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Russian military set for a record-breaking deep dive

Russia’s military plans to test a specialized diving unit to an extreme depth of up to 450 meters in the next few months as the country seeks to revive one of the most complex – and dangerous – specializations of its navy.

If successful, that would smash the existing Guinness World Record for a deep dive, set in 2014 by Egyptian Special Forces Dive Instructor Ahmad Gabr, who in September of that year plunged 332 meters off the coast of Dahab in the Red Sea.

The Research Institute for Rescue and Underwater Technologies, together with a rescue team from the Russian navy, has started preparations for divers to descend to this depth, which would be a record for the country’s Pacific fleet.

The ultra-deep dive attempt will be done at an unspecified location in the country’s Far East region.

Russian aquanauts, as specialists in deep-sea diving are known, belong to a standalone detachment of the Russian navy. Their work takes place at the limits of human capabilities and its complexity could be comparable to a spacewalk.

These experts can be deployed for submarine rescue, military and other operations such as working on underwater communication lines, special aqua acoustic systems and the lifting of gear from depths. Russian naval sources declined to say whether the unit’s development has been prompted by the sinking of the submarine Kursk in 2000.

There has been no official record of aquanauts being used in combat to date.

The latest dive attempt has become feasible due to Russia upgrading its underwater technology. The navy at the end of 2012 commissioned a specialized ocean rescue vessel, the Igor Belousov, that contains a full-service diving complex.

Stationed at the port of Vladivostok, the 5,000-ton deadweight is equipped with sonar search systems and the Russian-made GVK-450 deep-sea diving unit. The diving unit is designed for 120 seats and is located on five decks in the middle of the vessel, occupying more than 20 percent of the volume of the hull. It utilizes five pressure chambers, which are further split into compartments, to accommodate 60 rescued seamen from a submarine. The complex also includes a life support system for regulating temperature and humidity, as well as oxygen saturation, removal of gaseous impurities and odors.

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The GVK-450 can deploy several apparatuses. The one with the deepest working depth is the remote-controlled drone “Seaeye Tiger”, that can drop to 1,000 meters.

For a descent with people aboard, there is the deep-sea search-and-rescue device called “Bester-1”, which has a working range to 720 meters and can hold 22 people. The device can dock with a submarine to allow for emergency evacuation.

The trickiest search and rescue, however, requires complex maneuvers that only divers can perform. For that depth, the currently envisioned working depth for the Russian system is 450 meters and requires the immersion of an elevator-like diving bell.

The bell chamber has the form of a vertical cylinder and is pierced with portholes. Inside, there is respiratory and hot-water support to accommodate two working divers, as well as space for one more diver who operates the equipment.

So far, the bell has been tested with human divers a depth of 317 meters – a Russian navy record for this kind of descent. During the attempt late last year, navy divers even performed a walk along the Pacific Ocean floor.

The walk and other work lasted only a few hours, but the divers spent about two weeks inside the bell chamber, which also acts as a living quarters, to complete the vital compression and decompression processes.

Increasing the depth of immersion and time of stay at depth dissolves more and more inert gases, such as nitrogen and helium, in the human body. On the way up, the inert gases dissolved in human tissues must be gradually removed. The process has to be carefully managed or it will lead to illness or death. Gabr’s decompression stops – after a 12-minute descent on its record-breaking Red Sea dive – took 15 hours.

After the 317-meter attempt and after analyzing various stages of experimental descent, Russian naval specialists say they are now ready to test themselves down to 450 meters. The descent is scheduled for the first half of 2018, as soon as the divers have completed all necessary training and doctors have pronounced their confidence in the operation.

“In the next three years, we expect the technology and process of conducting deep-sea dives to depths of around 400 meters to be more or less ironed out and practiced in sea conditions,” Captain 1st Rank Damir Shaikhutdinov, the head of search and rescue operations at the Russian Navy, told Asia Times.

The work is helping to revive one of the most complex and dangerous specializations in the Russian navy.

“The periodicity of saturated dives can be, for example, every two months. The more trained and experienced divers we have the better. After all, if, God forbid, an accident happens, we should have specialists ready, “said Viktor Ilyukhin, Doctor of Engineering and chairman of the Association for the Development of Search and Rescue Equipment and Technologies.

A submariner who participated in experimental dives, Anatoly Khromov, said he is sure it is possible and necessary to increase the frequency and depth of deep-sea diving. “Only training can help quicken a diver’s adaptation to ultra-depths,” Khromov said.

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