Valery Aleksin Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 12-13, 2000
A month passed after August 12, 2000, when the Kursk, the latest nuclear-powered submarine of the Northern Fleet carrying 24 powerful supersonic antiship guided missiles Granit and the same number of sophisticated torpedoes and commanded by Captain 1st Class Gennady Lyachin, one of the best submariners in the Russian Navy, struck disaster 108 meters below surface in the Barents Sea in the course of a tactical exercise. The crew, all 118 submariners, died.
This is the not the worst catastrophe in the Navy as far as the death toll is concerned (600 officers and enlisted men were killed in 1955 when the destroyer Novorissisk blew up in Sevastopol). It is, however, the worst in terms of helplessness of the crew. The disaster was so fast that only the Lord Himself could have helped the Kursk crew. Even the crew of the submarine Komsomolets that died in the Norwegian Sea on April 7, 1989, could have been rescued from the doomed ship within the first 1.5 to 2 hours after the Mayday signal. Had the search-and-rescue system worked, that is. The Komsomolets floated on the surface for five hours before going down to the seabed for good.
Not so the Kursk whose crew did not have the time. Neither did 98 crewmembers of the submarine K-129 of the Pacific Fleet have it on the night on March 8, 1968, even though the submarine was on the surface. Patrolling the northern part of the Pacific, it was rammed by the American submarine Swordfish. The blow connected with the section of the hull between sections two and three (the latter one containing the central post and the command post where all officers happened to be at the moment). The blow all but cut the Soviet submarine in two. Submariners in sections two and three of the K-129 died in the first five to ten seconds following the collision. The rest were killed by pressure when the submarine was sliding to the seabed five kilometers below (see “Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye”, No 9, 1998, “Nezavisimaya Gazeta”, No 50, 1999, “Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye”, No 11, 1999).
Fire cost the Northern Fleet the submarine K-8 when it was returning from the station in the Northern Atlantic in April 1970. The submarine and 52 servicemen were lost.
National tragedies as they undoubtedly were, these disasters were kept under the lid on the decision of the top leadership of the country. General public was never informed of the submariners’ heroism, and even their relatives were not told the true circumstances of the deaths, much less the true reasons.
Commotion around the Kursk
Tragic nature of the situation with the Kursk was aggravated by the unprecedented openness and availability of reports from domestic and foreign media which covered literally every minute of the unfolding drama. The media highlighted all actions and quoted Russian and foreign officials, servicemen, submariners’ relatives, and ordinary residents of the Russian Federation and foreign countries. Statements of officials and numerous experts (not all of them half as professional as they would have us believe) who depended for the information on the media included such controversial evaluations and conclusions that they only added to the general confusion doing nothing constructive to clarify the situation. This state of affairs is what we still have.
It is easy to understand the Northern Fleet command and specifically Northern Fleet Commander Admiral Vyacheslav Popov who was at the site of the tragedy at sea. The first examinations of the huge submarine (length 154 meters, breadth 18 meters, and height 19 meters) by autonomous deep-sea craft provided only insufficient data (visibility this close to the seabed was limited to 1.5 meters at best). Yet, Popov was forced to answer numerous questions put forth by Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeev and Navy Commander-in-Chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov in Moscow. As of 0700 hours on August 13, on the basis of the data obtained from Popov, Sergeev and Kuroyedov in turn reported to Vladimir Putin, President and Supreme Commander-in-Chief vacating in the spa town of Sochi. Popov and his headquarters updated their reports as soon as the latest information became available. Unfortunately, the situation was but steadily deteriorating.
The data in officials’ confusing statements and information from PR departments which did not know anything either did not provide a clear picture of what had happened to the Kursk, what its condition was, what had happened to the crew (at least in the sections closer to the stern), what means the search-and-rescue service of the Northern Fleet was deploying to reach the submarine and get the survivors out, or what could be done to up efficiency of rescue efforts.
It is first and foremost because of this state of affairs that the media had a field day, coming up with all sorts of harebrained speculations.
We are not going to discuss here the matter of assistance offered by some NATO countries. Rescue teams would have never reached the site of the catastrophe in time (even forty-eight hours was too long a time, and nobody would have reached the side in that time). Ilya Klebanov, Deputy Premier and chairman of the governmental commission investigating the Kursk disaster was quoted as saying on September 6, that “The whole crew died in a matter of minutes.” Klebanov made the announcement four weeks after the catastrophe even though it does not take a genius to understand that he must have known it well before that.
The governmental commission does not know much
It goes without saying that nobody can say with any degree of accuracy exactly what caused the catastrophe. Everybody awaits conclusions of the governmental commission chaired by Klebanov. It comprises representatives of the Navy, Central Design Bureau of Naval Equipment Rubin (where the Kursk was designed), shipbuilders, and specialists of the Nuclear Energy Ministry and other concerned ministries and departments.
The commission has begun is work already. Its findings will be complete, however, only when bodies of the submariners are lifted from the Kursk along with the ship papers and documents logging events in the submarine and around it prior to the catastrophe. Their analysis and analysis of documents from combat information centers of other ships involved in the exercise, documents from the exercise headquarters, conversations with servicemen at the centers, captains, and exercise commanders, their reports (as specified by Navy regulations and Emergencies and Catastrophes Investigation Rules), and simulation of the situation run by computers will allow the governmental commission to discard hypotheses based on subjective opinions and to establish objective causes of the disaster. All fragments of submarines and their external equipment should be immediately lifted from the seabed and scrutinized.
The job will take several months and may actually end when the Kursk is brought to the surface again next summer, when the commission has had a chance to see confirmation of its conclusions with its own eyes.
Investigation of the catastrophe of the Komsomolets, for example, lasted a year and revealed to submarine designers (and submariners themselves for that matter) certain things they had never even been aware of. It turned out the freon, basic element of the submarine chemical firefighting system, inflames under the temperatures of over 500 degrees. Stern sections of the Komsomolets were ravaged by fire with temperatures approaching 1,000 degrees with nothing to put it out with.
What caused the explosion?
The media speculated on at least a dozen of hypotheses of what might have happened to the Kursk. Only one or two of them survived the month. Only one, actually. The submarine was killed by detonation of the torpedoes in the tubes aft and, probably, the torpedoes stored in the first section. Opinions on what could cause the calamitous detonation differ. One hypothesis assumes that everything happened in a torpedo attack drill when engine of a training torpedo unexpectedly blew up before it cleared the tube. The first section took water which shorted out electric circuits. Control over the submarine was lost, and the Kursk nosedived eventually hitting the seabed. On the other hand, submarines of the Project 949 (there were two of them in all, both withdrawn from service) and Project 949A (with the Kursk, there were eleven of them in the Navy) have executed total of almost 1,000 torpedo attack drills and never reported emergencies with torpedo engines.
The other hypothesis assumes that the submarine fell victim of external factors. Mass of the external influence does not have even to approach that of the Kursk. A dynamic impact and 1,000-2,000 tons are sufficient to damage the drives and the aft casing of the torpedo tube and to cause the live torpedo in it to detonate. This correspondent saw it with his own eyes (without the live torpedo, of course, and with the distance between two objects closing with the relative velocity of 0.5 meters per second). 10 mm thick aft casings made of steel get dented and wrapped as though they are made of rice paper.
We now have the latest information on the situation in the Barents Sea where the Northern Fleet ran its exercise, on the condition of the Kursk itself, and on reaction of some foreign officials and structures. Let us venture a preliminary analysis of the disaster and its possible causes on the basis of the latest reports.
A submariner myself and a kind of professional investigator specializing in serious emergencies in the Navy, over the last 25 years of my service (I retired in 1998) I personally participated in investigation of almost 70 emergencies with ships of the Soviet and Russian Navy, Sea Transportation Ministry, Fishing Ministry, and other union and federal ministries and ships of NATO countries. Moreover, I analyzed the causes of almost 1,000 emergencies by the description in annual almanacs Soviet Navy had been publishing every year sine 1931. Such almanacs are still published.
History of emergencies under water
Known emergencies include several dozens collisions of submarines and the latter in turn include about twenty collisions with foreign submarines. Eleven of them occurred at combat training sites en route to naval bases of the Northern and Pacific fleets (correspondingly eight and three).
Collisions with submarines of the Northern Fleet:
– 1968: nuclear submarine K-131 collided with an American nuclear submarine which was never identified afterwards. Assuming the Soviet submarine lost for good, the Americans concealed the fact of the collision from general public, journalists, and even from the Greenpeace;
– 1969: nuclear submarine K-19 collided with the nuclear submarine Gateau of the US Navy;
– 1970: nuclear submarine K-69 collided with an American nuclear submarine which was never identified;
– 1981: nuclear submarine K-211 collided with an American nuclear submarine which was never identified;
– 1983: nuclear submarine K-449 collided with an American nuclear submarine which was never identified;
– 1986: nuclear submarine TK-12 collided with the nuclear submarine Splendid of Her Majesty’s Navy;
– April 1992: nuclear submarine K-276 collided with the nuclear submarine Baton Rouge of the US Navy in Russian territorial waters;
– March 1993: nuclear submarine Borisoglebsk collided with the nuclear submarine Graling of the US Navy.
Collisions with submarines of the Pacific Fleet:
– June 1970: nuclear submarine K-108 collided with the nuclear submarine Totogue of the US Navy at the combat training site close to the Kamchatka;
– 1974: nuclear submarine K-408 and the nuclear submarine Pintado of the UN Navy collided in approximately the same area;
– 1981: nuclear submarine K-324 collided with an unidentified American submarine of the Los Angeles class in the Peter the Great Bay not far from Vladivostok.
In other words, all recorded emergencies at combat training sites involve American nuclear submarines gathering ELINT data in the vicinity of our naval bases and recording “noises” typical of Russian (and Soviet before that) submarines within the framework of the Operation Howleystone. American captains were paid hefty money for this kind of work.
As a rule, American submarines stayed in the “dead zone” (shadow zone) of their opposite numbers’ acoustic systems and therefore could not be detected. Maneuvering (changing depth or direction), submarines could not avoid a collision even when acoustic contacts were established because their time was up and data on the other submarine’s whereabouts was clearly insufficient.
The United States never confirms collisions
This way collisions of submarines took place under virtually uncontrolled circumstances and resulted in serious consequences. It was so in June 1970 when the USS Totogue collided with the Soviet nuclear submarine K-108 which was then commanded by Captain 1st Class Boris Bagdasarjan. The K-108 went to the periscope depth to report to the base, found itself temporarily concealed from the foreign ship by the hydrological “sonic leap” layer, and went to the previous depth shortly afterwards. Acoustics immediately established contact with turbines of a foreign nuclear submarine starboard. The contact was shifting position rapidly, the submarine was fairly close to the K-108 and gaining. Shortly afterwards the noise disappeared (discovering the Soviet submarine but lacking exact data on the distance between them, the foreign ship must have been maneuvering to the left so as to get back into her previous position from which tracking the Soviet captain had been easier). A minute later the K-108 stern sustained a serious blow, and the submarine went down. Submarine’s aft considerably lower than stern, the gradient was such that everybody within was thrown off his feet. Only the captain and the engineer somehow kept their balance. The latter was clinging to the main tanks emergency blowing system gear. Operating the system manually, he blew the aft tanks, and the catastrophic gradient (40 degrees) began lessening. The engineer went on methodically blowing central and stern tanks and the submarine surfaced. The ocean was empty.
Probably aware of their spying missions all too well, American submarines do not surface in the wake of such incidents as a rule. Captain of the USS Totogue must have decided that the Soviet submarine was dead (acoustic data indicates that this was a logical conclusion to be drawn) and sinking (the seabed in the area was logged at the depth of 2.5 kilometers). The K-108 reported the incident to headquarters, went down, and immediately picked up the noise of the American submarine disappearing in the distance.
Along with the skill of the crew, the Soviet submarine was saved by the fact that the upper structure of the USS rammed her in the least fragile spot of the hull – the cast iron structure of the right shaft fixed in the right stern stabilizer beyond the solid hull in the stern. The blow drove the structure more than a meter into the light hull, the thick shaft bent like a straw and stuck. As a kind of weird souvenir, the K-108 retained a two-meter piece of the US submarine’s periscope (in the down position, closed by the upper structure mesh and breaker screen) and some elements and pieces of the Totogue’s upper structure. Had the blow connected with the K-108 hull fifteen or twenty meters closer to the aft, she would have been done in as it had happened to the submarine K-129 two years before.
When the submarine K-129 died in 1968, the US Navy command must have instructed its nuclear submarines to be more cautious tracking Soviet submarines. Yet, only two years later a virtually identical incident occurred. Blaming himself for inadequacy, USS Totogue Commander (Captain 2nd Class) Bill Balderstone brought the submarine to Pearl Harbor, resigned, embraced religion, gone mad, and died seven years later. The Americans actually thought the K-129 lost. This belief lasted until 1992 when Joshua Handler, science coordinator of the organization Greenpeace who specialized in emergencies with Russian nuclear-powered combatants, was invited to Badgasarjan’s apartment in Moscow and shown the piece of the USS Totogue periscope. American journalists Sherry Zontag and Christopher Drew described this and other similar incidents in the book Blind Bluff. Unknown History of American Underwater Espionage published in New York in 1998. The book includes photos of captains of the involved submarines. Neither Washington nor London ever admitted collisions through their foreign ministries or naval headquarters.
Every now and then American submarines got the worst of it. It was so in February 1992, when our nuclear submarine K-276 (under Captain 2nd Class Igor Lokot) collided with the USS Baton Rouge of the Los Angeles class at a combat training site in Russian territorial waters.
It should be noted that most of these collisions occurred in the periods of deteriorating international situation: 1968-1970, 1979-1981, 1983, and 1986.
The Cold War over and geopolitical and ideological contest between Russia and the United States history (at least as far as Moscow was concerned), we withdrew our submarines from the waters near the American coast in 1992 but American plans of submarine deployment remained virtually unchanged. More than that, commander of the American submarine Gordon Kremer got into the Russian territorial waters to watch the K-276 involved in combat training near the Russian shore. The Russian submarine was stripped of all weapons that could jeopardize the territory of the United States. Tracking the Russian submarine, Kremer ordered a number of dumb maneuvers jeopardizing both submarines and finally lost contact with the K-276. In an attempt to get his bearings again, Kremer ordered the submarine to the periscope death, forsaking any chance of reacquiring acoustic contact. This is how the American submarine found itself in the K-276’s dead zone (it was above the Russian submarine).
Keeping the timetable of contacts with the base, Lokot ordered the submarine to the periscope depth without bothering to check the situation on the surface. Approaching the periscope depth, the K-276 struck the American submarine and dented and holed her solid hull in several places. Fortunately, the holes were rather small, and the Baton Rouge was able to make it to her base. Her hull sustained internal damage which rendered repair inadvisable. The submarine was withdrawn from combat composition of the US Navy and her commander was grounded (a rare occurrence in the US Navy). The K-276 was back in service in a year. Had the K-276 begun surfacing seven or ten seconds earlier, she would have struck the USS with her aft where the hull is particularly strong. Holed, the American submarine would have been done in. Or live torpedoes in the K-276 tubes might have detonated killing both submarines instantly. It would have happened at the entrance to the Kola Bay, ten miles from the shore, in the area all ships bound for Murmansk and Severomorsk and back pass.
Paradoxical as it may seem, but neither Norwegian environmentalists nor the international Greenpeace uttered a single word about the potential danger of contamination this particular accident presented to coasts of the northern Russia and all of Scandinavia.
The Graling and the Borisoglebsk
A better understanding of what happened to the Kursk requires that we consider the collision of Russian and American nuclear submarines in 1993.
The Borisoglebsk, a boomer, was performing combat training tasks at the site 100 miles to the north of the area of the aforementioned collision. The northern border of the designated area approached, the Borisoglebsk turned back. Her velocity was only four knots. Twenty-five minutes later the Borisglebsk felt impact, some screeching noise followed, and acoustics reported noises of a foreign submarine close by. The intruder kicked up its velocity to 23 knots to clear the area. Investigation uncovered that the USS Graling had been tracking the Borisoglebsk from a position 155-165 degrees to the left and from the distance of between eleven and thirteen kilometers. The Grailing lost contact with the Russian submarine when the latter changed course. To reacquire, she rushed to the location of contact loss with the velocity of eight to ten knots or between fifteen and eighteen point five kph.
There is a certain acoustic phenomenon and seasoned submariners know it. In the sector of 30 to 40 aft degrees submarine noises (screws, turbines, circulation pumps, and autonomous generators) are screened by the hull which creates a sort of “acoustic channel”. From above, noise diagram of a submarine resembles a squirrel in form. That is why when two submarine approach one another head-on, each detects the other when the distance is haphazardly small. Acoustics of the Graling detected the Borisoglebsk by the method of noise triangulation (the major method of detection in all navies because it provides stealth) at the distance of about a kilometer. With the distance closing and the combat information center still trying to decide on the best way of avoiding a collision, captain of the Graling saw from what data was available that a collision was inevitable. All his attempts to change course and surface were thwarted by momentum of the submarine and a collision followed. Fortunately, the blow connected with the upper structure and the Borisoglebsk did not sustain any serious damage. Had the Borisglebsk been hit 30-40 meters closer to the stern where the ICBMs were stored, consequences of the collision might have been truly unpredictable. This is “closing the distance blind” for you.
Who sank the K-219 in the Northern Atlantic?
All the rest of the collisions (including the incident with the submarine K-129) occurred during the Cold War on the routes to or at the stations our boomers were assigned to (when they were tracked by nuclear submarines of the “potential enemy”) or on the routes to the enemy naval bases (when Soviet ASW submarines were assigned to data-gathering missions). There are some mysteries here as well, and on more than one occasion the Americans went out of their way to make sure that all facts would never be known. The most vivid example concerns the strategic submarine K-219 of the Northern Fleet which sank in the Sargasso Sea on October 6, 1986. Three days earlier fire broke out abroad the submarine in a missile tube. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had been informed of the incident by US President Ronald Reagan even before the defense minister and Navy commander reported in and before the headquarters received a signal from the K-219. Note it, because something appallingly similar will occur in August 2000.
In October 1986 the boomer K-219 was patrolling its station in the Northern Atlantic. The submarine surfaced in the night to make contact with the headquarters. When neither the visual means nor passive listening revealed any other ship in the area, the K-219 began diving. About 65 meters below the surface the submarine rocked and acoustics reported noises of a fishing trawler. The noises were recorded. When the submarine was about 80 meters below the surface, submariners in the missile section reported that the fire alarm had kicked on. General alarm was sounded. Try as it might, the crew could not put out the fire. Three submariners died in the missile section of the K-219. Poisonous vapor (missile fuel oxidizer) threatened to spread all over the submarine through the air-conditioning system and Captain 2nd Class Igor Britanov ordered the submarine to the surface. The horizon was empty, no trawlers, no nothing. To shut down the reactors, Britanov ordered their compensating grids fixed. Enlisted man Sergei Preminin died accomplishing the mission. He became Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously.
All submariners were brought topside. They saw a deep groove running across missile tubes covers and ending on the tube where fire was reported. The groove was glistening, as though covered with graphite. Auxiliary ships were summoned, and attempts to tow the submarine to the shore took the following two days. Unfortunately, the submarine took water through the damaged missile tube. Water found its way to other sections of the submarine through the air-conditioning system, and the K-219 sank on October 6. Its crew evacuated, the submarine rests on the seabed four kilometers below the surface now.
A governmental commission had a spectral analysis made of the noises recorded during the diving on October 3. The analysis identified the noises as belonging to an American Los Angeles class nuclear submarine. It means that when the tube ceased being airtight due to collision with the foreign submarine, the missile in it was crushed (it was cleared only for the pressure of to 50 atmospheres). All of that resulted in a fire. That November USS Ogasta of this type was docked for repairs after collision with some unidentified object. The assumption was inevitable – the K-219 had been rammed by the Ogasta.
Returning to her base, nuclear submarine K-457 of the Northern Fleet collided with a fisherman (the Kalininsk) at the testing sites of the Northern Fleet in December 1986. When the commission under Admiral Grigory Bondarenko investigated the incident it discovered some damage to the aft part of the upper structure and a groove running across missile tube covers like the one displayed by the K-219. The groove was shallower, the fact that undoubtedly spared the submarine serious trouble. Analysis of recorded noises indicated that the groove was a corollary of a collision on October 30 in a wholly different area of the Atlantic, where intelligence had reported the USS Ogasta. Who had rammed the K-219 then? Why did the CIA and US Navy Command leak information only on the USS Ogasta? As I see it, the answer is pretty clear. Consequences of the two collisions must differ. The submarine that had ripped the K-219 wide open was quietly repaired somewhere while the USS Ogasta was in the spotlight. By the way, USS Pintado left similar grooves on missile tube covers of the nuclear submarine K-408 of the Pacific Fleet when the two “met” at the combat testing site in 1974.
Tactical exercise of the Northern Fleet was the final element of planned training of the aircraft-carrying multipurpose group. Headed by the cruiser Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov, the group was supposed to sail out to the Mediterranean this fall together with ships of the Baltic and Black Sea fleets. The sortie had been planned in line with President Putin’s decree on “Fundamentals of naval policy of the Russian Federation before 2010” (April 4, 2000). It was supposed to mark Russia’s return to this key region after a ten-year absence. It goes without saying that the planned sortie was in the focus of attention of NATO and American, British, and Norwegian defense department. When the international community was duly informed of borders of the exercise area, these countries dispatched additional intelligence-gathering assets there.
They included USS Memphis and USS Toledo of the US Navy and HMS Splendid (Great Britain). These submarines have been operating in the Barents Sea for years. American and Norwegian intelligence ships monitored situation on the surface while Russian submarines were being tracked by the three nuclear submarines as the three most effective ASW assets.
All planned shooting exercises involving antiaircraft and antiship missiles and appropriate targets were carried out on August 10 and 11. The Kursk also launched a Granit missile against a maritime target. The launch was a success. On August 12, submarines were planned to drill torpedo attacks against “the enemy” – the heavy nuclear-powered missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky and escorts. The enemy’s course ran to southeast with attacking submarines stationed along it. The Kursk was also given its own theater of operations – an area fifteen by twenty miles.
What happened to the Kursk?
Some cliches inevitably kick in (concerning the way such exercises are traditionally run, for example, and concerning the tactic usually deployed by multipurpose submarines) when the events that followed are described. Arriving at the designated station, the submarine reported in, moved to the southern border watching the environment, and turned back in the northwestern direction. The submarine rose to the periscope depth (19 meters) to snoop on “the enemy”. Apart from the periscope, she elevated telescopic ELINT gear, communication antennae, security-providing radar for special modes of operation, and probably the high-pressure air replenishment shaft (the submarine had already spent over forty-eight hours at sea). Stormy surface conditions caused the captain to take additional ballast into the tanks at the periscope depth. The velocity was about eight knots. At noon on August 12 “the enemy” was maneuvering approximately 30 miles (55 kilometers) southwest of the Kursk.
The foreign submarine was also approaching the Kursk from this direction. She had been tracking the Russian submarine for two days but had lost contact because of all the maneuvering. The foreign submarine was in a hurry to reacquire it. Twenty minutes later the Kursk was still nowhere to be found. Captain of the foreign submarine decided to raise her to the periscope depth to see what was going on (the Kursk could be on the surface for all he knew). Depths between 50 meters and the periscope depth are known by submariners throughout the world as very dangerous (that is when collisions are apt to occur). They are usually scaled with the velocity close to 12 knots.
Approaching her periscope depth of 14-15 meters the foreign submarine unexpectedly struck the Kursk in the upper part of the starboard closer to the aft where a torpedo tune loaded with a live fish USET-80 was located. Only two tubes of the Kursk were carrying practice torpedo, the remaining four were loaded with two USET-80s and two 65-76s. After all, the Kursk was a permanent combat readiness ship. Moreover, she had eighteen torpedoes on the racks in the first sections.
Collision of two submarines is not like a traffic accident at all. The involved cars remain virtually on the spot. Momentum of the two underwater objects, however, one with the mass of almost 24,000 tons (the Kursk) and the other 6,900 tons (a Los Angeles class submarine) or 4,500 tons (the HMS Splendid) carries them on with the same velocity. In this case, relative velocity on the almost head-on courses was 5.5 meters per second. The submarines wreck everything in their respective paths damaging their own hulls even further. American and British submarines are traditionally built with a single hull 35-45 mm thick while Russia builds submarines with to hulls, the outer light one only 5 mm thick. That is why even provided all other circumstances are similar for both submarines, it is the Russian one that sustains most damage.
A second after the impact the torpedo tube with a live USET-80 fish in it was crushed to half its length. Warhead exploded and most of the blast was channeled backward, in the direction of the least resistance. The blast tore apart the inner lid of the torpedo tube creating a hole with a diameter of more than half a meter. Water rushed in, promptly flooding the section and shortening out electric circuits. The submarine tilted. Kursk captain might have ordered increased speed and urgent surfacing but the submarine’s time had run out. Short-circuits kicked on the reactors’ automatic shutdown system, control was lost, and the submarine slid down at a more and more steeper angle finally hitting the seabed approximately a minute after the collision.
The meter and a half thick lawyer of silt speared instantly, the huge submarine scraped the rock bottom crushing and tearing outer doors of the other torpedo tubes. Warheads of the torpedoes in the tubes totaled the equivalent of almost two tons of explosives. They blew up killing the submarine. Perhaps, torpedoes on the racks detonated as well, at least the huge hole in the solid hull (six square meters in diameter above the first section) of the submarine indicates the possibility (the solid hull is supposed to withstand the pressure of 60 atmospheres). Seismographic stations say that it occurred 2.5 minutes after the first explosion. Cleared for pressure of only ten atmospheres, walls of the second, third, fourth, and probably fifth sections were torn down instantly. Between 78 and 90 submariners were killed over these 2.5 minutes.
When the submarine struck the seabed at the angle of about 30 degrees, main mechanisms of the major power plant were torn off their foundations in the stern section (turbines, generators, transformers, and so on). Broken shafts damaged the bearings and compressors between the sections. The depth being 108 meters, water rushed in causing short-circuiting and fire in the stern (Norwegian divers would confirm it afterwards after a look in the ninth section). In other words, submariners in the stern perished as well. Their deaths were quick.
Where is the murderer?
So, where is the submarine that rammed the Kursk? By the moment of the cataclysmic explosion in the first section of the Kursk i.e. 2.5 minutes after the collision, she was also on the seabed approximately 700 meters from the stern of the submarine she had split wide open. The damage she sustained was attributed to explosion of the USET-80 and mechanic damage to the hull and external gear caused by the impact when the two submarines were “rubbing” against each other over the period of the first 15-20 seconds.
The foreign submarine must have discovered her acoustic gear ruined, aft antennae (noise triangulators and distance-finders) damaged, main tanks holed, and the aft and the starboard stern steers and stabilizers damaged. Her vital mechanisms, however, remained intact or sustained only minor damage. Pressure in the aft section pumped up to about 11 atmospheres, all mechanisms necessary for movement and steering under water repaired within a day, and the nuclear reactor revved up thanks to the accumulator battery (which is what it was for in the first place), the foreign submarine rose to the depth of 4-50 meters below the surface and crept out of the disaster area.
Two Orion ASW aircraft made an unscheduled flight to the area around that time on August 13. It stands to reason to assume that the aircraft escorted the crippled submarine to the nearest NATO base. Had the submarine been unable to make it on her own, the Orions would have immediately flashed the news to headquarters.
It is time we recalled Reagan’s telephone call to Gorbachev on October 3, 1986. On August 13, 2000, Bill Clinton made a similar call to Vladimir Putin. No information on what the two presidents discussed is available, but the CIA director visited Moscow incognito two days later. The story somehow made it to the media and as a popular newspaper wrote, it cost a senior official of the Foreign Intelligence Service his post. In the wake of the conversation with his Russian counterpart Clinton announced that he would not sign the bill on deployment of a national anti-ballistic missile defense system Russia had been objecting to with such vigor all this year. Odd, was not it? To prove US Navy’s noninvolvement in the Kursk disaster, the United States showed the world the USS Memphis, whole and undamaged, at the Norwegian naval base. Not a single world has been uttered in the month that passed about the USS Toledo (like the Kursk, she became a combat element of the national Navy in 1995) or the HMS Splendid, the submarines which tracked combatants of the Northern Fleet involved in the exercise.
Samuel Berger, national security advisor to the US president, met with his Russian opposite number Sergei Ivanov during the Millennium Summit in New York. The latter was given a letter from Admiral Vernon Clark, the new US Navy Chief-of-Staff, to Kuroyedov and a message from Secretary of Defense William Cohen to Sergeev. Both documents ventured “the opinion that explosions took place on board the submarine” (the Kursk – V.A.) and emphasized noninvolvement of American submarines or surface combatants in the accident. It was nice of the Americans. Still, they would have done better providing official Moscow with recordings of the explosions for spectral analysis specialists to play with and determine the nature of the explosions. Particularly the nature of the first explosion because the seismic vibrations could have been caused by collision of colossal masses of two submarines.
Ordinary military tricks like misleading the enemy notwithstanding, all of that may steer investigation in the correct direction. Sailors know that every ship has its own destiny just like men. Some ship will sail through their whole life in service without a single serious emergency and some others are literally plagued by them. Before her death in May 1968, the USS Scorpio had two accidents that year. The Russian K-131 was not a lucky submarine either. She collided with an American submarine in 1968. In 1984, fire on the K-131 killed thirteen submariners. The HMS Splendid regularly reports emergencies from the Barents Sea as well.
Putin, Federal Assembly leadership, Klebanov, Sergeev, and Kuroyedov should have appealed to their American and British opposite numbers with the request to show nuclear submarines Toledo and Splendid this week. What damage must have been sustained cannot be fixed in a hurry. If the submarines are undamaged, it will only facilitate friendship and trust between us.
The problem of emergencies at sea
The sea remains an unforgiving element, something where man always faces danger. Security of vessels has always been in the focus of attention of the Russian Navy, leadership of the Sea Transportation Ministry, other related departments, and top echelons of the US Navy and NATO countries.
Nature of the problem became immeasurably more pressing in the second half of the 20th century. The problem became global. The problem of emergencies mostly transformed itself into the problem of security of a great deal of men at sea (not only sailors as it used to be) and into the problem of global security in the face of the threats generated by disorderly activities at sea.
First and foremost, the matter concerns the increasing scale of economic activities. The existing tendencies indicate that this state of affairs is going to last centuries at least.
Secondly, the matter concerns naval activities of the advanced countries. Their intensity has not gone down when the Cold War ended, and said navies include nuclear-powered ships and combatants carrying nuclear weapons.
Attention of all involved parties is logically focused on three aspects. They:
– investigate emergencies in a through and unbiased manner;
– inform general public and specialists; and
– take measures to prevent such emergencies in future.
Attention to the problem peaked in 1986 when the submarine K-219 sank in the Northern Atlantic. The new Russian Navy commander demanded a drastic revision of the existing procedures of emergencies prevention. A new system of emergencies prevention was established with the purpose of objective and thorough definition and liquidation of causes of emergencies and resolution of problems of the Navy.
Our findings indicate that any emergency is a strictly determined event following the rules of the cause-and-effect principle even though emergencies themselves are randomly scattered in time and space. Chances of an emergency increase in some periods of time and areas (straits, approaches to ports, areas of intensive navigation, etc). That includes periods of active Sun as well (two-year long cycles every eleven years according to Leonid Chizhevsky). 1985-86 and 1996-97 were years of the minimal Sun activity and therefore years when a great deal of emergencies were logged. The same can be said for other low solar activity periods of 1967-69, 1978-79, 1989-90, and 2000-01.
We discovered that each of the almost 1,000 accidents analyzed by us had always been an effect of integrated influence of several objective recurring causes of a long-term nature.
The very first two years of the new system of emergencies prevention (1987-88) showed a 30 per cent decline in naval emergencies compared to the previous analogous period. All the same, the unique nuclear submarine Komsomolets sank in the Norwegian Sea in April 1989, 42 submariners perished in fire. After a year of scientific and technical experiments ran in the course of the investigation, the commission listed the following causes of the disaster:
– insufficient quality of design and construction;
– insufficient unification and reliability of weapons systems and onboard equipment;
– inadequacy of the drills concerning survival of the ship and the use of individual rescue means; and
– inadequate organization of the national search-and-rescue system and means of submariners’ evacuation.
The system crisis that struck the country in the last ten to fifteen years prevented Russia from taking measures to do away with the causes of emergencies and accidents revealed by the commission which arranged the most objective and efficient investigation of a naval disaster in the three hundred year long history of the Russian Navy.
Comparative analysis of naval emergencies provided by the Greenpeace shows the problem of emergencies and accidents (including the problem of reliability of nuclear submarines) is common for all navies with combatants of this type.
According to the Greenpeace, over 30 submarines were lost after World War II throughout the world including eleven Soviet and Russian (four of them nuclear submarines, the Kursk included), four American (including two nuclear), three British, and four French. Four submarines were lost in 1968 alone: the French Minerva (52 submariners) and the Israeli Dakar (52 submariners) in the Mediterranean in January, Soviet K-129 (98 submariners) in the Pacific in March, and the USS Scorpio (99 submariners) in the Atlantic in May.
NATO navies: emergencies and accidents
Between 1983 and 1987 American submarines reported 56 collisions, 113 fires, 12 groundings, 85 explosions, and 48 instances when sections of ships were flooded. US Navy reported 71 accident in 1989 including 34 involving nuclear submarines, eight of them with boomers and 26 with submarines armed with torpedoes. These accidents included 12 fires, 2 problems with power plants, 3 grounded submarines, and 9 collisions. Russian Navy never had such a crop of accidents within a single year.
Her Majesty’s Navy reported 97 fires and 17 occasions when ships took water in 1995. Almost every second accident took place at sea. Seventy-five fires occurred at surface combatants, 10 at submarines, and 12 at auxiliary ships. All of that are but examples.
On the whole, the emergency rate at submarines of the US Navy and navies of other NATO countries has remained considerable over the last five to ten years, as their command admits. This assumption is confirmed by evidence. American experts say that the emergency rate does not go down despite all sorts of organizational, technical, and practical measures and even despite establishment of special bodies with the purpose of upping efficiency of emergencies prevention.
Military confrontation at sea
Analysis of condition of NATO navies and prospects of their development in the next 25-30 years shows that all these countries are steadily developing their navies. Construction of modern ships and submarines (attack nuclear ones carrying ICBMs with the range of between 8,500 and 11,000 kilometers built by the United States, France, Great Britain, and China) and construction of nuclear-powered aircraft-carriers in the United States and France in line with the previously adopted shipbuilding programs will greatly facilitate naval combat potential of this countries and Germany, Sweden, Turkey, Italy, and Japan by the early 21st century.
Collisions of submarines present a particular danger in this respect as the accidents discussed in this article indicate.
Surface combatants, traders and fishermen of all countries follow the rules establishing the procedures or prevention of collisions in the time of peace. All these rules can be found in the International Rules of Prevention of Collisions at Sea adopted by the UN International Consultative Organization in 1972.
When ships of the Soviet Navy appeared in the Mediterranean in the mid-1960’s (the Mediterranean used to be the traditional turf of the 6th US Fleet), instances of dangerous maneuvering threatening with collisions, serious damage to ships, and deaths of servicemen became considerably more frequent. After some intensive negotiations, governments of the Soviet Union and the United States signed on May 25, 1972, an agreement on prevention of incidents at sea and in air. On behalf of the Soviet Union the agreement was signed by Fleet Admiral Vladimir Kasatonov, Soviet Navy Second-in-Command and Admiral Igor Kasatonov’s father. Over the last 28 years the agreement proved its worth ensuring safe navigation, maneuvering, and use of weapons by our and American combatants. That is why similar bilateral relations with Soviet and Russian governments were signed after 1986 by Great Britain, Germany, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Italy, Greece, Japan, Republic of Korea, and Portugal. Unfortunately, these agreements do not apply to submarines.
How underwater emergencies can be prevented
The author is of the opinion that an effective solution to the problem is in giving a new impetus and dynamism to the processes of negotiations over limitation and reduction of navies and naval armaments on the basis of a parity of naval might and interests of Russia and its neighbors and of course the United States and NATO countries.
Since 1984, the Soviet Union and Russia afterwards have put forth a number of initiatives aimed at reduction of intensity of confrontation at sea and at better security. Unfortunately, NATO countries have not accepted a single one of them.
Nobody needs empty rhetorics or pointless propaganda. Every involved party should respect everybody else’s positions on the matters of mutual interest and mutual concern for the sake of reduction of confrontation at sea. As things are, anti-Russian bias has remained virtually unchanged despite dramatic changes in Russia over the last years.
There are no international rules for prevention of collisions of submarines operating beyond their respective territorial waters. Therefore preparation and signing of bilateral agreements on prevention of incidents with submarines between the countries whose navies have nuclear submarines should become one of the major directions of the negotiations.
The basis can be provided by the Soviet-American agreement on military activity limitation (1989). Establishment of certain bilateral “security and trust zones” may be expedient in line with the document. These zones may be specific areas beyond both countries’ territorial waters including combat training sites where submarines operate. With regard to Russia and the United States specifically, each country may establish two such zones of equal size – in the Atlantic (in the seas adjacent to the bases of the Northern Fleet for Russia, and in the ocean close to the naval bases Charlestown and Kings Bay for America) and in the Pacific (near the bases in Vladivostok and the Kamchatka for Russia, and in the vicinity of the naval base Bangor for America).
When the nuclear submarines K-276 and Baton Rouge collided in 1992, Russia drafted a “Resolution between the government of the Russian Federation and the government of the United States on prevention of incidents with submarines beyond the territorial waters”. The document specifies organizational, technical, navigational, and international legal functions. Negotiations between Russian and American navy headquarters began in 1992. Author of this article headed them for a time. Afterwards, the level of the negotiations elevated. According to certain witnesses, back in 1995 Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and Navy Second-in-Command Igor Kasatonov were told in Washington that “Let is remain between us. We will sign no agreements but you are not going to have any more questions to us on the matter.”
US Navy Chief-of-Staff Admiral Burda shot himself soon after that, and American nuclear submarines are still roaming the Barents Sea as if it were their own backyard. They jeopardize Russian submarines with their crews and pose a threat to environment in the Northern Europe.
I assume that now that the Kursk and 118 persons in it are dead, Putin the President and Commander-in-Chief will address the US President and British Prime-Minister and instruct the defense minister, foreign minister, and Navy commander, and recommend to chairmen of houses of the Federal Assembly to appeal to their counterparts in the United States and Great Britain with the proposal of drafting and signing bilateral agreements with Russia on prevention of accidents with submarines. All necessary texts are available at the Russian General Staff, Foreign Ministry, Navy Command, and even at the “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” editorial office. Otherwise the work of Klebanov’s commission pertaining “Proposals on prevention of similar accidents in future” will be so much empty talk and catastrophes in future will inevitably follow.
Our theory is confirmed by the yesterday issue of the monthly newspaper “Stringer” which laid its hands on materials of the Russian Defense Ministry prepared for Klebanov indicating that the Kursk had been rammed by an American submarine of the Sea Wolf class.