In Russia there has been no lack of technical competence regarding the design and building of underwater vehicles—witness the Soviet production of more than 400 nuclear submarines during the Cold War.
Yet during most of the 1945–91 period, the Soviet Union never had more than three or four fully operational manned submersibles. Beginning with tethered vehicles in the mid-1950s, Russian “home-built” submersibles were very basic and not very successful in use. Open literature states that most of the early vehicles were used for fisheries research; in reality, they were probably used for military purposes. (Fisheries researchers in the West did not use manned submersibles.)
Operational success came from buying manned vehicles from outside the Soviet Union. In the mid-1970s, HYCO International in Canada built two Pisces-class submersibles for the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Operated by the P. P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, they were capable of diving to 6,500 feet. One of their best-known expeditions was to Lake Baikal in Siberia, the world’s deepest lake. There the Pisces dove to the deepest spot, 5,387 feet.
By the late ’70s Russian scientists wanted to go deeper, and work was undertaken to develop a 20,000-foot-capable submersible for both scientific and military missions. It would be built outside the Soviet Union, since Russian shipbuilding was focused on warship construction during the Cold War. However, there were serious technology-transfer restrictions between most Western countries and the Soviet Union, and it was difficult to find a submersible builder not bound by those restrictions. After much searching, Finland’s Rauma Repola Shipbuilding Company was selected. It was also decided that two submersibles would be built—a good idea, since one could assist the other during diving operations.
The vehicles were both named Mir, Russian for “peace.” Work began on the $50 million contract in the mid-1980s, and the two submersibles were launched and tested in1987. Shortly thereafter, a dedicated mother ship, the Akademik M. Keldysh, was assigned to the program.
Since their launching, and despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Mirs have undertaken a wide variety of successful diving expeditions worldwide under the guidance of program director Doctor Anatoly Sagalevitch. In the past four years, there has been an interesting manned-submersible revival in Russia. It probably began with the dive of the Mirs piloted by Sagalevich to the North Pole seafloor in 2007. On board was the well-known Russian Arctic scientist Artur Chilingarov. His polar explorations in the 1960s were recognized with the “Hero of the Soviet Union” award in 1986. Chilingarov was chief scientist for the North Pole expedition and was on board the Mir 1 when she dove to the true North Pole at 14,000 feet, where he planted his nation’s flag. He subsequently received the “Hero of the Russian Federation” award from President Vladimir Putin.
In 2010 the Russian navy announced the sea trials of two 20,000-foot-capable submersibles, the Konsul and Rus. From available information, it appears they had been under construction since the late 1980s, the waning years of the Cold War.
In a more surprising move, the Russian government announced the existence of a nuclear-powered “bathyscaph,” the Losharik, capable of operating to 10,000 feet. A second such vessel is reported to be under construction. President Putin announced they will be used for long-duration exploration in the Russian Arctic.
The Losharik, however, is not a new submersible. Rumors of the Soviets developing an equivalent to the U.S. Navy’s NR-1 nuclear-powered submersible were common in the 1970s. And there were other rumors that the Soviet Union had built four conventional “bathyscaphs” with 20,000-foot capabilities, one for each of their fleets. Those rumors were partially true. The submersible mentioned by Putin probably has been operational since the early 1980s. It was not openly known in the West as it was operated by the military for classified projects. Putin now believes unclassified operations in the Arctic will be more useful in showing Russia’s major investment and commitment there. It is reported that the second nuclear submersible will be used in this same way.
The bear is indeed diving, but much of the technological and operational capabilities can be thought of as “old wine in new bottles.” After his acclaimed North Pole dive, Dr. Chilingarov proposed that Russia develop a full-ocean-depth (36,000 feet) submersible. If it is built, it will represent significant new progress. Meanwhile, the very capable Mir submersibles continue to carry on their effective diving operations.