The loss of the Russian submarine KURSK has had a significant impact on the Submarine Forces of the world for two important reasons. First, political factors interfered with the ability of the military to marshal the forces needed to attempt to rescue the men affected by this unfortunate disaster. Second, it identified a deteriorating technical capability to effect submarine rescue even if timely notification was not a factor.
Ramsey Flynn invested considerable personal capital in researching the failures cited above and provides a complementary analysis to the timeline reported by Robert Moore in his A TIME TO DIE, previously reviewed in the October 2003 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW. The book focuses on the individuals involved in the KURSK tragedy and provides credible scenarios that show the intense distrust of the military and political leadership at this time in the Russian government transition.
Flynn was able to obtain interviews from many of the principals as well as family members of the crew to craft his story. The reliance on the timeline in Moore’s book provides a common thread and allows the readers to recall their own reactions to what was going on while Flynn tells a fascinating story of submarine life and political intrigue. The result is a very readable story for which the author and publisher took the time to obtain a technical review from RADM Tom Evans, USN (Ret.) and contains 41 pages of reference notes.
The book’s title comes from the content of the note that was found on the body of Lieutenant Dimitry Kolesnikov written to his wife that confirmed that there were survivors on board after the disastrous explosion. Flynn focuses on the families of these sailors and highlights the conflicts that you would expect to see in those who experience a tragedy of this magnitude. He also spends a lot of time researching the media surrounding the event and identifies inconsistencies in the reported details as well as outright lies.
If there is a fault in what is reported here, it is not in what is recorded, but rather what is missing. Given the access to the principals involved in marshalling the forces needed to start a recovery operation, the delay, and the negotiations leading to what response would be permitted by the United Kingdom resources that were sent to the scene in good faith. For example, consider the dialogue between Admiral Skorgen in Norway and Admiral Popov aboard PETER THE GREAT. Flynn was able to interview both of these officers armed with the facts and yet does not get sufficient information to give the reader an understanding of why these two men who had met before could not be truthful with each other.
Another instance of what is not reported is the conflict that prevented the superior resources of the United Kingdom submersible to be deployed upon arrival to see if they could determine if there was life aboard. Instead, the Russians insisted on using their inadequate submersibles, endangering both the submersibles and their crews. A related understandable omission is the assessment that another submersible had viewed the KURSK and made a classified report to the Russians on its status early in the disaster. It would be interesting to know what was reported and to whom, and why it was not acted upon in a timely manner.
What was not reported was the lack of prosecution of the report cited in Moore’s book, and referenced by Flynn, of the effects of the explosion at the time of the disaster on the Russian missile submarine KARELIA that caused the Captain to consult with the flag officer riding his ship about the incident. The delay, by Admiral Popov, in initiating a search for KURSK when she did not report or launch her weapon significantly affected the start of any recovery operations.
Flynn’s discussion of the political response to this tragedy is fascinating. The distrust of the military and political leadership is illuminating and yet expected. The infighting within the military as to who was going to speak to whom and the discussion of why reports were delayed are interesting but certainly do not forgive the military from their responsibility for ordering proper rescue operations.
The discussion with the various family members gives the reader an insight to Russian civilians that we have not enjoyed since the Cold War ended. The lack of support for the Russian military has been in the news for some time and Flynn gives us insight into the impact of the lack of pay and proper support capabilities on their Submarine Force. He offers an analysis into relationships and family conflicts that colors our understanding of the participants in this tragedy that were not available from the press.
In his final chapters, Flynn unfolds his title theme, the deceit promulgated by the Russian government throughout this disaster on their people through the release of Kolesnikov’s note. He builds the case that had timely notification been made, there was ample time for proper resources to be obtained and a rescue attempted. How-ever, as Moore points out, there was no reasonable capability available within Russian military resources and there was a definite delay in getting international resources on the scene.
My second point of the impact of this book is that our submarine rescue capabilities are decaying and we are not well equipped to respond to this type of disaster with the current resources available. Fortunately, this message has been heard, and help is on the way. A renewed interest in submarine rescue capabilities is already funded and new equipment is now being delivered to our submarines. A recent contract has been awarded for the construction of a diving tower. Saturation diving capabilities, like those used to raise KURSK, are available from private industry. Perhaps we will see the resurgence of these diving capabilities in our Navy and have them available for such a time as the KURSK disaster.