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Our time, as well as other times of the 20th century, is full of disasters which are connected with unprecedented technological developments and boundless human ambitions and intolerance. The July 25 French Concord disaster in Paris with 113 dead, the August 8 Moscow’s Pushkin Square bomb’s blast with 11 dead and 96 injured, the Russian KURSK SSGN is on the bottom of the Barents Sea after blasts in her torpedo room on the 12th of August, with 118 dead. And 143 killed as the Gulf Air jetliner crashed in the Persian Gulf near Bahrain on August 23, 2000.

KURSK was on the bottom in the area with depth a little bit more than 300 feet with at least her two forward compartments flooded and the majority of her 118 crew members dead, while some of them may have been alive in the stem compartments. The Russian defense, defense-industrial complex, and navy authorities, after a number of controversial and simply false statements, had accepted it as a disaster and asked for a foreign assistance. Ultimately the Commander in Chief of the Russian Navy Admiral Kuroedov headed the rescue operation in the Barents Sea, and President Putin interrupted his vacation in Sochy and returned in Moscow to control the situation. When the rescue operation had been finished without any survivors, the Russian President met relatives of the victims for consolation and help, and the national mourning took place.

In connection with all that, it would be desirable to get answers for some relevant questions:

  • What kind of a nuclear submarine was KURSK, why was she so big, heavily armed, deep diving, and fast?
  • What was she doing in that naval exercise in the Barents Sea?
  • What had happened with the submarine on 12th of August?
  • What had been done to save a survived part of her crew?
  • What kind of influence will the disaster have on the Russian

defense policy?

Project 949A (Oscar-2) cruise missile-torpedo nuclear submarine KURSK (K-141) of the Krasnodar (K-148)-class had been built at the huge Russian Severodvinsk shipyard on the White Sea in 1993-1994 and commissioned in 1995. In 1997 and 1999 two more such class submarines the TOMSK (K-526) and BELGOROD (K-139) were built at the same shipyard and commissioned. In all, from 1986, 12 of this class SSGNs had been built in Severodvinsk. In the last decade Russia built only this class and Project 971 (Acula) of the K-284-class attack nuclear submarines (from 1985 to 1999 15 such submarines had been built in Komsomolsk and Severodvinsk, and commissioned).

Existence in the Russian Navy of modem individual SSGN class submarines is the result of the cruise missile designers’ domination (first of all, the Chief Designer, Academician V.N.Tchelomei, in which Bureau worked Sergey Khrushchev, son of Nikita Khrushchev) in submarine designing and building, and the wish of the Navy’s leadership to get long range supersonic, larger caliber submarine cruise missiles as soon as possible for creation of a serious missile threat to American aircraft carrier groups.

That long way of development commenced in the beginning of 1960s with PAPA (project 661) K-162 SSGN, a titanium nuclear submarine with surface displacement of about 5,200 tons, 10-1,600 mm caliber subsonic Ametist cruise missiles with range some 60 kilometers, 4-533 mm bow torpedo tubes and 8 reserved torpedoes, and 44. 7 knots world record maximum speed. The ultimate result had become Project 949A (Oscar-2) class SSGN nuclear submarines, which have a submerged displacement of 18,300 tons, crew -108 officers and enlisted men, 24 Granit supersonic cruise missiles in side stationary containers with diameters about 1.8 meters, inclined on 40 degrees to horizontal plane, with range more then 550 kilometers, 2-650 mm and 4-533 mm torpedo tubes with 18 reserved torpedoes and torpedo size missiles, turbines’ power 100,000 h.p., and speed up to 33 knots, with a test depth of 600 m. The designer of Oscar was the St. Petersburg’s Rubin Design Bureau (the head and general designer of which is Igor Spassky, the Project 949A first chief designer was P.P.Pustintsev, the second is I.L.Baranov, the chief naval supervisor is Captain 1st rank V.N.Ivanov).

Following last year’s summer exercises, KURSK ventured into the Mediterranean and simulated an attack on a U.S. carrier battle group, the first time in at least four years that a Russian submarine had been so bold.

This year’s exercises, which began August 10, set a milestone for the number of surface ships and submarines that went to sea together and the variety of ordnance they fired. Up to 30 ships participated in the exercise.

In addition to KURSK, the maneuvers included a ballistic missile nuclear submarine, an aircraft carrier, a Kirov-class cruiser, the world’s largest warship of its kind, several guided missile cruisers and destroyers. In that largest Russian naval exercise in recent years were fired cruise missiles, torpedoes and a long range ballistic missile. KURSK fired cruise missiles and torpedoes. Two Tu-22M Ukrainian supersonic strategic bombers with long range cruise missiles also participated in the exercise.

For Captain 1st rank Gennady Lyatchin and nearly a score of others in the control room of KURSK, Saturday, August 12, had to be a day of pride and triumph. His underwater aircraft carrier had successfully completed a torpedo-firing run and was preparing for another one. Lyatchin, 45, one of the Russia’s most experienced submarine commanding officers, radioed the task-force commander for permission to fire. The permission had been granted. But instead of the sounds of torpedoes being blown from torpedo tubes, sonar operators aboard the two U.S. submarines, working with the American surveillance ship LOYAL, on patrol about 186 miles west-northwest of KURSK, heard two explosions, one short and sharp, and after 2 minutes and 15 seconds, the second enormous thundering boom. A Norwegian seismic institute also recorded the explosions and said the second carried the force of two tons of TNT, registering 3 .5 on the Richter scale.

Evidence later obtained from underwater cameras shows that the blast in the torpedo compartment with reserved torpedoes and torpedo size cruise missiles tore open the entire double-bulled forward section of the 505 feet ship, an area the size of a school gymnasium on the right side of the submarine. Seawater would have slammed into the torpedo compartment, instantly killing the men on duty in that area. In the control room just aft of the shattered torpedo compartment, Lyatchin, the five Northern Fleet staff officers and a score of officers and petty officers manning the ship’s controls would have had no time to react after the second blast before the combined power of the blast and seawater tore through, destroying the gleaming arrays of switches, computers and video screens that constitute the brain of a huge submarine. All would have been killed outright or quickly drowned. From there, the water likely cascaded through passageways into communication spaces and living quarters just after the control room. At that point, the floodwaters were probably thwarted by the thick watertight forward bulkhead of the fifth, number one reactor compartment with a VM-5 pressurized water reactor.

The men whose duties placed them in the reactor’s control room and the turbine and machinery spaces behind the reactors would have probably survived, but the flash flooding in the forward part of KURSK would have caused the bow to drop, pitching the 24,000-ton boat into a dive. In seconds, the sub would have pounded into the seabed some 350 feet beneath the storm-driven surface of the Barents Sea.

Automatic systems would have scrammed the reactors, pushing control rods into the cores and shutting them down. KURSK, its shattered bow shoved into a furrow of sand, and heeling to port some 20 degrees, lay silent, without power or heat or light or hope, its 118 souls dead or doomed.

The majority of the crew was in the part of the boat that was hit by the catastrophe that developed at lightning speed. It was all over in the space of several minutes. The tapping out of SOS signals in Morse code indicated that some crew’s members survived for a time in the stem sections of the boat. But Admiral Vyatcheslav Popov, commander of the Northern Fleet, admitted on Friday August 18 evening, that no tapping had been heard from the sub since August 14, two days after the accident.

The Northern Fleet’s Accident-Rescue Service began the rescue operation almost immediately using its special vessel MICHAIL RUDNITSKY with her rescue crafts. On August 18 a rescue capsule reached the rear escape hatch on the submarine for the first time, but could not latch on the hatch and returned to the surface. Later, on Monday, August 21, the Norwegian divers managed to open both covers of the stem escape hatch and had discovered that the 9111 and all other compartments of the sub were flooded, and all possible survivors were dead.

It is interesting to note that the most important information about the cause of the disaster and the reasons for it had been published in the main military daily newspaper Krasnaya Zvesda” (Red Star). Its article published Thursday, August 17, suggested that the blame for the KURSK accident could be put on a cheaper torpedo design. It was removed from the newspaper’s server on Friday. The printed version of the newspaper contained no reference to the article.

The article said that KURSK was refitted at the Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk in 1998 to carry a new type of torpedo. Representatives of the Russian Navy were against these torpedoes but the industry managed to lobby the upgrade through. The new torpedoes were difficult to store and dangerous to handle. The reason the Navy was forced to accept them was that the production of the new torpedoes was cheaper.

The main type of the previous torpedoes, used on Project’s 949A submarines, were with silver-zink batteries. They were safe and are launched in standard way by a pneumatic-hydraulic system.

The propulsion of the new torpedoes used liquid fuel. The torpedoes were launched with a help of a trigger that produces gas, shooting the torpedo out. The use of liquid fuel for propulsion of new missiles in the Russian Navy was abandoned in 1980s and replaced with solid fuel. One of the reasons was the fact the liquid fuel was too explosive. Additional proof of that version was the fact that on KURSK were two torpedo specialists from Dagestan’s Dagdiesel plant, one officer and one civilian, which helped in the test of new torpedoes in time of the exercise.

The Friday, August 18, edition of the Red Star contains a version of the accident, widely promoted by the head of the defense industries, Deputy Prime Minister, Ilya Klebanov, that the submarine collided with an “unidentified object”. This was a shameless lie of a major culprit, which promoted the dangerous torpedoes, not by means of his evil will but because of incompetence. The guilt is also on Admiral Kuroedov. who did not support his fleet specialists, who objected to ta1cing these new dangerous torpedoes.

President Putin took personal responsibility for the disaster. He met personally with victims’ relatives and provided to them significant financial help. It gives him credit. He likes to revive the power of his armed forces. and that is also right. Literally on the eve of the catastrophe he made a correct major decision to shift priorities in the development of his armed forces from the strategic nuclear missiles to the conventional general purposes forces. To that it could be added that he needs now more efficient tactical land and air forces to deter and wage local wars of a Chechen’s and Middle Asia’s models. As to the naval general purpose forces. he needs to strengthen the Pacific and Black Sea fleets and the Amur and Caspian flotillas’ surface ships and amphibious forces. And, as usual, the devil is with the details. Nobody says that Russia does not need nuclear general purpose submarines. But if to choose between the Project 949A SSGNs and Project 971 SSNs, the latter are cheaper, more safe and more efficient subs. To consider the American aircraft carriers as a major military threat for Russia (for which task Oscars had been created) in long range planning is unreasonable and, simply saying. stupid policy. History proved that Russia was mainly a continental power, and its major victories had been achieved first of all in land battles. And again nobody is saying that Russia doesn’t need a navy. It needs it and it has it. But increasing of its power now is not a very urgent task. In this case modesty is the best policy.

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