Written by Pavel Ivanov; Originally appeared at VPK on December 17, 2019, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
The past week has been a black one for the Russian ship repair industry. While salvaging the submarine “Chita” it sank in Nakhodka, in Sevastopol the decommissioned floating dock PD-16 with the submarine B-380 located in it went to the bottom. In both cases, there were no human casualties, but on the aircraft carrier “Admiral Kuznetsov”, which is under repair, there are dead as result of the fire.
These are by no means the first incidents of ships and submarines being salvaged or repaired over the past two years. In February 2018 there was a fire on the large anti-submarine ship “Marshal Shaposhnikov”, today, aboard the missile boat “Shuya”.
Many experts associate the latest events with the systemic crisis in the ship repair industry. How true are these statements? What actually happened on board the Admiral Kuznetsov and the PD-16 floating dock? And what real problems lead to such accidents?
Forgotten art of repair
The fire on the Kuznetsov started in the morning. As stated in the United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC), the fire broke out during welding work. According to the head of the USC Alexey Rakhmanov, the incident could have happened because of human factor. At the time of the emergency situation, work was underway on the lower decks of the ship, located at the Murmansk 35th ship repair plant. Workers and crewmembers were tasked with the installation of engine automation elements, as well as new cable routes and pipelines. To do this, they dismantled the old equipment.
It is important to note that in some sources it is stated that during the dismantling of the partitions auxiliary holes were made. They were not incorporated in the design of the compartments, but seriously facilitated the work of shipbuilders and sailors.
A special commission of the Northern Fleet and the USC, established immediately after the emergency, should decide the official cause of the fire. According to the preliminary data, the overheated incrustation spilled into the water, where fuel was spread, which brought to the initial point of origin. Its area was approximately 20 square metres. But after a few minutes, the fire began to spread rapidly. According to one version, the flames spread to oiled rags and remnants of equipment. According to another, paint and other flammable materials fed the flames.
As a result, the area of fire increased to 600 square metres, the characteristic black smoke billowed from under the deck of the aircraft carrier. It was at this point that the fire cut off several of the ship’s crew, who would later be found dead. Not only the crews of the Federal Fire Service (FFS) from Murmansk, but also paramilitary units from Severomorsk were involved in the extinction of the fire.
We must pay tribute to the staff of the Northern Fleet. They were well aware that the FFS staff was unlikely to be able to work effectively in the labyrinths of the lower decks of the only Russian aircraft carrier, so to help the firefighters, the crew of the Kuznetsov as well as soldiers from other ships were sent to help.
An auxiliary boat from the Northern Fleet, from which fire hoses were transferred to the Kuznetsov, approached the ship for easier extinguishing.
Despite the operational measures, it was not possible to immediately extinguish the fire; even the use of special carbon dioxide mixtures did not help. At some point, the staff decided to flood the compartment, but without extreme measures.
Why this situation? Unfortunately, the commission has not yet given a response. But if the information about unauthorised openings in the bulkheads is correct, then it becomes clear why the fire spread so quickly and carbon dioxide mixtures could not cope with it. And it is not clear what consequences of flooding the bay would be.
The fire was contained only at night. By morning, the crews of sailors and FFS fighters were dousing the fire. It was not until the middle of the next day that the fire was completely extinguished and the damaged compartments secured. In fact, the fight against the fire on the Admiral Kuznetsov lasted more than a day.
Since the sole Russian aircraft carrier was put into repair, there have been constant emergency situations. Last year, the ship survived the PD-35 floating dock disaster. By some miracle, the Admiral Kuznetsov was not seriously damaged. This time, too, it was all right. The premises where the fire occurred were not badly damaged. The main thing is that the expensive fuel automation equipment has not failed: workers and sailors have not yet had time to begin its installation.
We must understand that ship repair is much more difficult than building new ships. It is necessary to figure out how to carry out the installation and dismantling the equipment in a narrow space, while often the necessary components and mechanisms are no longer available at the time of repair and entire compartments must be redesigned.
Admiral Kuznetsov, a unique ship, but almost all the 90s and 2000s did not receive normal maintenance and at the time of setting it for repairs, its technical condition was on the verge of critical.
Also, we must not forget that while Russian ship repair plants do not have experience with ships of this size, and the existing technical solutions used in the repair and modernisation of destroyers, large anti-submarine ships and submarines, are not suitable here. Aggravating the situation is that part of the project documentation for the Admiral Kuznetsov is missing. Therefore, when carrying out work, especially on the lower decks, workers face serious problems. Part of the equipment is out of order, but it is not clear how to dismantle it and remove it correctly. At the same time, the very state of the units is such that it is impossible to repair them on the spot.
For a long time, ship repair plants did not have enough work. The Navy tried to make the most of the ships, even though they were in poor technical condition. And Admiral Kuztnetsov is a good example. In addition, as mentioned above, it does not have spare parts and the specific documentation. All of this is the legacy of the 90s. Presently the situation is changing. For example, the Far Eastern factories have gained experience in repairing and upgrading large anti-submarine ships of Project 1155, as well as small missile ships of Project 1234. It’s no secret that after the repair, nuclear multi-purpose submarines are actively returning to service.
The situation should be facilitated by the fact that now the Ministry of Defence and the USC are concluding full life cycle contracts, according to which shipbuilders are obliged not only to keep all the documentation, but also to produce in advance stocks of necessary components and units for current and major repairs.
The dock that sank
On the night of December 14 to 15 in Sevastopol, on the 13th ship repair plant site sank the floating dock PD-16, which was the diesel submarine Project 641B “Saint-George”. However if the dock went down, the boat remained partially afloat. All Sunday, this accident was one of the main news in Russia.
Unfortunately, there is no exact information about what happened. According to eyewitnesses, the dock suddenly began to sink. After a while, only the superstructure remained visible. At the time of the accident, there was no one on board the dock or the submarine. They have not had their own crews or even technical teams for a long time. As stated in the southern military district, PD-16 and B-380 have been withdrawn from the Navy and waiting for salvaging for more than a decade.
Many experts were quick to draw a parallel between the fire on the Admiral Kuznetsov and the death of PD-16. But there is nothing in common between these extraordinary situations. The floating dock and B-380 became hostages of the shortcomings of the salvaging of ships and submarines.
For many years, both items did not have a clear status and it was not even clear whom they belong to. In fact, they were listed in the inventory of the 13th ship repair shore base, but they did not belong to the plant, or the Ministry of Defence, or even the USC. Unfortunately, it was impossible to salvage B-380 without the dock in which it stood for many years. It is noteworthy that in 2011-2012, the Russian Navy expected to return this submarine to service. The project existed in the plans of the Navy until 2016, when the commission made a decision on its salvage. So the Ministry of Defence announced a competition to develop a project for cutting the B-380 and the floating dock.
The situation was complicated by the fact that both items were in Crimea, and to salvage them by specialised companies, the dock and “George” had to be moved from the Black Sea to the Baltic or Northern fleets, which under the existing technical condition of the “curiosities” would be insane.
Theoretically, PD-16 and B-380 could be salvaged at the 13th shore base, but although the company has some of the necessary equipment, its specialists do not have the necessary competencies. Also there is a question: where and how to send the received scrap metal from Crimea?
So the first contract announced this year for the salvaging of submarines and floating dock was unfulfilled. The Ministry of Defence held talks with possible recycling companies and made the necessary changes to the contract, but it was not possible to implement it.
Unfortunately, the situation with regard to recycling and ship repair remains difficult for the time being. Now the industry is held hostage by the 90s, when ships and submarines were used until the resources were fully exploited, given the slender Soviet system was already lost.
Only full life cycle contracts can correct the situation, which will spell out everything, from development to disposal. But while the USC and the Defence Ministry did not go to the planned work on such contracts, we are likely to expect many more similar emergencies on ships, boats and submarines being repaired or awaiting salvaging.