Russian Submarine in Rescue Exercise Near Spanish Coast

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Marco Werman: NATO is conducting its largest ever submarine rescue exercise off the coast of Spain. Two dozen nations and some 2000 people are participating. And for the first time ever, a Russian submarine is taking part.

(Audio Clip) "Russian submarine Malrosa is on the bottom and we're moving above her. Once we're ready, we'll then put you into the PRM and launch. You'll then go down and we're going to [xx] with the submarine just like in an actual rescue."

Werman: That's a crew member from the American ship, The Shooting Star as it prepares for the submarine rescue exercise. The BBC Sarah Ransford was on board and was given rare access to the Russian submarine. Sarah, you took a submarine right to the bottom of the Mediterranean. I'd love to know what that's like but first, what is the purpose of these exercises?

Sarah Rainsford: It's all about increasing cooperation in submarine rescue. There are around 40 nations that actually operate submarines but far fewer nations actually have rescue capacities for them and of course if a submarine accident happens, it's imperative that some kind of rescue vehicle can get down to that submarine. That's reality we've brought home most [xx] in August 2000 in Russia in the Baric Sea north of Russia when the [xx] submarine sank and a 118 submariners were on board and of course Russia at that point took four days to accept international help. By that time, it was far too late to save anybody. Now everyone I've been speaking to on this exercise all say that things have changed remarkably since then and they say that the fact that a Russian submarine is taking part in this exercise for the first time ever is an obvious proof of that.

Werman: Now Sarah, you spoke with one American naval officer about the current exercise. Let's listen to him.

(Audio Clip) "David: Hi, my name is David Olson. I'm a captain in the United States Navy.

Rainsford: What's that like for you as an American rescue system documenter in a Russian submarine for the first time?

David Olson: For me, the opportunity to operate with a Russian submarine is something I never thought I would see. I've been in the Navy for quite some time and I actually joined the Navy back in the Cold War. I never thought I would actually walk on board a Russian submarine."

Werman: Sarah, so explain this particular part of the exercise. You were in the US sub that re-enacted a rescue of a Russian sub that was mock-stranded. What happens during such a rescue?

Rainsford: The rescue vehicle at the time was the American rescue vehicle was one which is a tethered vehicle so it's on what they call an umbilical cord which is lowered down into the sea. It's a capsule which can take up to 16 people and so we had around 16 people on board yesterday and I have to say that it was extremely cramped and you'd have to sit very tight together, knees almost touching knees. You couldn't [xx] under the sea and of course that was deliberate. The point was to keep the pressure at the right level. And then we latched on via [xx], the Russian submarine and then for the Russian hatch to be opened. It opened to a big roar of applause from the people on board the rescue vehicle I was on as the Russian captain popped his head through the hatch.

Werman: So were you able to tour around a bit on the Russian sub? What does it look like?

Rainsford: Yeah. It was incredible, in fact. We were actually told when we went down the hatch that we were only allowed to stay on the torpedo deck. The torpedo being removed of course. But it was this very cramped central area. I was actually based in Moscow for a long time so I was able to chat directly to the captain and he gave me his own little private tour. We headed from the first section right through to the third section of this submarine. Extremely narrow, extremely cramped. I have to say I don't think I was cut out to be a submariner. I'm pretty tall and it was very, very tight in there. We went around up and down the [xx] ladders into the control room which looked like something out of an ancient film. The submarine is actually from 1989. It's a diesel powered sub. It's 75 meters long. All the operators in there looked extremely old fashioned but the captain [xx] is not particular old. It's perfectly good, perfectly well functioning. It was fantastic. It was a real bare glimpse inside one of these vessels and quite a privilege for me.

Werman: BBC Sarah Minford in Madrid. You can watch the video of Sarah's submarine journey at theworld.org