A Russian mini-sub was successfully rescued this weekend by a British “Super-Scorpio” robot submarine. Seven crew members have been recovered off the coast of Kamchatka, but most of the details have been kept from the public so far.
The mission was a collaboration between Russia, Britain, and the United States. The present public story, is that the Russians provided the best known information about the mini-sub’s location to the Americans, who flew the Super-Scorpio into place to cut the submarine loose.
The choice of operational duties is telling, however. The United States Navy’s Deep Submergence Unit also has robot submarines capable of doing just what the Super-Scorpio performed. Also, earlier reports from Friday indicated that the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy already had rescue vessels in the immediate area. The reasons for choosing to move a specialized unit in this fashion is food for a great deal of speculation, but I think it was three-fold:
First, the history. In August of 2000, the Russian nuclear Submarine Kursk suffered an explosion and sank, killing all 118 crew members. The full explanation for why the Russian Government refused aid offered by other nations, including the United States and Britain, has never been presented and many never come out in public, but the Russians seem determined to avoid a similar blunder this time.
Second, geopolitics. Regarding the nature of the exercise, it is telling that Vladimir Putin is on better terms with President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, than with most of his European counterparts. This is in many ways a return to form for the Russians. As far back as Catherine the Great, Russia has been interested in learning the tactics and stratagems of both British and American naval officers, and when the Soviet Navy came into its own influence under Admiral Gorshkov, he was strongly influenced by Mahan and Corbett, although he was also properly impressed by the more recent examples from Halsey and Nimitz. It is extremely likely that under the present conditions, Admiral Federov is determined to glean as much information as he can with the UK-US navies, and to build as much trust as he can. This is because of the basic fact of Sea Power; no nation can hold any sort of regional hegemony and intercontinental influence, without a substantial navy. The empires of the past fell in large part because they were one-dimensional in their military force. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, the Persians, even the ancient Chinese kingdoms all fell because they could not defend their flanks from an enemy. Alexander introduced the use of naval action independent of land movements, which created a new level of mobility and power projection. The Romans carried this to the next level, and in the bargain gained a means to control trade shipping as well. Britain, as is now understood, perfected the use of Sea Power, building a far-flung empire by providing itself a means to reach virtually any nation on the globe with military force. The Japanese Navy introduced the next level of power projection through its development of a Carrier fleet, which notion the United States itself perfected, destroying the Japanese fleet in the same process. By 1945, the United States was the world’s clear military leader, in large part because of the multiple dimensions of attack available to its choice. Since that time, the gap between the United States and everyone else has simply grown to a chasm, then become a canyon, and is not likely to be caught in the foreseeable future. But the British are no slackers. While the United States has built its capital ships principally for power projection and nuclear deterrence and reconnaissance, the United Kingdom has built its forces to serve its needs. The 1982 Falklands War is seen by many people as an essential draw, but this is not the case; leaving aside the question of the terms of cease-fire, the United Kingdom proved that it was quite capable to sending a military force of whatever size was need, anywhere it is needed. The British habit of understatement has hidden the many successes in the field produced by their troops, but it’s worth noting that a regiment of SAS is to be prized or feared (depending on whether you are with them or against them) more than virtually any other group its size on the Earth. When military men want to improve themselves, they visit Quantico and Sandhurst if they can.
The final reason is obvious, by simply reading the news and noting a globe. The fall of the old Soviet Union hit the Russians hard, but especially their Navy. There are few resources for training and maintenance, which are critical elements for a functional navy. John Keegan sagely observed that a large piece of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, came from the keen edge of training the British sailors had. The Russians know this lesson well, but are ill-suited to scrape up the means to keep the Russian navy ready. And this provides a strategic threat that needs a look.
In the years leading up to World War 2, the intention of Japan to control Asia was plain, and the United States took action to prevent this through the imposition of stiff tariffs and a blockade. The invasion of China was planned by Japan, to provide it with key resources necessary for the war, but Japan failed to gain the necessary metals and oil to keep its industry functioning. China has studied this lesson for more than a half century, because of the same ambition, and like Japan, with a wary eye on American actions.
Siberia is a largely undeveloped portion of the world, largely due to its remote location and inhospitable climate. However, recent discoveries of certain exotic metals greatly increases the attractiveness of Siberia to a nation planning to greatly increase its manufacturing capabilities, especially in heavy industry, as China does. Also, China has made a number of claims over the past decade to oil fields located in the waters between the Philippines and Vietnam, and in the China Sea; there have even been attempts by Chinese naval forces to secure some of the disputed fields by chasing away civilian vessels with threats of personal capture or seizure of their vessels.
Russia has a strategic interest in preventing China from gaining such control of resources, and doubtless Putin has reminded Bush and Blair, that they also need to watch out for China’s intentions. There is no better signal for Russia to send, in the event of a naval incident like this, than to show the Chinese that the Americans and the British consider Russia a friend.
Finally, the rescue of the Russian mini-sub shows a welcome return to an old imperative, one worthy of recognition but lost long ago. As recently as World War 1, if a ship was sunk, all ships in the vicinity were expected to lend assistance in recovering survivors, even from an enemy vessel. In fact, failure to lend assistance was considered an inexcusable negligence, and could cost a captain his command and career. When German submarines sank ships without attempting to assist in rescue efforts (for which they were never designed, anyway), the British played up the incidents as evidence of barbarism. By World War 2, the chivalry to rescuing enemy combatants was long gone, and the Cold War saw no improvement in the practice.
The cooperation in the rescue effort this past weekend is a small but significant step, therefore, in the restoration in the Brotherhood of the Sea, and sets a precedent that will, if carried ahead, set a course to the advantage of every nation concerned.