Editor’s Note: Captain 1st Rank Igor Kurdin, Russian Navy Retired, served as the Executive Officer on K-219, from 1983 to 1986. He also has served as The Commanding Officer of Yankee and Delta class submarines. He lives in Russia. lieutenant Wayne Grasdock, U.S. Navy, is Navigator on USS PHILADELPHIA (SSN 690). Captain P’ Rank Igor Kozyr, Russian Navy Retired, and lieutenant Commander Igor Fyodorov, Russian Navy Retired, assisted with portions of this article, as a liaison officer for the Saint Petersburg Submariners Club. Captain Kozyr lives in Russia, Lieutenant Commander Fyodorov lives in Florida. Professor Georgine DiVirgilio, U.S. Naval Academy, translated portions of this article.
During the Cold War years, the United States military trained primarily to fight and win major theater wars. The United States pursued a strategy of containing the Soviet Union and the seven satellite nations in Eastern Europe who signed the Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Assistance in Warsaw on May 15, 1955. Led by men like First Secretary Josef Stalin, First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, and Admiral S.G. Gorshkov, the Warsaw Pact pursued the development of a modem and innovative fleet. By 1986, the Soviets had amassed a Navy that Secretary of the Navy John F. Letunan described as follows:
“What is particularly disturbing about the ‘fleet that Gorshkov built’ is that improvements in its individual unit capabilities have taken place across a broad area. Submarines are faster, quieter, and have better sensors and self-protection. Surface ships carry new generations of missiles and radars. Aircraft have greater endurance and payloads. And the people who operate this Soviet concept of a balanced fleet are ever better trained and confident.”
This modem and innovative fleet, however, did not come without a great deal of cost. The Cold War was the most demanding national security challenge the Soviet Union faced since World War II. It dominated strategy, force planning, and defense budgets for nearly half a century. Although personnel costs, both mental and physical, are difficult to assess, this article portrays anecdotal evidence of one costly Cold War incident.
Captain Second Rank Igor A. Britanov, Russian Navy, was the Commanding Officer of RPK-SN K-219, a 667A Project boat (Yankee I class ballistic missile submarine), which encountered distress in the Atlantic Ocean. The incident onboard K-219, an explosion and subsequent fire in missile tube number six, occurred approximately 600 miles east of Bermuda in October of 1986. The Soviet Union claimed that the incident was due to a collision with a U.S. submarine. Captain Britanov says, “There was no collision.”
Although the book Hostile Waters is based on a true story of K-219, this article is the most accurate technical representation of what took place-it leaves out the Hollywood. Although this article is an accurate description of events, it does not fully portray the significant damage that was inflicted on the submarine, nor the heroic efforts of the crew to save it. Despite these efforts, only one sailor, who died in the reactor compartment, received an award. Word of this award and the happenings of this incident are not spoken of in Russia. Captain Britanov states that in the eyes of his government, there are no heroes from K-219. When asked the number of times he is called to be a guest lecturer at Russian functions, he simply states, “None-I do not tell the story the way my government wants me to tell it. I did not collide with an American sub.”
As the reader progresses through this article, attention is directed to two issues: One: Readiness. The limitations of Soviet military finances, and the continual, demanding requirements of increasingly frequent submarine patrols and deployments during the Cold War, literally stretched their submarine force to the breaking point. As K-219 highlights, the Soviets had an inadequate force for the missions they attempted to accomplish. America’s Submarine Force and families are counting on senior civilian and military leadership to carefully assess the extent of our participation in peacetime engagement activities and smaller-scale contingency operations. In 1777, Thomas Paine said, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it. “3 How much fatigue is enough? How much risk is too much? Our Submarine Force must have the right number of people matched with an adequate number of submarines.
The second issue to note is Safety. In the U.S. Submarine Force, at times, there may seem to be micromanagement or a perceived lack of trust by seniors-five or more people may check one person’s work (i.e., SubSafe and nuclear work packages). Nothing can be further from the truth. Keeping the ship and men safe is priority one. Perhaps the incident on K-219 would not have occurred if one more person checked the last maintenance performed on missile tube number six.
The Homeland Said, “You Must”
According to plan, on 4 September 1986, RPK-SN K-219 set out to sea on operational duty. The Commander of the submarine, Captain 2nc1 Rank Igor Anatolyevich Britanov. was an experienced submariner who had earned the right to independently command an RPK-SN Project 667 AU in 1981. The cruise was his third as a commander and his thirteenth as an officer. This time, however, he was not commanding his usual vessel. On board K-219 watch was kept by the first crew of K-241, which included 31 officers, 38 mitchmen (Ed. Note: Warrant Officer), 49 seamen, and was brought up to full strength with first class specialists. This time, cruise training had never been so chaotic.
The Cold War was ongoing and the Soviet Navy (as well as the Strategic Rocket Forces) bore the brunt of the two superpowers’ nuclear missile standoff. The Soviet Union’s response to the American deployment of Pershing IRBMs and cruise missiles on the front line in Europe was to build up the forces of the VMF of the USSR, and to extend RPK-SN patrolling up to the immediate shore of the United States. This made the flight time of missiles aimed at targets on American territory equal to that of American missiles aimed at targets on Soviet territory.
The number of military patrols for RPK-SNs rose to 2-3 times per year. Technical resources reached the limit of their capabilities, and the repair base was far from adequate for the fleet’s new tasks. The situation was even more difficult for Soviet submarines: 2-3 military cruises per year, unused leave, muddled training-all this became the norm. Under the pressure of these conditions, senior commanders had to close their eyes to the fact that non-proficient crews were going out to sea on alien boats. Discussion of crew proficiency and cohesiveness was not allowed.
An analysis of the K-219 personnel roster reveals that in the course of cruise training, 11 of the 31 staff officers had been replaced, including the chief executive officer, the executive officer, the missile (BCh-2) officer, the torpedo (BCh-3) officer, and the chief of the radio-engineering service (RTS). A similar situation existed among the warrant officers. Sixteen of the 38 mitchmen had been replaced, including both of the BCh-2 petty officers. This analysis is not to criticize Rear Admiral N.N. Malov, who was Chief of Staff for the 19th RPK-SN division, responsible for crew assignments. At that time, on orders from above, he brought five strategic underwater missile carriers into operational duty.
Why did the Captain agree to go out to sea unprepared, on a boat that was alien to him, and with a crew that included personnel unknown to him? Because if Britanov had refused, he would have been replaced by someone else. Let us tum to the events of 3 October 1986.
Explosion in Missile Tube No. 6
After 30 days at sea, K-219 maneuvered into its designated area of the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. At 0456, on 3 October, the submarine rose to periscope depth for routine communications. Five minutes later it began a descent to 85 meters. The technical situation on board was as follows: the GEhU(electric plant) was operating in one-echelon mode, and the capacity of the starboard reactor was at 30 percent; the port reactor had been sup-pressed/damped by all the absorbers, and the steam production plant (PPU) and the turbine were ready for operation; the starboard turbine operated the screw, and the port shaft line was ready to operate the propulsion motor.
At 0514, the BCh-2 officer and the hold machinist/engineer in compartment IV discovered water dripping from under the plug of missile tube No. 6. During precompression of the plug, the drips turned into a stream. The BCh-2 officer reported water in missile tube No. 6 (the third tube from the bow on the port side), and at 0525, the Captain ordered an ascent to a safe depth (46 meters). The pump was started in an attempt to dry out missile tube No. 6. At 0532, brown steam clouds of oxidant began to come out from under the plug of missile tube No. 6. The BCh-2 officer declared an accident alert in the compartment and reported the situation to the GKP (main control station). Personnel assigned to other compartment left compartment IV. Nine people remained in compartment IV. The Captain declared an accident alert. It took the crew no more than one minute to carry out initial damage control measures, which included hermetically sealing off the compartments. Five minutes later, at 0538, an explosion occurred in missile tube No. 6.
Black smoke appeared in compartment IV, followed by water with rocket fuel components flowing into the compartment from the destroyed pipes in the upper part of the missile tube. The Captain quickly gave the order for an emergency ascent to the surface. Inspection of the compartments revealed the following damage: a high level of gas in compartment IV; about 4.5 tons of water in the bilge of the compartment; and temporary loss of control of the status of the missiles in the other tubes. Other systems on board also suffered damage. The submarine’s Kasbtan loudspeaker communications system was knocked out, as well as the Kashtan systems for the missile BCh in compartments IV and V. The R-651 radio transmitter was practically knocked out. Indicators and lights in the compartments were smashed. In the superstructure, the high-pressure airline was damaged. The GEhU control panel indicated the following: on the port side, the direct current 220 volt network power supply was inoperative; the automatic valves supply feed water to all the steam generators on the port side opened; and the independent tertiary-circuit valves opened. The Kama electro-energy system console indicated that the insulation resistance of the electrical systems on both the port and starboard sides was zero. By command of the GKP, lines of defense were established in compartment II (control station) and missile compartment V, and a back pressure of air was created in these compartments.
At 0610, personnel in missile compartment V and auxiliary machinery compartment VI were transferred to turbine compartment VIII. Seven minutes later a report came from missile compartment N: it was impossible to remain in the compartment because of the large amount of gas and the high temperature. The Captain ordered that compartment V prepare to receive personnel from missile compartment IV. At 0635, personnel were withdrawn from compartment IV, but three crewmembers stayed behind, including the BCh-2 officer. The electrical (BCh-5) officer ordered that the port GEhU begin operating.
After the withdrawal of personnel from compartment IV, at 0645, a damage control party, consisting of two people, was sent to compartment IV to appraise the situation and help the three crewmembers in the compartment. Because of the great amount of smoke, the party could not locate the BCh-2 officer or conduct a detailed examination of missile tube No. 6. The bodies of seamen I.K. Kharchenko and N.L. Smaglyuk were removed from the compartment. The survey team members did not make any kind of attempt to switch the electro-consumers, nor did they discover the source of the smoke.
At 0725, ventilation of compartments IV, V, and VI, into the atmosphere, began. At daybreak the senior executive officer examined missile tube No. 6 from the top of the fairwater. The tube cover was gone, the rocket head was not visible, and the cover shaft was opened to the side. The outer hull structure around the tube was damaged. The shield-fairings to the covers of tubes l, 3, 4, 5, and 7 were tom away and hanging overboard. The missile deck around tube No. 6 was deformed, trickling brown smoke.
At 0851, two members of the damage control party were sent to compartment N for a second time. The level of gas in the compartment was lowered and visibility was improved. Water stopped flowing from the upper part of tube No. 6. The party found the lifeless body of the BCh-2 officer, Captain 3rd Rank A.V. Petrachkov.
The pumping system in tube No. 6 was primed with outboard water and the hold of compartment IV was dried through the main bilge. When the pump for tube No. 6 was started, water and thick brown smoke began to come out of the damaged pipes in the upper part of the tube. The GKP ordered the pump stopped. The body of the BCh-2 officer, gas analysis equipment, and ISZ equipment were removed from compartment IV.
At 0925, the port GEhU began operating. The starboard and port PPUs were in operation with starboard capacity at 30 percent, and port capacity at 50 percent.
The Captain made the decision to discharge the oxidant by emergency means and to pump the tube. To accomplish this, he briefed an additional four groups from BCh-2 and BCh-5, and sent them to compartment IV. All attempts to pump the tube produced more steam clouds of oxidant and water. The last group started the emergency oxidant discharge pump. Water under the pumping head began to inundate the compartment’s electrical equipment, including the switchboards. This caused short circuits in the switchboards, which started a fire. The fire consumed the electrical equipment and the pumps stopped. The GKP ordered the last damage control party to leave compartment IV.
At 1754, the GKP decided to introduce Freon from the fire smothering station (LOKh) in compartment III, into compartment IV. The Freon supply pipe was not dense and some of the Freon began to enter compartment III. The supply of fire suppressant to compartment IV was stopped. At about 1800, the gas composition of the air in compartment ill worsened; the amount of nitrogen oxides exceeded the maximum permissible dose by 10 to 40 times. By order of the Captain, personnel entered the ISZ. Some person-nel crossed into compartment II. Personnel were forced to abandon the communications post and the coded communications post. As a result, radio communications were broken. A routine dispatch about the situation on the submarine was not transmitted, and a radio telegram from the Commander of the Soviet Fleet with recommendations for damage control was not received.
At 1840, in order to inspect compartment V, the bulkhead door connecting compartment IV and compartment V was opened. In compartment V there was a great deal of smoke, which was mistaken for a fire. This was reported to the GKP, who ordered that Freon be introduced into compartment V from the LOKh station in compartment VI.
At 1930, due to the loss of the 50 hertz, 380 volt power supply in the network on the starboard side, the starboard reactor’s emergency shielding was activated. The reactor compensating lattices did not go down to the lower rear switches.
Twenty minutes later, personnel in reactor compartment VII reported to the GKP that there was smoke in the lower region of compartment VI. The compartment was abandoned. The bulkhead flapper valves between compartments V and VI did not close, and personnel crossed into compartment VIII. About this time, the pressure in the marine hydraulics system fell to zero. In order to secure the nuclear safety of the starboard reactor, BCh-5 specialists (senior Lieutenant N.N. Belikov and Seaman S.A. Preminin) were sent into reactor compartment VII, three separate times, in an attempt to lower the reactor compensating lattices manually. After Belikov lost consciousness, Preminin continued to work in compartment VII. At the same time, by command of the GKP, compartments VIII, XI (turbine), and X (end) were ventilated into the atmosphere, and the pressure in these compartments fell to atmospheric pressure. However, because the pressure in compartment VII remained elevated in relation to that in compartment VIII, personnel in VIII could not open the bulkhead door connecting VII and VIII when they were done ventilating. The vacuum system in the lower region of VIll was resumed on to try to equalize the pressure but was stopped when brown smoke began coming out of the piping. The GKP ordered Preminin to try to open compartment VII’s ventilation system flapper valve in order to lower the pressure in VII, but Preminin no longer was able to do this. Nor could the damage control team from the other side of the compartment. Further questioning from the GKP elicited no response from Preminin.
At 2130 the MMF (International Naval Fleet) vessels FYODOR BREDIKHIN, KRASNOGV ARDEYSK and BAKARITSA set out for the area where the accident had occurred.
By 2300, according to personnel reports, the gas composition in the compartments had worsened. The ISZs had used up their resource and the temperature of the bulkhead between compartments III and IV had risen. Based on reports received, the Captain supposed that there were fires in compartments IV, V, and VI; that VII was pressurized, and that there could be fires in compartments VII, IX, and X. Given that the resource of the ISZ had been exhausted and that the (assumed) fires in compartments IV and V could cause missiles to explode, the Captain decided to take the pon reactor offline and to prepare to evacuate personnel to the MMF vessels.
Emergency protection of the pon reactor was abandoned and the plant was switched to cooling mode. Evacuation of personnel began and was completed by 0100 on 4 October. After evacuation of the bow and conning tower, the stem hatches were closed and battened down. The Captain and six officers remained in command on the bridge.
At 0146 the TsKP (central command post) of the VMF received a report from the Captain of K-219 through KP (command post) of the MMF: “Fire in all the compartments, no motion. Six men on the submarine. Large fires in the holds of compartments IV and V. The Captain awaits the order to abandon ship.”
At 2245 a damage control party commanded by the Chief Executive Officer embarked on the submarine and surveyed compartments I, II, and III. These compartments were dry, the pressure was normal, and emergency lighting was on. In addition, the accumulator battery had been partially discharged. The pressure in the high pressure air system had fallen to 1h the normal pressure, and the pressure was absent in the hydraulics system. The boat’s pressure hull above compartments IV and VII was warm, possibly due to residual thermal separations in the reactor. The pressure and hull temperature in the area of the other compartments was the same as that of the outside air. The bulkhead between compartments III and IV was cold up to the upper edge, and warm higher up.
In the bow compartments, the damage control party corrected the trim by blowing the main ballast tanks (TsGB) in the bow, and began preparing the submarine for towing. The party did not examine the stern compartments because the stern hatch had been flooded. With the onset of darkness the party suspended its work and left the submarine.
Sinking of the Submarine
At dawn on 5 October the damage control party continued to prepare the submarine for towing. At 1815 the motor vessel KRASNOGV ARDEYSK began towing. The submarine’s draught and bow trim slowly continued to increase. On 6 October at 0620 the towing cable snapped, and the bow and stern entry hatches were submerged. The damage control party was not able to descend to compartment III because the lower conning tower hatch was jammed. The submarine continued to lose buoyancy. When it was submerged up to the level of the superstructure deck, the damage control party left. At 1100 the submarine was submerged up to the level of the fairwater. The GK (commander in chief) of the VMF ordered the Captain to abandon ship. At 1102 on 6 October 1986 K-219 sank.
The sinking of K-219 led to a criminal investigation that lasted nearly a year. As always, it was those who had tried to save the crew and the boat that were found guilty. The captain, the deputy political officer and the BCh-5 officer were discharged for failure to perform their duties properly. Of all the crewmembers, only Seaman S.A. Preminin was awarded the Order of the Red Star (posthumously). (By decree No. 844 of the President of the Russian Federation, 7 August 1997, Preminin posthumously was named a Hero of the Russian Federation.)
Credit must be given to the heroism shown by the crew, for the crew maintained a safe nuclear situation during an accident. Up to the moment the boat sank, the status of the fuel reactor cores and their controls was such that the possibility of nuclear and thermal explosions had been eliminated. The GKP and personnel correctly organized and carried out immediate damage control measures.
The vessel was brought to the surface. All compartments were hermetically sealed and a backpressure was created in compartments m and V. The port GEhU was brought online, the compartments were inspected and personnel determined what problems had arisen in missile tube No. 6. Some crew members were wounded. Inspection of the compartments allowed the crew to evaluate the situation in compartment IV and to ventilate compartments IV, V, and VI. As a result of the measures taken, the situation on the boat was stabilized temporarily. Both of the GEhU operated at the designated capacities and the refrigeration machines were operating. The boat had electrical power and traveled at a speed of 13 knots to its meeting point with the MMF vessels. At the same time, though, the submarine’s command did not take all possible measures to limit the extent of the accident and to prevent the vessel from sinking.
The special commission’s investigation established the following:
1. The cause of the missile accident in tube No. 6 was flooding in the tube. The seawater destroyed the missile casing and caused rocket fuel components to enter the rube. The lack of irrigation in the tube and the fact that the rube cover’s rack and pinion device had not been undogged (when the submarine was in a surface position) caused an increase in pressure and the explosion. This in rum caused the rocket fuel components to ignite and burn.
The cause of seawater to enter the tube was not established. The tube cover possibly was not hermetically sealed, a result of mechanical damage incurred in the course of the submarine’s operations.
2. The cause of the diffusion of nitrogen oxides from compartment IV, and the presence of gas in the stem compartments, was the multiple trips made by the damage control parties to compartment VI for the purposes of inspection, rendering assistance, ventilation, pumping the missile tube, and the emergency discharge of oxidant. When the pumps were started and the rube was being pumped, additional nitrogen oxides entered the compartment from the non-pressurized tube. This caused short circuits in switchboards No. 7 and No. 8, which led to the fire in the compartment.
3. Due to the uncontrolled entry of seawater into compartment IV, the submarine lost longitudinal stability and buoyancy, and sank. Missile tube No. 6, which was non-pressurized in relation to the compartment, conjoined with outboard space through the outboard valves that remained open. This caused compartment IV to flood. Compartments V and VI were filled from compartment IV through the opened ventilation flapper valves between compartments IV and V, and between compartments V and VI.
The short notice replacement of large portions of crewmembers on submarines can lead to tragic consequences. Unfortunately, this was not uncommon in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. On 23 June 1983, K-429 conducted a weapons firing check that cost the lives of 16 crewmembers and resulted in the sinking of the submarine. On board K-429 were 120 people, only 43 of whom were standard crewmembers. The others came from five different submarine crews.
1. Norman Polmar, 1988, Guide to the Soviet Navy, Naval Institute Press, p.i.
2. Conversation with Captain Igor A. Britanov, Annapolis, August 5, 1998. Captain Britanov also claims that this article is the most accurate technical description of what happened to K-219. Lieutenant Commander Igor Fyodorov, Russian Navy Retired, was the interpreter during the conversation.
3. Jones, A. (Ed.) (1997), Chambers Dictionary of Quotations. Great Britain, Cambridge University Press.