Military History blog

The tragedy of Russian submarine Kursk

On December 1994, Russia officially completed the construction of a submarine nuclear-powered K-141 named Kursk. It was one of the twelve ships of Project 949A (according to the code of NATO – Oscar II). 949A was the best technology the Soviet military possessed at that time.

It’s purpose, if used, would  be an attack on Western aircraft carrier strike groups. Equipped with torpedos and maneuvering missiles, their size was smaller than the Soviet Project 941 (Typhoon) and the US Ohio class submarines. Due to the double hull ships, the 949A was described as unsinkable. They were also outfitted with steel armor that had low magnetic properties, which significantly hindered their discovery. Kursk and every ship of this class has a strategic importance for Russia, and their presence on the sea and ocean had to be included in the plans of NATO’s generals.

August 12, 2000, Kursk participated in the summer maneuvers of the Russian Northern Fleet in the Barents Sea. About 11:28 AM local time, there was an explosion on the front of the ship. Two minutes later, the ships torpedoes exploded due to a fire that swept a large part of the unit. The explosion tore a 2-foot hole in the ship’s hull and sent a shock over 3.5 degrees on the Richter scale. Kursk immediately sank to the bottom of the sea, at a depth of 108 meters.  Only 23 of the 118-person crew survived these explosions. After falling, they hid in the last compartment and waited for help.

kursk_wreck
Excavated wreck of K-141 Kursk
Source: wikimedia.org

Before we move to the question of the cause of the explosion, we have to write about the rescue and misinformation enlarged by the Russian authorities. First, immediately after the explosions, units participating in the exercise thought that they were planned and did not take any action in relation to Kursk. It was not until Saturday (a few days later) evening, after unsuccessful attempts to contact the ship, had the rescue begun. Attempts to deliver electricity and oxygen to the Kursk failed.

The Russian government did not inform about the occurrence until Monday, August 14. Russia was in despair and expressed national mourning. It was the tragedy of an entire nation who had just lost one of its most powerful warships, all while being misinformed by their own government. Russian authorities gave out conflicting information, saying for example, that the Navy had made contact with Kursk’s crew, or that the ship sat at the bottom of the crash and the whole situation was not serious.

oscarii
949A-class submarine (Oscar II)
Source: Public Domain, wikimedia.org

The British and the Norwegians offered to help with a rescue mission, but the Russians refused. Perhaps they were afraid to disclose their technology or downplay the problem. On Wednesday, they asked for help from Norway and Great Britain, but it was too late – due to their tardiness, they killed 23 people in the 9th compartment of Kursk.

On 21 August, Norwegian and Russian divers found the bodies of the 23 remaining sailors in the ship’s ninth compartment, and with them a note from the captain of one of the sections,  Dmitry Kolesnikov, who before his death wrote a note:

12.08.2000 15:15 It is dark to write but I will try by feel.
It seems there is no chance, 10 to 20 percent.
Let’s hope someone will read this.
Here is a lists of the personnel of the sections who are in the ninth (section) and will try to get out.

Hello to everyone,
there is no need for despair
Kolesnikov

Those sailors had probably died as a result of a fire, caused by a severe interaction the water had with the chemical system used to purify the air of carbon dioxide.

kolesnikow
Kolesnikov’s note
Source: Public Domain, wikimedia.org

What exactly caused the explosion and sinking of the Kursk? The official reason, distributed by the Russian government talks about the sudden outbreak of a torpedo 298a PV caliber 650 mm, which is considered by the Russian navy to have a high risk to break down. There are several other theories that try to explain the catastrophe of the ship. Most of them are not supported by solid evidence, but it is worth quoting those deemed somewhat logical.

The first is the hypothesis that the torpedo which exploded was no standard 650mm torpedo, but the new weapon of the Russian navy – Supercavitating torpedo Shkval. What is this weapon? As you know, the normal torpedo moves by overcoming the resistance of the water. The new torpedoes the Russians use the phenomenon of cavitation, it means that the torpedo is surrounded by armor from the air that produces very little resistance in the water. This gives the Shkvals incredibly fast (the official version speaks of 230 miles/h)speeds, but lose their coverage. The possible outbreak of such weapons in the Kursk could be used by the Russians, who were afraid of the bad publicity for it’s export product.

The second version of the story comes from the French director named Jean-Michel Carré, who made a documentary Koursk: un sous-marin en eaux troubles (Kursk: A Submarine in Troubled Waters). According to him, the maneuvers the Kursk engaged in the North Sea followed two American atomic submarines, the USS Toledo and the USS Memphis. Americans knew that it will be an attempt to launch the Shkvals and that from the deck of the cruiser Peter the Great will observe the representatives of the Chinese navy, interested in buying torpedoes. The US did not want to let this happen, so Toledo tried to sail very close to the Kursk so it could not safely fire a torpedo. Apparently, these two ships came together too and there was a collision. Memphis heard the opening of the torpedo hatches on a Russian ship and wanting to protect the Toledo so it fired in the direction of Kursk torpedo Mark 48, which hit the front of the unit and led to the first explosion. According to this theory, the Russians had immediately picked up two squadrons of combat aircraft capable to sink submarines, but they were turned back at the personal order of Putin. The truth of this hypothesis could confirm the fact that immediately after the incident, to Moscow had been sent to the head of the CIA George Tennet to speak with the Russians. Also, the debt of Russia in relation to the US has been reduced. However, the film depicting the extraction of Kursk doesn’t show any damage on the ship pointing to an external attack.

Documentary “Kursk: A Submarine in Troubled Waters”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrKaX0rdBe0

Other theories that were listed in the media after the crash are:

  • Hooking “Kursk” one of the surface ships, most likely Peter the Great
  • Influence from the unexploded bomb from World War II
  • Mistakenly hit by a torpedo fired from another Russian ship
  • Failure of torpedo tubes’ flaps
  • Rust in the fuel for torpedoes
  • Suicidal action of one of the crew members of the Muslim Dagestan as an expression of support for the Chechens fighting with Russia.

The real cause of the sinking of the submarine Kursk should be disclosed under the declassification of documents related to its sinking.

Source The Guardian Ops.mil The New York Times
1 Comment
  1. Tam Kinnear-Swift says

    While there are many mysteries surrounding the sinking of the K141, like why the explosion wasn’t investigated when it was first detected by the Peter the great, why the underwater rescue vessel had not been tested on the hull of the Kursk (which was fitted with 8 inches of acoustic rubber) and why the Russian officials lied and said first off that it was only a malfunction and that they had established communications etc. which understandably makes anything released by them in future questionable, the acoustic data recorded by several stations across Alaska and Europe all tally with the actual damage found on the K141.

    The collision theory is rubbish, the size of the K141 in relation to a Los Angeles class or a Swiftsure class submarine, would mean the Los Angeles of Swiftsure would have been completely destroyed by the collision, if not, so damaged it would have had to surface. The reports of the Memphis being damaged are also clearly rubbish. It docked in Norway several days later, right opposite a big housing estate in Bergan, clearly visible to all and sundry. If it was damaged in an incident of this nature, i would have been hidden away in the dry dock cut into the mountain, which was only a mere hundred or so yards away in the same port, and hidden well away from prying eyes.

    The torpedoing theory is also rubbish. the American MK48 torpedo, when tested by the Australian navy on a decommissioned destroyer, thats right, a destroyer, tore the ship in half, right down the middle. there was no little hole entry followed by the devastation zone, just a big explosion impact zone followed by a big crack the width of the destroyer (google it, you’ll see what i mean) any MK48 torpedo that would have hit Kursk would have totally obliterated it, not just caused damage to the forward 5 sections.

    The tests on the type of torpedo that were carried out in the wake of the K141’s recovery, were consistent with the initial theory of the torpedo exploding in the tube. Multiple tests were carried out by using explosives under the torpedo, dropping the torpedo, lighting fires under the torpedo etc, and could not replicate the explosion in any way externally. This means the initial explosion could have only come from inside the torpedo tube, and the only source of this explosion logically, is a leak in the HTP (High Test Peroxide) reservoir which mixed with a substance that caused the rapid expansion of pressure and heat within the torpedo tube.

    This in turn caused a fire that super heated the forward cabin to a temp of between 2000 and 5000 degrees, which in turn caused the fatal explosion of the other 4-8 torpedoes.

    Either that, or it was due to a ‘Shkval’ torpedo misfiring. a ‘Shkval’ is a super-cavitating torpedo that reduces water resistance by producing a gas bubble around the torpedo, which minimises water resistance. The Shkval is rocket powered and can likely achieve speeds in excess of 370 MPH, making it almost impossible to defend against.

    It is theorised that the rocket motor fired whilst still in the tube and before the tube had been flooded, causing the first explosion picked up by the acoustic data when the hatch door was blown off (the hatch door was found embedded into the rear bulkhead of the torpedo room confirming the was some sort of explosion in the tube) this then superheated the chamber and caused a number of the remaining conventional torpedoes to ‘cook off’ and explode

    This was the event that registered 3.5 on the richter scale and was picked up over several thousand miles.

    Of course, the Russian government has never actually announced that they were testing a new type of Shkval that day, but then, if they were, they would hardly announce it, even after the accident.

    Occum’s razor suggests that the simplest answer is most often the correct one. And i’m afraid, that in the case of the K141, this actually is the case. Somewhere between the official HTP explosion and the unofficial Shkval explosion theory, is likely the truth. But either way, have no doubt that it WAS a torpedo explosion in the tube that caused the Kursk’s sinking.

    Although given the Russian governments attempt at covering things up and lying at the beginning of the whole saga, i can totally understand why people think there is more to it that.

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