The exercise involved some 2000 participants from over 20 nations. It was designed to maximise international cooperation and interoperability in an area of maritime safety that has always been important to NATO and all submarine-operating nations.
Following the tragic loss of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk in 2000, more international attention has been focused on the need to practice submarine escape-and-rescue equipment and procedures, and the multinational command and control of all rescue assets.
It was the Kursk accident that led to the development of a framework agreement between NATO and Russia on cooperation in the area of submarine crew search-and-rescue at sea, which was signed in February 2003. Since then cooperation has intensified and Russia has participated in NATO submarine search-and-rescue exercises in 2005 and 2008. The experience and networks developed contributed to the success of an actual rescue operation in August 2005 off the Russian Kamchatka peninsula.
“Rescuing somene from a submarine is a very difficult exercise,” explains General Giampaolo Di Paola, NATO Chairman of the Military Committee. “Therefore it is very important that nations and navies from all over the world come together and train in how to do it. In the end, remember, submariners are brothers in arms,” he adds. “They have a common enemy, not each other, but the sea, the depth, that is the enemy and we have to help each other.”
VIP guests visit Russian sub
The Russian Chief of Staff, Army General Nikolai Makarov, took part in the exercise during VIP day. He visited the Alrosa, while it was at a depth of 100 metres, together with General Giampaolo Di Paola and other high-level guests. They saw for themselves how the Russian submarine was working with international rescue systems.
“This demonstrates that at the military level, notwithstanding some political diversities and political challenges, […] you can understand each other, you can work together, you can start help building that level of trust and confidence that eventually will also percolate up to the political level,” says General Giampaolo Di Paola.
Complex scenarios involving specialist equipment
During the 12-day exercise, submarines from Portugal, Russia, Spain and Turkey were bottomed in carefully chosen and surveyed areas. Rescue forces with a range of sophisticated debris-clearance and diver-assisted equipment and submarine-rescue vessels from Italy, Russia, Sweden and the United States, and the jointly owned system of France, Norway and the United Kingdom worked to rescue the submariners.
The exercise scenarios also involved support ships with specialist divers and hyperbaric medical teams working on complex medical problems. Air units were also deployed to assist in locating a simulated distressed submarine, using parachutists to provide first-reaction assistance to stricken submariners.
The exercise culminated in a 48-hour, large-scale coordinated rescue and evacuation of 150 survivors, including many simulated casualties from a disabled submarine on the bottom of the sea.