Photo of USS La Jolla (SSN-701).  Caption follows.

USS La Jolla (SSN-701), with the Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle Mystic (DSRV-1) mounted aft, is escorted by the Japanese Coast Guard as it pulls out of Sasebo harbor to participate in the submarine rescue exercise Pacific Reach 2002 on 25 April. Mystic was specifically designed to fill the need for an improved means of rescuing the crew of a submarine immobilized on the ocean floor. It can operate independent of surface conditions or under ice for rapid response to an accident anywhere in the world.

Pacific Reach 2002 puts Mystic to the Test
LTJG John Perkins, JO3 Wes Eplen, and JOC Michael Foutch contributed to this report.

Although the Submarine Force lost two submarines to accidents during the Cold War, it has been more than half a century since any of our boats have been stranded on the sea floor with survivors onboard needing rescue. Fortunately, the U.S. Navy's operational commanders have an effective insurance policy should this nightmare ever happen again. It's the Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle Mystic (DSRV-1), and this April in Sasebo, Japan, it was put to the test. 

Pacific Reach 2002, a precedent-setting, multi-nation submarine rescue exercise sponsored by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), focused on submarine rescue interoperability and cooperation among the five participating navies, JMSDF, Australia, Republic of Korea, Republic of Singapore, and the United States. Representatives from Canada, Chile, China, France, India, Indonesia, and the United Kingdom, while only observing the exercise, engaged in the exchange of information about submarine rescue techniques.

In addition to Mystic, the Pearl Harbor-based fast attack submarine USS La Jolla (SSN-701) and the U.S. Navy's only forward-deployed rescue and salvage ship, Sasebo-based USS Safeguard (ARS-50), also took part. Mystic herself was flown from San Diego to Japan for the event - a new "first" for the small undersea vehicle.

Rescuing sailors from a disabled submarine became a worldwide issue when the Russian submarine Kursk became stranded in the Barents Sea in August 2000, and 118 submariners lost their lives. "Unfortunately, in a hundred years of submarine history, many submarine accidents have occurred where the precious lives of submarine crews were lost," said JMSDF VADM Seizo Nakao, commander of Fleet Submarine Force and the host of Pacific Reach. "Countries possessing submarines must make the greatest efforts to prevent such accidents." He emphasized the importance of honing submarine rescue skills despite the slight chance of an accident actually occurring.

Submarines from the several exercise nations successively simulated a submarine with a catastrophic disability on the bottom of the ocean off the southwest coast of the island of Kyushu. Rescue vehicles from Japan, South Korea, and the United States retrieved sailors from these "disabled" submarines, giving everyone a chance to observe the rescue systems in use. During the evolution, a number of underwater exercises focused on submarine rescue cross-decked the countries' various deep submergence rescue vehicles. 

Photo of Crewmembers from La Jolla shift colors as they prepare to get underway to participate in the submarine rescue Photo of Members of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSFD) visit La Jolla to discuss the capabilities of
Crewmembers from La Jolla shift colors as they prepare to get underway to participate in the submarine rescue exercise Pacific Reach 2002. Members of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) visit La Jolla to discuss the capabilities of the DSRV Mystic.

"I believe that the gathering here of submarine-operating countries from around the world to exchange information on submarine rescue [will] aid greatly in the rescue of submarine crews," Nakao said.

"Since there are only eight U.S. submarines capable of landing a DSRV, and their normal operations could place them days away from a potential rescue site, the possibility exists that the U.S. would request the assistance of another country," said Commander, Submarine Development Squadron FIVE, CAPT Dale Nees, who served as the U.S. Navy commander for the exercise. "Therefore, international exercises such as Pacific Reach 2002 allow us to demonstrate interoperability while also enhancing regional coordination."

Some of the Pacific nations have very capable rescue systems, CDR Bill Orr, the Diving and Deep Submergence assistant on the Submarine Warfare Division (N77) staff, asserted. "For example, the Japanese rescue ship Chihaya is a very capable ship with a DSRV similar to the U.S. vehicle, plus some additional improvements such as an electromagnetic attachment ring for positioning it on the seating surface."

CDR Orr also pointed out while the U.S. has long operated and tested submarine rescue techniques in the NATO theater, "getting Pacific nations together in this humanitarian area is a significant step forward in that region and is a way to maximize worldwide capability while minimizing costs.

"We don't want to duplicate research that others are doing. We are all trying to solve the same problems in survivability, escape, and rescue. Collaborating on projects and research enables us to optimize scarce research funding." 

Photo of La Jolla, with Mystic attached, and the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force exercise command and control ship JDS Bungo (MST-464)
The fast attack submarine La Jolla, with Mystic attached, and the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force exercise command and control ship JDS Bungo (MST-464), steam to the operating area off the coast of Kyushu on 26 April during exercise Pacific Reach 2002.

The U.S. has pushed development in cold water survivability research for submarine escape and has issued the fleet improved thermal protection immersion suits with attached individual life rafts, which were designed by the British. Pacific Reach allowed a free exchange of ideas from nations such as Singapore, who have researched survival techniques for heat exposure and dehydration.

As only the second Pacific theater exercise of its type to be conducted - the last was in Singapore in 2000 - Pacific Reach provided more than just a chance to share technical and engineering information. In a first-time symposium on biomedical aspects of surviving escape and decompression, the various Pacific nations shared discoveries that might save sailors on a stricken boat.

Major concerns of dive medicine include decompression sickness, saturation, hypothermia, burns, hypoxia, near drowning, toxic gas exposure, cardiac complications, and psychological trauma. Studies were presented on subjects ranging from new technologies and products for treating survivors and extending survival time inside a disabled submarine, to medical storage space aboard a submarine and the handling of mass casualties aboard a supporting rescue ship.

"Medical supplies obviously vary widely among ten different nations, and it is hard to predict what supplies might or might not be available to a submarine [rescue] provider," said Royal Australian Navy LCDR Sarah Sharkey during the symposium in Sasebo. "And space is always a concern." 

Photo of Pacific Reach event.  Caption follows.
An officer from La Jolla explains the capabilities of the DSRV Mystic to a JMSDF officer.

Mystic operated from La Jolla to mate with foreign submarines, while Safeguard supported the exercises as a command platform and provided communication support to the submarines and DSRVs involved. The salvage and rescue ship has a medical ward and recompression chamber specifically tailored to providing medical treatment to divers. The medical technicians onboard are trained to treat dive-related injuries and illness. These assets brought capabilities to exercise Pacific Reach that would be indispensable in any real submarine rescue operation.

"We are primarily standing by to assist in recovery operations by providing support should any of the divers suffer from dive-related illness," said HT1(SS) Russell McCormick, a diver aboard Safeguard. The crew of the ship will also be able to use the experiences and knowledge they gained from Pacific Reach should they be called on to assist in a real-world rescue operation.

Specifically designed to fill the need for an improved means of rescuing the crew of a submarine immobilized on the ocean floor, Mystic can operate independently of surface conditions or under ice for rapid response to an accident anywhere in the world. As the Navy's only operational DSRV, Mystic is always maintained at the highest state of readiness. Able to be transported by truck, aircraft, surface ship, or submarine, Mystic is capable to reach a disabled sub almost anywhere in the world.

"We haven't used the DSRV for an actual rescue, but we did stand by and ramp up to mobilize for the incident with the Kursk," CDR Orr said of the San Diego-based deep submergence team. The Mystic team performs weekly underwater training off the California coast, practicing with a simulated mating surface fitted to an artificial hull on the ocean floor. They also have gone on alert during a "Sub Look," a time when a submarine is overdue in reporting or when other indications of trouble appear.

"The purpose of going on alert during a 'Sub Look' is that we're trying to minimize mobilization times. While confirming that a submarine has been disabled the deep submergence team starts making preparations to deploy." CDR Orr said. "Because of the limited amount of survivability stores [on board], if we wait a few hours until we know, that could be the difference between life and death."

"Because we have to be rescue-ready, if something breaks, we go all out until it's fixed," said MM1(SS) Bill Smith, quality assurance supervisor and copilot of Mystic. "Everyone works as long as it takes, because if we aren't rescue-ready, there are submarines that can't come out of dry dock, can't go on alpha trials, and can't do sea trials. We have to be there for them." 

Photo of USS Safeguard.  Caption follows. Photo of Navy L/T COL Mike Ong  and U.S. Navy CDR Gary Latson.  Caption follows.
Our only forward-deployed rescue and salvage ship, USS Safeguard (ARS-50), steams off the coast of Kyushu on 28 April. Safeguard, along with La Jolla and Mystic, were the U.S. Navy participants in exercise Pacific Reach. Royal Singapore Navy L/T COL Mike Ong (right) and U.S. Navy CDR Gary Latson (middle) discuss their embarkation in the JMSDF DSRV Angler Fish 2.  

In an inherently dangerous business, the DSRV provides a safety net if things go wrong, much like an ejection seat on a fighter jet or a lifeboat onboard a ship.

Like the DSRV, exercise Pacific Reach was also specifically designed to improve submarine rescue capabilities. Operating with foreign submarines presents many new challenges to the Mystic crew, but since she is the only U.S. vehicle of its kind, they are accustomed to operating under experimental conditions. Each new situation is seen as an opportunity to learn.

"Different layouts present different challenges. That's what we look for," said STSC(SS) Todd Litke, leading chief petty officer for Mystic. "It's great training because we could be called at any time to work with submarines that we've never seen before."

Mystic's outer hull is about 50 feet long and eight feet in diameter. A shock mitigation system allows it to mate with the hatch combing on a submarine's rescue and escape trunk. The vessel can attach to a submarine in nearly any orientation, and a skirt allows a watertight seal to be made between the DSRV and a submarine with a list up to 45. After the seal is made, the sub's upper access hatch can be opened to evacuate the stranded submariners. Capable of transporting 24 submariners at a time from the disabled sub to rescue support ships, Mystic is manned by a pilot, a copilot, and two life-support personnel who provide care to the rescued victims.

"I love this job," Smith said. "This is absolutely the best job in the United States Navy. There are a lot of very unique things we can do. We can do oceanic research, we can do rescue, even recovery if we need to. It is an awesome job because you get to do such a diversity of things. And at 2,000 feet you get to see things you never thought you would see," he added. 

Photo of DSRV Angler Fish 2.  Caption follows.
The 40-ton Japan Maritime Self Defense Force DSRV Angler Fish 2 is lowered through a well in the JMSDF submarine rescue ship JDS Chihaya.

Mystic can be carried to a rescue scene aboard surface support ships, but eight U.S. submarines are specially out-fitted to "piggyback" the DSRV. Transporting Mystic on a mother submarine gets the DSRV to the immediate vicinity of a disabled submarine very quickly. From there, Mystic deploys and moves directly to conduct the rescue. 
"To man our DSRV, break away from the mother submarine, locate and mate to a disabled submarine, transfer all personnel, and come back should take only four to five hours," said Litke.

Since its construction nearly 30 years ago, Mystic has undergone extensive upgrades and is widely recognized as one of the most sophisticated submersible vehicles in the world. It stands ready every day to support the submarine rescue needs of the U.S. Navy and its allies. Even though the team in San Diego prepares daily for rescue efforts, CDR Orr is candid in noting where the U.S. submarine community places its priorities.

"We put our resources on prevention, we spend a significant amount of time and effort on our Subsafe program," the rescue officer said. "If you never have to rescue anyone, that's the best thing. We want to mitigate or eliminate a possible sinking. It's not an insignificant effort to make sure your subs don't go to the bottom." It's also not surprising that the U.S. and other nations have deemed escape and rescue as a small insurance policy in the event of an unforeseen tragedy.

"The British, for example, use the term duty-of-care," CDR Orr said. "They have a somewhat more comprehensive submarine rescue program. Other countries are beyond us in end-to-end capability, from first responders to mobile compression chambers, and even using parachute assistance. They also have responders parachute into the DISSUB site and toss life rafts out of planes." In an emergency, he said the U.S. Navy would likely deploy SEAL teams and request Coast Guard assistance, but these measures have not yet been exercised. 

"There are plenty of ideas to broaden submarine capability exercises, such as a no-notice call out, and end-to-end exercises," CDR Orr said. "We would run stopwatches to see how fast they respond. Starting with alertment from the new submarine emergency positioning buoy (SEPIRB) - throw it in the water and go through COSPAS SARSAT [the search and rescue satellite systems] and have everyone go through the alert and mobilization from the fleet and type commanders, through DEVRON FIVE, to the Deep Submergence Unit. You could call the Air Force for the location of the nearest C-5, move the gear out of the DSU hangar all the way down to the pier and actually go out and mate to the false seat in the ocean to simulate a downed SSBN and rescuing 155 people. The DSU team has proven them- selves to be very capable, but we need to formulate and test our entire U.S. response plan." 

Even so, CDR Orr was impressed with the multinational exercise. "In the four years I've been here, this was the most successful exercise of the DSRV. In my opinion, you don't grade readiness on an exercise; you grade it on the operation. So problems in an exercise are a good thing. With a flawless exercise, you don't get any lessons learned. If you can guarantee 100-percent repeatability of a flawless exercise, you don't need lessons learned. Our goal is to work toward a seamless network of people who operate at a higher level of risk in the event of a tragedy to maximize readiness and minimize mobilization." 

Recently, the U.S. Navy signed an agreement with Sweden as preparations were made for Exercise Sorbet Royal in the Atlantic. With this agreement, CDR Orr said, even if a U.S. submarine were crippled in U.S. territorial waters, they could expect help from that Scandinavian nation as well as the U.K. and Australia, who already enjoy cooperative accords with the U.S. Navy to maximize our rescue capability. 

Photo of DSRV Angler Fish 2.  Caption follows.
Japan Maritime Self Defense Force personnel on Chihaya move the 40-ton JMSDF DSRV Angler Fish 2 into position for deployment during the exercise

To provide realism and to provide another opportunity for multinational cooperation during Pacific Reach, the Deep Submergence Team also came on alert as USS San Francisco (SSN-711) departed Norfolk for sea trials. "We go to a higher state of readiness and alert, because, coming out of overhaul, there's a slightly higher potential for an accident. This time, for the first time, we coordinated with countries we have rescue agreements with, like the U.K. and Sweden to ensure they were available at the same time." 

For participating nations, Pacific Reach proved an effective way to foster relationships between other countries. "Not only do we improve our submarine rescue capability, we build mutual trust among the participating navies," said the JMSDF National Coordinator, CAPT Masao Kabayashi, Commander, Submarine Flotilla Two. 

The Singapore National Coordinator believes the exercise "promotes friendships," said LT COL Cyril Lee. "This helps to engage the nations in the region and produces an avenue to interact with each other." "I believe that we navy personnel gathering together here to deepen our relationship of mutual trust will contribute to the peace and stability of the region, and the prosperity of each nation," VADM Nakao said. "In our view, the merit earned through participation in multilateral exercises is not limited to improving the Self Defense Force's skills," said Yoshihiko Yamashita, Japan's parliamentary secretary for defense. "Through joint drills and exchanges of ideas, multilateral exercises make a significant contribution to promoting mutual understanding and confidence-building among countries."

Compiled by JOC Foutch, a Military Editor for UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine. LTJG Perkins and JO3 Eplen were assigned to
Commander, Task Force 76 Public Affairs to cover Pacific Reach 2002.

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