Suicide at Sea: Russia’s Kursk Submarine Was Responsible for Its Own Downfall

 In Sea, CIS, Russia, P5

Here’s What You Need To Remember: A Russian inquiry into the acci­dent con­clud­ed that one of the Kursk’s Type 65 – 76A tor­pe­does had explod­ed. A faulty weld in a tor­pe­do or damage to a tor­pe­do during move­ment had caused it to leak hydro­gen per­ox­ide. Like many tor­pe­does, the Type 65 used hydro­gen per­ox­ide as an under­wa­ter fuel. Unfortunately, hydro­gen per­ox­ide becomes explo­sive when it comes into con­tact with a cat­a­lyst, such as organic compounds or fire.

In 2000, a Russian sub­ma­rine designed to sink air­craft car­ri­ers became a victim of its own arse­nal. The cruise-mis­sile sub­ma­rine Kursk suffered a massive explosion and sank after an onboard tor­pe­do acci­den­tal­ly det­o­nat­ed. The acci­dent was the worst naval dis­as­ter suf­fered by post – Cold War Russia.

The Soviet Union’s great­est adver­saries at sea were the air­craft car­ri­ers of the U.S. Navy. With their ver­sa­tile air wings, American car­ri­ers could frus­trate the Warsaw Pact’s plans wartime plans, doing every­thing from escort­ing con­voys across the Atlantic to bomb­ing Soviet Northern Fleet bases above the Arctic Circle. They also car­ried nuclear weapons, making them excep­tion­al­ly dan­ger­ous to the Soviet coast­line.

The Soviets’ solu­tion was the con­struc­tion of the Oscar-class sub­marines. Some of the largest sub­marines ever con­struct­ed, they dis­placed mea­sure 506 feet long with a beam of nearly sixty feet — nearly twice that of the Soviet Union’s Alfa-class attack sub­marines. At 19,400 tons sub­merged, they were larger than the American Ohio-class bal­lis­tic-mis­sile sub­marines.

They were large for a reason: each Oscar car­ried two dozen huge P‑700 Granit mis­siles. The P‑700 was a large mis­sile designed to kill large ships. The P‑700 was thirty-three feet long and nearly three feet wide. Each weighed 15,400 pounds each, most of which was fuel for the ramjet-pow­ered engine which pro­pelled the mis­sile at speeds of Mach 1.6 to a range of 388 miles. The mis­sile packed either a 1,653-pound con­ven­tion­al high explo­sive war­head, enough to damage an air­craft car­ri­er, or a five-hun­dred-kilo­ton nuclear war­head, enough to vapor­ize a car­ri­er. The mis­siles would be fed tar­get­ing data from the Legenda space sur­veil­lance system, which would hunt fast-moving car­ri­er battle groups from orbit.

The mis­siles were con­cealed beneath the hull in two rows of twelve, in silos point­ed upward at a sev­en­ty-degree angle. It was this arse­nal that earned them the then-unusu­al SSGN des­ig­na­tion in the West, with the G stand­ing for “guided mis­sile.”

If that weren’t enough, the Oscars had a large com­ple­ment of tor­pe­does. Each sub­ma­rine had four stan­dard-diam­e­ter 533-mil­lime­ter tor­pe­do tubes that could launch stan­dard homing tor­pe­does, SS-N-15 “Starfish” anti­sub­ma­rine mis­siles or SS-N-16 “Stallion” anti­ship mis­siles. It also had two over­sized 650-mil­lime­ter tor­pe­do tubes for launch­ing Type 65 – 76A tor­pe­does against larger ship tar­gets. Together the six tubes were armed with twenty-four tor­pe­does.

The Oscars needed to be fast to inter­cept American nuclear-pow­ered air­craft car­ri­ers, and that meant they too needed nuclear propul­sion. Each was pow­ered by two OK-650 nuclear reac­tors that togeth­er pro­vid­ed 97,990 ship­board horse­pow­er. This accel­er­at­ed the sub­marines to up to fif­teen knots on the sur­face and a speedy thirty-three knots under­wa­ter.

Twenty Oscar-class sub­marines were planned, but only thir­teen were built before the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union. K‑141, also known as Kursk, was laid down in March 1992 and com­mis­sioned into the Russian Northern Fleet in December 1994.

On August 15, 2000, the Kursk was on exer­cise with major ele­ments of the Russian Northern Fleet, includ­ing the air­craft car­ri­er Admiral Kuznetsov and bat­tle­cruis­er Pyotr VelikiyKursk, which was fully loaded with Granit mis­siles and tor­pe­does, was sched­uled to make a sim­u­lat­ed attack on an air­craft car­ri­er. At 11:28 a.m., an under­wa­ter explo­sion was detect­ed fol­lowed two min­utes later by a second, larger explo­sion. One Russian account claims that the twenty-eight-thou­sand-ton bat­tle­cruis­er Pyotr Velikiy shook from the first explo­sion, and a Norwegian seis­mic sta­tion recorded both explo­sions.

Kursk had suf­fered two mas­sive explo­sions and sank in 354 feet of water at a twenty-degree ver­ti­cal angle. An explo­sion had ripped through the front of the hull, tear­ing a ter­ri­ble gash along the upper bow. Still, at least twenty-three of the 118 crew had sur­vived the sink­ing, as a note penned by one of the ship’s senior offi­cers, Lt. Capt. Dmitri Kolesnikov, indi­cat­ed. The note was dated exact­ly two hours after the ini­tial explo­sion. Rescue efforts by Russian — and later British and Norwegian — teams failed to rescue the sur­vivors.

A Russian inquiry into the acci­dent con­clud­ed that one of the Kursk’s Type 65 – 76A tor­pe­does had explod­ed. A faulty weld in a tor­pe­do or damage to a tor­pe­do during move­ment had caused it to leak hydro­gen per­ox­ide. Like many tor­pe­does, the Type 65 used hydro­gen per­ox­ide as an under­wa­ter fuel. Unfortunately, hydro­gen per­ox­ide becomes explo­sive when it comes into con­tact with a cat­a­lyst, such as organic compounds or fire. A sim­i­lar acci­dent is thought to have sank HMS Sidon, a Royal Navy sub­ma­rine, in 1955.

Conspiracy the­o­ries regard­ing the sink­ing of the Kursk are rife on the Russian Internet. Many allege that nearby American attack sub­marines sank the Kursk with Mark 48 tor­pe­does. While tech­ni­cal­ly pos­si­ble (in absence of the evi­dence of an inter­nal tor­pe­do explo­sion) there is no remote­ly plau­si­ble motive for such an attack during a period of good U.S.-Russian rela­tions. Why attack the Kursk? Why was only the Kursk sunk, and not the Kuznetsov and Pyotr Velikiy? Why would the Russian gov­ern­ment cover up the attack?

In the end, the sink­ing of the Kursk appears to have been caused by a simple, freak acci­dent of chem­istry. The tragedy only rein­forces how dan­ger­ous life aboard a sub­ma­rine really is, and how impor­tant safety is in the under­wa­ter realm. Finally, the rush to con­spir­a­cy is a warn­ing that, had this inci­dent occurred during a gen­uine crisis, such an acci­dent could cause a dan­ger­ous esca­la­tion that could lead to war.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and nation­al secu­ri­ty writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofound­ed the defense and secu­ri­ty blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami. This first appeared in November 2016 and is being repost­ed due to reader inter­est. 

Image: Reuters.

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