UK — Submarine Rescue System is put through its paces

Cost­ing £130m and weigh­ing 360 tonnes, the NATO Sub­ma­rine Res­cue Sys­tem is one of the most sophis­ti­cat­ed pieces of equip­ment in the world. For four days, 70 experts from three coun­tries put it through its paces.

Mem­bers of the Roy­al Navy’s North­ern Div­ing Group test­ing one of the giant decom­pres­sion cham­bers of the NATO Sub­ma­rine Res­cue Sys­tem [Pic­ture: LA(Phot) Ben Sut­ton, Crown Copyright/MOD 2012]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

The NATO Sub­ma­rine Res­cue Sys­tem (NSRS) is stored and main­tained in a giant pur­pose-built hangar at HM Naval Base Clyde. It is so sophis­ti­cat­ed that it can dive to 2,000 feet (610m) — deep enough to oper­ate any­where around the world’s con­ti­nen­tal shelves. 

Owned by Britain, France and Nor­way, it is always on stand­by — and hap­pi­ly, so far, it has nev­er been used. 

Dur­ing the test, 25 vol­un­teers were entombed in the NSRS’s two giant decom­pres­sion cham­bers for 18 hours to see how they would react to the con­fines and changes in atmos­phere and pres­sure that they would expe­ri­ence dur­ing a res­cue from a strick­en sub. 

The NSRS can be on the move with­in three hours — on 27 lor­ries. Ships all around the world are designed to take the load­ing plat­form, decom­pres­sion cham­bers and res­cue sub­mersible — if there was an emer­gency the near­est ship would be alerted. 

The whole load­ing plat­form is bolt­ed onto the ship’s deck and the system’s sub­mersible — straight out of a sci-fi movie with its glass-front­ed nose — is ready to go, low­ered into the water by the giant cranes that are part of the kit. 

If a submarine’s hull is breached it is auto­mat­i­cal­ly sealed and the rest of the hull becomes pres­surised. The NSRS’s decom­pres­sion cham­bers, which can take up to 35 peo­ple at a time, are set up and the res­cue sub­mersible trans­fers sur­vivors straight into them. If the hull of the strick­en sub­ma­rine is still intact, the res­cue sub­mersible can do the job on its own, bring­ing up 15 sur­vivors at a time. 

Tim­ing is impor­tant because it can take up to four days to get some­one ful­ly decom­pressed. So the res­cuers need to get as many peo­ple out of the sub­ma­rine as they can and as quick­ly as possible. 

The decom­pres­sion cham­bers are staffed by pro­fes­sion­al­ly trained divers and nurs­es who can tend to the injured, clean any who are con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed, and gen­er­al­ly run things until it is safe to open the doors to the out­side world. 

Lieu­tenant Com­man­der Kevin Stock­ton, who runs HM Naval Base Clyde’s North­ern Div­ing Group, said: 

“It is a quite bril­liant stand-alone sys­tem designed sim­ply to save lives. 

“Speed is essen­tial in get­ting to a strick­en sub­ma­rine and the fact that we can be on the move in three hours with 360 tonnes of equip­ment is impres­sive in its own right. 

“Although it is essen­tial­ly a NATO asset, the broth­er­hood of the sub­mariner is such that I am sure we would respond to a request from any gov­ern­ment which had a sub­ma­rine in distress. 

“The bru­tal real­i­ty is that if a sub­ma­rine were to go down in real­ly deep water there is noth­ing that any­one could do because the pres­sures would become too great for any­thing to survive.” 

The divers, doc­tors, nurs­es and spe­cial­ist oper­a­tors from Britain, France and Nor­way oper­at­ed as a seam­less team for four days. 

The exer­cise, called Mas­sivex, ran the course of an actu­al res­cue time­line, from ini­tial alert response to 18 hours of sim­u­lat­ed decom­pres­sion time. 

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK 

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