Nato-Russia Council

NRC Search and Rescue at Sea: 10 Years 10 Stories Anniversary Feature

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Search and Rescue at Sea is an important field of cooperation for NRC nations. Historically sailors, and in particular submariners around the world have developed deep bonds through their mutual understanding of the dangers they face above and below the surface. Since February 2003 NRC nations have been working together in this important field, and it remains a key section in the NRC-MR Work Plan. Search and Rescue at Sea is led by a worldwide organisation and covered by international laws, rules, and agreements outside the military sphere. However in most cases only Armed Forces have the means necessary to conduct Search and Rescue operations. The aim of cooperation through the NRC is to ensure that cooperative capabilities exist to facilitate Search and Rescue at Sea operations during serious incidents. 

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Dangers at sea

Despite continual improvements in technology and safety measures, accidents still occur at sea. However, disasters often lead to improvements in safety. This has been true throughout Search and Rescue history, in particular in terms of Submarine Escape.  

The widespread use of air travel also poses an increasing risk of an aircraft going down in a remote area at sea. The considerable area that has to be searched for an aircraft demands a common understanding by all nations on each other’s Search and Rescue capabilities. This is why it is also a subject for discussion in the NRC format. 

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Cooperation in the NRC 

Cooperation in this field began between NRC Naval Officers who shared common values and experience.  After scoping areas of potential cooperation they presented their ideas for Search and Rescue cooperation to the Military Representatives of the NRC. This led in February 2003 to the signing of the NATO-Russian Federation Framework Document on Submarine Crew Escape and Rescue. Since then, submarine Escape and Rescue has been a key area of military cooperation. Specific work ranges from exchanging best practice on Search and Rescue at Sea to exercising together to really test the level of interoperability.

In 2005 several sailors were rescued when their Russian Submersible AS-28 became entangled with abandoned fishing nets and cables off the Kamchatka Peninsula. The cooperative work in the NRC to prepare for such an incident meant that NRC nations were the first to respond to a request for assistance. The rescue was carried out using equipment flown half way around the world by NRC nations, and was coordinated by the Russian Navy. 

2011 marked significant milestone for NRC Search and Rescue cooperation when Russia took part in exercise Bold Monarch along with many other NRC nations. Bold Monarch is the world’s largest submarine Escape and Rescue exercise bringing together different rescue systems around the world in one coordinated exercise. As part of the accident simulation, Army General Nikolay Makarov, Chief of Joint Staff of Russian Federation Armed Forces, and then Chairman of the NATO Military Committee Admiral di Paola, were “rescued” from a submarine on the sea bed by NRC submariners working together.

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Developing systems to facilitate submarine escape and rescue

It would be impossible to provide enough dedicated submarine Escape and Rescue ships to cover the oceans of the world that could quickly attend accidents and carry out rescue operations. The solution is to have air portable Escape and Rescue equipment that can be flown quickly around the world and deployed from a suitable vessel. This is why work began to address technical interoperability in submarine Escape and Rescue systems. 

NRC Naval Officers embarked on an ambitious project together with Lloyds of London insurance brokers to catalogue suitable vessels around the world that could carry each different submarine rescue system, and to track their locations. This enables rescue teams to quickly commission the closest and most appropriate vessel to deal with an accident. This system greatly decreases the reaction time in which submariners in distress can be rescued, using the nearest ships combined with the air portable equipment.  

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The importance of NRC cooperation

Commander Gavin Short, Royal Navy worked on the development of Search and Rescue at Sea cooperation including Submarine Escape for the NRC between 2004 and 2007, whilst serving in NATO’s International Military Staff. He said “Through hard work and cooperation in the NRC since 2003 we built up a significant level of interoperability that has been put to the test in real life crises and has saved the lives of submariners. It reinforces the bond that submariners share given the dangers they face under the sea.”  

Nations are working to continue, and even increase, cooperation in this important field.

Bold Monarch 2011

Watch a documentary video about Exercise Bold Monarch 2011 on the NRC YouTube channel.