some inches thick. These are the harsh realities Submariners will face in the unfortunate event of a distressed submarine (DISSUB) incident. Submariners should operate with a peace of mind borne of the assurance that no rescue effort will be spared should an emergency occur. Understanding the importance of submarine rescue, the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) has placed considerable emphasis in developing our Submarine Escape and Rescue (SMER) capabilities and advancing regional inter-operability in SMER.

Building the RSN’s Organic Submarine Rescue Capability
The RSN’s submarine history, though relatively short, has been a fruitful one. Our first submarine, RSS Conqueror, entered service in 2000, and this was followed by the commissioning of the remaining Challenger-class submarines. RSS Archer and RSS Swordsman, the first two Archer-class submarines, were commissioned in 2011 and 2013, respectively, and are the latest additions to the local submarine fraternity. Over the past decade, our Submarine Force has also gained much operational experience through participation in various RSN, bilateral and multilateral exercises, a number of which are SMER-related in nature. The knowledge and experience learned reinforced the RSN’s fundamental belief in the need for building a viable organic submarine rescue capability to respond more swiftly to contingencies.

This vision was realized in 2009 when we operationalized our submarine rescue system by leveraging available commercial expertise under a public-private collaboration with Singapore Technologies Marine and James Fisher Defence. Comprising an 85-metre submarine support vessel, MV Swift Rescue, and a 9.6- metre rescue submersible, Deep Search and Rescue 6 (DSAR 6), this fully integrated system is able to operate continuously for 28 days at sea and conduct rescue operations to a depth of 500 metres, even in harsh sea conditions of up to sea state 5.

Observers withnessing the launch of the DSAR 6 from MV Swift Rescue

MV Swift Rescue possesses a wide range of capabilities to conduct SMER operations. Its dynamic positioning capability enables the vessel to hover at a particular geographical position to conduct rescue operations, without the need for mooring. Together with a custom-built launch and recovery system on-board, it is able to launch the DSAR 6 within 15 minutes of arrival at the scene of the DISSUB.

Constant atmospheric pressure is maintained throughout the rescue operations; such a transfer-under-pressure protocol reduces the risk of decompression illness arising from sudden pressure changes. Pressure in the free-swimming DSAR 6 will be adjusted to match the DISSUB’s internal pressure before mating. DSAR 6 is capable of rescuing up to 17 submariners at a time. Upon recovery on-deck, the rescued submariners will be transferred from DSAR 6 to MV Swift Rescue’s 40-man recompression chambers (RCC) via a Deck Transfer Lock (DTL). They will be triaged and attended to by personnel specially trained in hyperbaric and diving medicine. Those who require intensive medical care can also be closely monitored in the high-dependency ward on-board, while others who require urgent surgery or further treatment at a tertiary hospital can be heli-evacuated to medical facilities ashore via the vessel’s helipad.

The rescue system is further supported by established shore-based medical facilities. The RSN’s Navy Medical Service (NMS) operates the Naval Hyperbaric Centre, which specializes in underwater medicine and provides recompression therapy for decompression illness on a 24/7 basis. This is complemented by civilian medical resources at the Hyperbaric and Diving Medicine Centre (HDMC) in the Singapore General Hospital (SGH), which was opened in 2009. Through close collaboration with SGH’s HDMC, the RSN is able to combine our experience and expertise in underwater medicine with SGH’s clinical expertise in critical care and holistic patient management, thus providing the best possible medical care for any rescued submariner.

Sharing and Collaboration —
Emphasizing the Importance of Multinational Cooperation

Beyond building a submarine rescue capability, the RSN strongly believes in the need to build and maintain a strong network for multilateral submarine rescue collaboration as more countries in the region acquire or enhance their submarine capabilities. Globally, there has been a strengthened focus on submarine rescue, partly due to the tragic loss of the Russian submarine Kursk (K 141) in August 2000 and the successful multilateral rescue of the Russian Priz-class mini-submarine AS-28 five years later. A significant lesson gleaned from these two incidents was the value of a robust, multi-agency, multinational submarine rescue ecosystem premised not just upon infrastructural, platform, and operational compatibility but, more crucially, upon mutual trust and understanding.

These relationships can only be built up through regular interactions such as exercises and exchanges. One such exercise is Exercise Pacific Reach, the region’s equivalent to NATO’s Exercise Bold Monarch1. This series of exercises has been very useful in providing participants with a good opportunity to collectively discuss submarine safety-related issues and practise SMER-related evolutions, thereby promoting trust and confidence among the participating navies.

The RSN hosted the inaugural exercise in 2000, and we continued our participation in the subsequent exercises.2 We hosted this exercise again in 2010, which saw the participation of navies from Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, and the United States and military observers from 13 other countries.3 A key focus in 2010 was exercising the interoperability between submarine rescue vessels and DISSUBs. During the exercise, the RSN’s DSAR 6 successfully mated with the participating submarines. A medical symposium as well as a simulated evacuation and treatment of personnel from the DISSUB were also conducted.

Education and dialogue are important aspects of submarine rescue.
Inaugurated in May 2102, the Submarine Rescue Course aims
to be a leading regional forum in the sharing of submarine
rescue knowledge amongst SMER practioners.

The RSN’s other involvements towards promoting regional SMER cooperation includes participation in professional forums, such as the annual Asia Pacific Submarine Conference (APSC), which provides a platform for participants to exchange ideas and experiences on SMER. The RSN hosted the APSC in 2009 and co-hosted the event with the United States Navy in 2010. In addition, we participate in NATO’s Submarine Escape and Rescue Working Group (SMERWG) meetings4 to remain updated on the latest SMER developments and share our experiences in the Asia Pacific with international submarine-operating navies.

The RSN organised the inaugural Submarine Rescue Course in 2012 to promote SMER knowledge amongst regional submarine operators. The eight-day course was attended by 29 international participants5 and comprised a mix of classroom lessons, table-top exercises, and medical and SMER demonstrations. Topics covered included the Allied Tactical Publication (ATP) 57 on submarine search and rescue, and the use of the ISMERLO website.

The RSN is working towards establishing bilateral submarine rescue arrangements with other submarine-operating navies who operate in the region. In July 2012, such an arrangement was signed with the Indonesian Navy (TNI AL) laying the foundation between the RSN and the TNI AL in submarine rescue support and cooperation.
Bringing together leaders of regional submarine-operating navies and the practitioners of submarine rescue, the APSC is the premier forum for SMER dialogue and collaboration in the region.

In Concert and with Purpose –
Towards Multinational Submarine Rescue Collaboration

Safety of lives at sea is paramount, and the urgency of a DISSUB incident means that the importance of submarine rescue cannot be over-emphasized. Submarine rescue transcends international boundaries and there remains the pertinence for collective security in the field of SMER. To achieve the synergies and interoperability required in a multinational SMER effort, there is a need for regional collaboration and mutual trust and understanding between submarine operators and the SMER community. In our journey thus far, we have understood and experienced first-hand the importance of submarine rescue and multinational cooperation in SMER, and the RSN is now ready to join the larger SMER fraternity in a concerted and purposeful commitment towards the growth of submarine rescue in the region.

1 Exercise Bold Monarch is a triennial SMER exercise organized by NATO.
2 Exercise Pacific Reach was hosted by Singapore in 2000, Japan in 2002, Korea in 2004, Australia in 2007 and Singapore in 2010.
3 Observer nations included: Canada, China, France, India, Indonesia, Italy, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Africa, Sweden, Thailand, the United Kingdom and Vietnam.
4 The RSN attends the NATO-based SMERWG meetings as an invited participant.
5 The Submarine Rescue Course participants included military personnel from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.