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.

Excavated wreck of K-141 Kursk

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.

949A-class submarine (Oscar II)
Source: Public Domain,

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

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.

Kolesnikov’s note
Source: Public Domain,

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”

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 The New York Times

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