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FIRE AT SEA: The Tragedy Of The
Soviet Submarine KOMSOMOLETS
Edited by K. J. Moore

Potomac Books, Inc.
Washington, D.C.
267pp-$35.00-ISBN 1-57488-426-3
Reviewed by RADM Thomas Evans, USN(Ret)

This extraordinary book chronicles the sinking in 1989 of the K-278, Komsomolets, the Soviet Navy’s newest and most advanced nuclear attack submarine, known to NA TO and the West as the Mike Class. While on her initial operational deployment in the Norwegian Sea on 7 April 7 1989, the ship foundered and sank as the ultimate result of an uncontrollable fire in the engineering compartments and related hull flooding. Of the 67 members of the crew, 42 men perished. Tragically, the ship could have been saved had a different set of pre-deployment preparations, training, command decisions, and casualty corrective actions occurred.

K-278 (Project 685) was a mystery to Western intelligence organizations until her rollout at the Severodzinsk shipyard on the White Sea. She was laid down in 1978, launched in 1983, and commissioned in late 1984. Initial analyses predicted that K-278 would be an advanced, nuclear attack submarine development platform with a double hull and titanium pressure hull, which proved accurate. An expected power plant of two liquid metal reactors turned out to be a single pressurized water reactor more in line with other newer attack submarine classes. At a length of 117.5 meters and 8,500 tons submerged displacement, this was a large submarine. She mounted six 633-mm (21-inch) torpedo tubes, and could fire ASW missiles, and was fitted with a completely modem acoustic sensor suite. The overall ship design produced a fully capable warship with unprecedented depth performance.

K-278 was a deep-diving, highly automated submarine with a small crew of only 57 men, nearly all of whom were supposed to be officers and warrant officers, with just a few conscripts. The ship clearly required a highly trained, technically skilled crew supported by a robust maintenance, training and logistics infrastructure ashore. An extensive and very successful trials and regional operations period lasting from 1984 to 1988 included a record-setting operational dive to over 1300 meters.

In October 1988, she was honored by becoming one of the few Soviet submarines to be given an actual name: Komsomolets, “A Member of the Young Communist League”. The first major period in the short life of Komsomolets had now ended. In a sense, the ship’s fate was about to be sealed. FIRE AT SEA is the story of her demise.

The author of FIRE AT SEA is D.A. Romanov, who was the chief designer of Komsomolets. Following the disaster and the release of the results of the Soviet State Commission that conducted the formal investigation, the Soviet Navy immediately laid virtually full blame for the loss of the ship on the submarine design bureau. In the book, Romanov presents a vigorous defense to that indictment, seeking to prove that inadequate training and qualification of the replacement crew assigned to conduct the forthcoming operational deployment period, and poor operational decisions by both the command staff ashore and by the Commanding Officer at sea during the disaster were principally to blame. His convincing objectivity in this difficult task is evident.

Tempering Romanov’s narrative analysis is the skillful editorial role played in this important naval documentary by K. J. Moore, a former U.S. Navy Submariner and a preeminent submarine warfare technologist and engineer. The overall result is provocative and compelling.

At 1100 on the morning of 7 April 1989, Komsomolets was submerged at deep depth when a fire was reported in the 7th and last compartment in the ship. Alanns were sounded but damage control response was very slow. Fed by atmospheric control air bleeding into the compartment, the fire rapidly went out of control. The ship surfaced at 1011. Attempts were made to isolate the after compartments, but they were unsuccessful. Ultimately the fire spread and smoke contaminated the ventilation system. The intense heat caused hull fittings to fail and flooding began in the stem area. Longitudinal stability over the next few hours gradually degraded.

Radio communications were finally established with submarine shore command, but confusion and delays prevented an accurate report from being understood and the gravity of the situation was not recognized. IL-38 patrol aircraft finally appeared on the scene and relayed messages ashore. Rescue ships in the area were finally dispatched, but too late. The captain finally ordered all those still below decks to lay topside, but in such a rush that many men were unable to obtain life jackets and exposure clothing. Attempts to rig life rafts were hampered by confusing release mechanisms and waves washing over the deck.

It is important to note that the crew had never conducted an Abandon Ship exercise during the pre-deployment period.

With rescue ships over an hour away and the ship on the verge of sinking by the stern, the order to abandon ship was finally given at about 1645. The captain and four other men who were still below decks hastily entered the rescue sphere and attempted to rig it for release. As the ship began to slide below the surface at a steep angle, they tried to launch the sphere. The sphere finally broke free and rose rapidly to the surface. When the five survivors opened the hatch, pressure in the chamber blew one man out the hatch, one scrambled out into the sea, and the sphere sank taking three men to the bottom. By the time the rescue ships finally arrived in the growing darkness, only 25 survivors in the sea remained alive out of the 67 embarked.

During the investigation and open criticism discussion that followed, the following critical causes of the disaster (among others) were revealed and debated, with blame variously assigned according to the roles of the debating parties. From the perspective of a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine officer, these become very clear from reading this book. Pre-deployment training and qualification for the ship and crew were totally inadequate and incomplete. The ship’s approved manning document was liberally altered to substitute conscripts for warrant officers without proper compensation. A critical master damage control document, equivalent to the U.S. Navy Damage Control Book from which individual compartment damage control bills were to be developed was never prepared and delivered to the ship by the building yard and the Navy. And the list goes on and on.

The story of the death of Komsomoletsand the Soviet Navy’s corrective actions plan should have produced sweeping changes to Submarine Force training, qualification and certification; manning and assignment policy; technical and maintenance support and assistance; and a philosophy of safety first above all. Of course it did not, despite numerous lofty, official pronouncements of such a plan. If this initiative had moved forward with forceful execution, could the Soviet Navy have prevented the August 2000 loss of the OSCAR-Class SSGN KURSK which suffered a catastrophic internal exercise torpedo explosion in the Barents Sea that sank that huge warship with the loss of all 118 hands? Perhaps. As history has shown us, it did not.

Fire At Sea is a riveting account of what happens when leaders ignore the cardinal principles of operating a highly technical and sophisticated warship intended to patrol on the precipitous edge of a hostile and unforgiving environment, the deep sea. This important book should be mandatory reading for all submariners, and at the same time will be a fascinating and disturbing narrative for all readers interested in modem naval warship technology and its uncertain challenges

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