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MORE ON KURSK …. FOR ALL “SUBOPHILES” (Particularly Operators, PMs and Budget Defenders)

This is not intended to be a book review but rather an encouragement for operators and everyone who plays a role in procuring funds for submarines, to read Cry from the Deep … the story of the 550-foot KURSK’s needless loss of all aboard in 350 feet of the Barents Sea five years ago (seems like 5 months). It could well have been titled “Penny Wise; Pound Foolish” or “Building a Hollow Force”.

I say needless loss of all aboard for several reasons cited be-low, but also recall Admiral Crowe relating a true story of a 150 foot diesel boat in the 1920s sinking in 120 feet of water off Block Island. With no one injured, the skipper blew after ballast and drilled a one-inch hole above the water line for air. He then poked a tee shirt on a broomstick through that hole and a passing ship rescued the crew. What an interesting parallel … about 75 years ago!

Based on Mickey Garverick’s excellent book review in the last Submarine Review, and a signed copy I received from the author (a friend of a close friend), I launched into Ramsey Flynn’s labor of love with many questions. I was impressed immediately with his easy reading style (meeting the players in a chronology of cur-rent events) presented in bite size paragraphs and short chapters. You never felt bogged down.

My first question was quickly answered in the Preface. How could the author, a non-military, non-Russian linguist, zero in on this topic and pull it off in a credible manner? Quite simply, he read the same newspaper articles we all read and, given the well known deceit of the Russian government, approached his publicist on day two with the concept and need for an accurate chronicle of the rescue (which didn’t happen). As an independent journalist for 18 years, his “stock in trade was to untangle complicated stories until I could present the truth.” After 5 trips to Russia in three years with many hundreds of interviews and dedicated translators, he had the Russian side of the story. Our own RADM Tom Evans followed up as his technical reviewer.

Credibility is established by 40 pages of Notes at the end, keyed to chapter and page. These give the origin of practically every statement of consequence in a convenient style (vice the cryptic rigor of Turabian footnotes). After referring to the first dozen or so notes, one is convinced that the author has done his research in spades and here is the definitive real story behind the scenes of KURSK. You can then read the Notes in one sitting as icing on the cake.

The primary reason you should read this book is for the lessons to be learned as consequences of cutting funds. This book is full of how !!Q!_to do it. Most of us understand and appreciate what it means to have been a 11uc but we should all pay homage to Admiral Rickover for setting the standards of quality control and showing the Navy how to make Congress your best friend. Now we need to teach the lessons of KURSK to our friends in Congress.

On a personal note, the manning situation in the Russian Navy reminds one of our own difficulties during the rapid buildup of the 60s. The difference was their cover-ups. As XO of an FBM after an overhaul, shakedown, PSA and patrol, I saw the crew stability required for these evolutions give way to a mass of normal transfers. This resulted in departure on next patrol with a dearth of qualified watch standers that would require us to be 6 on and 6 off for at least a month. Also, our CO was brand new. Despite being as ready as possible, the Commodore deserved to be aware of our situation and I suggested a letter basically saying we were ready for sea, but our readiness would be marginal for a month, while we put max effort into watch standing quals. This could have been considered a CY A letter, but it was not offered or taken as such. The squadron appreciated our situation and helped in any way they could. All’s well that ends well and we felt good returning from patrol with the broomstick signaling clean sweep. I suspect a letter like that would never have been written or considered acceptable in the Russian Navy. This was just a lesson from the required Rickover Reports.

Reading about the consequences of reporting bad news in the Russian Navy, I couldn’t help but give thanks for the training we had to report the truth (as well as the tolerance and understanding of our mentors). Again, a personal story came to mind. As CO of NOTU, down at the Cape in FL, I recall noting an unfavorable trend when 2 of my 40 In Tube Conversion specialists requested return to sea duty. This was after lengthy (and costly) factory training, followed by constant deployments to convert our Trident missiles to test configuration for DASOs and OTs. While under-way on a DASO workup with our In Tube Conversion Officer, a few questions resulted in an all night session building a time-line of requirements on our troops.

Now, understanding why this duty was more arduous than sea duty, we made a list of 10 fixes. Next was a call to my boss (Di-rector of SSP) for an opportunity to brief him on a matter that I felt could jeopardize our mission if not corrected. Not only was the Admiral there, he had assembled his entire Board of Directors and other key players. After the brief, he asked why we couldn’t bring the Charleston boats to the Cape for conversion. I felt it would be a disservice to the ships crew, taking them from homeport to make life easier for our troops. After consulting with his BOD, he not only took our 10 fixes but added his own, taking the mountain to Mohammed.

That was the last transfer request I saw. Just last evening, 25 years later, I met a salesperson at the local Home Depot near the Cape, who had the demeanor of a 4.0 sailor. When I asked what he did in real life … you guessed it … an In-Tube Conversion team member. A few more questions revealed that my 10 fixes were still in place and life was good. The moral of the story … the opportunity and encouragement to tell it like it is, has been a prime ingredient to making SSP the model program office in DOD for 50 years. What a great opportunity to work in that environment vice the Soviet style Navy.

Both of these personal examples were mirrored in the conduct of our contractors. I once read an internal book written by Dr. Daryl Stewart, President of Lockheed Missiles and Space Corporation to his employees detailing his values and the way he wanted business conducted. One chapter was a parable of the Walrus on the top of the rocks who only wanted and would accept good news. Slowly but surely the walrus tribe was whittled away by a nearby tribe without a single bad news report. Later as CO of 3 separate commands, I made that required reading for my troops with occasional reminders that walrus behavior was unacceptable. Someone once asked me what walrus behavior was. Time to reissue the parable. Thanks for the lessons, Dr. Stewart.

Back to KURSK, the problems with loading the infamous Fat Boy torpedo (lack of maintenance and training with no loading facilities in their home port), was a contrast to my tour as CO of SWFPAC in Bangor, WA. However, even we had a constant bout with the crane keepers and I’ll never forget one incident that occurred after a year with no leave. Taking off a few days to ski the slopes of Whistler, I called in the first afternoon to check on things. My extremely competent X.0. asked if I wanted the good news or bad news first. While installing the loading hoist on top of a Trident missile, a Marine guard noted a whiff of smoke from the overhead crane and sounded the fire alarm that in seconds reached back to the CNO in the Pentagon. The whiff of smoke was quickly established to be from a locked up brake cylinder. Fortunately everyone had responded correctly. The training pro-gram was declared fully satisfactory but the failure of a simple solenoid had triggered the perfect test. Those things happen but you never know when.

Recognition of the tactical problem and willingness to act were critically missed by the Russian hierarchy within the first 2 hours of the blast and are detailed in three pages of if only’s ending with one word … If. Summarized, these lessons are:

  • Think worst case from the beginning and believe your indication.
  • Share your info.
  • Worry about deteriorating conditions (e.g. weather).
  • The commander must be where he gets the best info and can command.
  • Understand your own tested capabilities and get needed help early from all sources.
  • Give proper value to human lives.

We’ve heard it all before but what is so interesting is reading the flesh on these bones, e.g., the possible use of the commercial sector’s little known hot tap penetration of the hull, using a Cox bolt gun. And, if only the Russian fleet had summoned their diesel rescue sub with 2 mini subs, but … they had scrapped it in 1995 due to budget cuts … which again is the primary lesson (and am-munition) for our procurement folks when they need to make their case. The KURSK is the example.

A few other interesting quotes and details (well documented) were:

  • The Russian divers’ statement, “We’re 20 years behind” made onboard the Norwegian dive boat.
  • Missing brass buckles taken by precious metal scaven-gers rendered the escape equipment useless.
  • Commodore David Russell (British Rescue Commander) and his team “vent over this seemingly homicidal xeno-phobia.”
  • KGB Major Putin’s low point occurred when he requested help from Moscow as his Dresden HQ was targeted by revelers following the breach of the Berlin Wall, and hears: “Moscow is silent.” Disillusioned with Moscow, he returns to St. Petersburg to become a full time taxi driver. Ten years later when the Kursk is in trouble, “Putin is Moscow.”
  • The KURSK wives view: “The government is deceitful, incompetent and inhumane.”
  • KURSK was the second choice for this exercise since the first choice had too many deficiencies and now can’t even join in the search since she has been so cannibalized by the KURSK.
  • When the Russian government would not release the sailing list of those on the seabed, a Russian Naval Offi-cer sold it to the press for $650.
  • When CSL (V ADM Grosenbacher) was first notified about KURSK, not trusting landlines, he called his neighbor ADM Gehman (head ofNATO submarine ops) for a sunrise meeting on the street between their homes. (This latter vignette is typical of the insight conveyed re the communications between the White House, NSC, State, JCS and other interested parties.)
  • An on-scene transmitted list of missing consumables (basic but needed) from the Russian rescue vessel re-sulted in the statement that anything not welded down was fair game.

Funny how these stories hit home. The last one reminded me of a missing spare magnetron for the Support Ship radar we used to track the British Trident missiles at the Cape. The ship was contracted from MSC by the Air Force but SSP had supplied the spares. Turns out the AF had transferred our magnetron to sup-port their own similar land based radar without informing us. This resulted in a scrub and unhappy UK customers. I won’t embarrass anyone with the gist of my letter as CO NOTU to the AF but it was endorsed all the way up and down the chain. Needless to say the problem was quickly fixed and a very valuable agreement was forged. Similar letters would be written, but not sent, if they fixed all future problems in a timely manner. From that moment on, the local AF commanders were my best friends and their support markedly improved.

It is clear from reading this book that the lack of training, man-ning problems, and pressure to meet commitments, all caused by funding deficiencies, lined up perfectly to destroy the hopes of returning a hollow Russian Submarine Force (and government) to credibility.

While the original purpose for writing this article was two-fold … to highlight what happens when you build a hollow force, and then encourage the use of KURSK lessons when defending our budgets, another thing happened. I discovered there is great fun in relating one’s own sea stories and reflecting on how fortunate we were to have such astute and respected mentors!

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