The Oscar-class of Russian submarine is a replacement of the aging Echo-class boat. Another "Boomer" like the Typhoon, the Oscar is smaller, nuclear-powered, designed primarily for attacks against carrier-groups, in the waters around the former USSR. At a maximum displacement, (under water), of 24,000 tons, they are small in comparison to the big Cruise ships or battle craft that sail the surface of the seas, but they are no less fascinating. With a double-hull, one inner pressure hull and the outer hull (hydrodynamic), the walls of the sub contains 8inches of rubber to contain sounds, (for those who always wondered why sailors from the "old days" had to stay quiet in "U-boats" but don't have to make such efforts at being silent in today's subs, now you know). In contrast, American subs have only one pressure hull, with added fairings, like the cover that goes over the bow. Much like taking a poster-tube and putting it inside another tube.
All of that insulation
on the Oscar-class sub adds natural buoyancy to the boat and an added
layer of material to absorb the impact and explosive energy from a conventional
torpedo. Because of the raw size of these subs, it is generally believed
they are slow and cumbersome, when in fact they can attain a below-surface
speed of 30 knots, an amazing speed considering the depths and tonnage
of the boat. Enough to chase down an American destroyer or aircraft
In the early 1990s,
the Russian navy had to make a series of choices to preserve its resources.
In doing so, they retired the original Oscars (Granit) in 1996, allowing
for the deployment of the newer Antey Oscars. It is believed that at
least 11 Oscar II (Antey) subs were built between 1985-1999 at the Sevmash
yard in Severeodvinsk. It is also believed that at least as many as
three were decommissioned and were waiting scrapping by mid-2000. (Most
of this is conjecture due to the rapid demise of the Soviet Union and
the fast distribution and destruction of information). Of course, these
subs were not without their problems. In 1998, a moored Oscar suffered
a major accident with its nuclear power plant's cooling system. During
routine testing, a pipe broke, allowing poisonous ammonia and nitrogen
gas into the engine room. Four crew were injured, one Engineering Captain
died two days later from exposure to the mix.
On August 12, 2000, the Oscar II-class Antey Kursk (K-141) sank 100 miles from Murmansk, in the Barents Sea while participating in the Atlantic fleet's summer exercises with 30 other craft. The boat went down quickly in 350' feet of water. No buoys were launched, no radio signals were received. It was not known why, nor is it today, at least not publicly.
A lot of confusion surrounded this event. There was much speculation that the sub sank because of an impact with the propellers of a surface ship, but none of the ships involved reported any impacts. Other speculation suggested the sub collided with an American sub supposedly observing the exercise, however land-based listening stations reported hearing two underwater explosions then the sounds of the sub hitting the bottom and nothing else to indicate a collision with another underwater craft. What was known, was that there was no immediate radiation leak, as tests showed no elevation in natural radiation levels, and that the reactors had shut down, part of the automatic function of the reactors in the event of some sort of accident, thus not indicative of any survivors being aboard.
Theories began to evolve that an internal explosion in the torpedo room was responsible. Reports suggested that a "tapping" was heard from the sunken hulk. The Russian navy sent in two rescue submersibles down to the wreck to investigate. She, (he in Russian grammar), was found sitting upright on the seabed, with some damage visible. Much confusion clouded the reality of the situation. One erroneous report suggested that a rescue ship had a line down to the sub and was feeding oxygen and power to it. Another suggested to sub was listing by 60 degrees. Another report said radio communication was restored on the second day. Despite the "tapping", the Russian navy already began forecasting a grim outcome. On the 15th of August, 3 days after the sinking, the Russian navy finally lowered a diving bell, only to fail due to poor weather, and a second attempt was made. Again, failure due to poor weather.
The world was watching
and it seemed nothing was happening fast enough. The weather was against
the Russian navy but wouldn't have been if they had acted sooner. The
event was getting much publicity not only for the tragedy itself, but
also for the veil of secrecy the Russian government attempted to draw
over the event. Many lies were told regarding the possible reason for
the sinking. Many more were told regarding the possibility of the reactors
failing; the likelihood of survivors; the government's slow reaction
to act; the Russian President's apparent lack of interest in the matter.
The Russian government finally acquiesced on the evening of that Wednesday,
asking for both British and Norwegian help. Most of the NATO partners
in the Baltic regions went on standby almost immediately at the beginning
of this event and were therefore fairly ready when the request was made,
so they were able to mobilize very quickly and depart for the region
in only a few hours' delay. The British submersible was on-site by Saturday
and by then, not much hope was left, although the Russian government
was suggesting that if there were survivors, judging by the level of
external damage to the sub, then there should have been enough oxygen
left for a group of 30 to survive for two weeks, ignoring scientific
suggestions that stipulated that a buildup of carbon-dioxide would kill
them before a lack of oxygen would.
By September, it
was agreed that an international effort would be made to raise the Kursk.
Russia was unable to do this on its own. The Norwegian company Stolt
Offshore was contracted to recover the bodies of the crew, and were
provided with blueprints to facilitate cutting into the hull to remove
them. As September is notorious for bringing strong storms into the
region, it was decided that the sub would not be raised until sometime
into 2001. However, another challenge presented itself when it was realized
that no one had the machinery capable of lifting such a large vessel,
now full of water. Public outcry remained strong against President Putin's
action and the continuing conflicting reports of what happened. President
Putin himself said that there was never any tapping heard from the crew,
but since they died instantly, it was obviously a mechanical device
on the sub that was creating such a sound. But it was later found out
that some of the crew did survive. Among the first four bodies removed
initially, one was Lt. Demitry Kolesnikov. He was found in the ninth
compartment, in the propulsion area. On his body was a note, detailing
that some of the crew had survived and that they evacuated to the propulsion
compartments to await retrieval:
This was a tragedy, that as always, should not have happened, but this time, we truly don't know why it happened. Those men died a horrible death. It should not be celebrated, they should have been saved. They were alive. Lostliners knows that life at sea is hard and sometimes, deadly.
Next: Chapter Two: The Wait for Closure
In an operation
that has taken 14 months to conclude, the Russian nuclear submarine,
the Oscar-class Kursk, has arrived in her homeport of Murmansk. In the
Arctic port of Roslyakovo, near Murmansk, the Kursk sat in about three
meters of water after the barge; the Giant4 released her hold on the
hull of the Kursk.
After sometimes-severe complications, the Kursk was finally raised from the seabed of the Barents Sea after more than a year after the explosion that sent one of the Russian navy's most sophisticated submarines to the bottom. The operation was not only a costly one, but one of the most ambitious submarine recovery operations ever attempted. After coming under severe criticism for not postponing a vacation at the time of the accident, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised the families of the sub's crew that the Russian navy would raise and return the sub to it's home base and bring her crew home for burial. Two weeks after the catastrophic explosion that sent her to the bottom, Swedish divers recovered the bodies of 23 of her crew, who survived the initial explosion.
Theories abounded as to the cause of the sinking and as yet, the hulk has revealed no answers. Sitting in dry-dock, water being pumped from her bowels, initial inspections of the hull have revealed more information about the intensity of the explosion. As the hull rose from the waters, radiation tests have been nominal. Fears ran strong that the nuclear reactor of the Kursk would be too unstable after more than a year in salt water and the frigid temperatures of the Barents Sea. Amid criticism from around the world addressing the plan to cut-off the bow of the sub before raising it, the Russian Navy performed this complicated maneuver in conjunction with British salvage operators, who were sealed in a pressurized compartment for the duration of the operation, in their off-hours.
The plan was simple
in its conception. Simply attach two rotating motors on either side
of the hull by an armor-piercing cable that would jigsaw from left-to-right,
therefore slicing through the debris and many decks of the sub. Unfortunately,
unexpectedly strong currents, and miscalculated amounts of debris, hindered
the operation, sometimes the cable would either snag on debris or snap
due to resistance and the current, creating an increasingly dangerous
environment for the divers on the bottom.
The first step of the operation was to install the cutting motors on either side of the hull and secure them to the seabed. As the cable would be stretched across the bow section to begin cutting, other divers would cut holes into the hull further back where cables with grapnels will be inserted to raise the sub. Much like a folding arrowhead, the grapnels were inserted into the hull folded-in on themselves, and then they were slowly opened until the edges grasped inside the hull, thereby securing a locked-open position within the superstructure of the sub. 26 cables were attached and in a 15-hour lifting process, the Kursk was raised with computer-controlled motors that monitored the stresses on each cable, allowing the tension on each cable to be adjusted individually as it was raised. The Kursk was not raised directly to the surface but just below, in fact. The Kursk was to be raised to just under the bottom of the Giant4; a sub-raising barge designed much for a situation like this. Tank experiments were conducted over the past year to see if the Kursk and the Giant4's hulls would be compatible. The idea, again simple in it's design, was that the Kursk would be raised to just under the barge, whose open-bottom hull would allow the sub to fit just under it, then the bottom would close slightly under the sub, while remaining attached via the cables. Once the sub arrived in port, Kursk was detached and allowed to settle in dry-dock, where the surrounding water was pumped out, thereby revealing at first, the coning-tower or "sail" of the sub.
obvious intensity of the explosion was revealed. The windows in the
coning tower are designed to resist the outside pressures of a depth
of 1500 feet of water. Every one of these windows was blown-out. As
she was slowly revealed further, more sections of the hull showed evident
damage from an internal-concussive explosion. Taking into account the
fact that a submarine is essentially a tube, an explosion anywhere inside
would be further intensified by the tube-shape since it would be containing
the explosion, not allowing it to expand but focusing its energy in
one direction only. Anyone in its path would have been pulverized by
the concussion. Although this is questionable, there are many who believe
the truth still lies on the bottom of the Barents Sea. But for most
people involved with the Kursk, the most important thing has been returned:
the remains of her crew. Or so it is hoped.
As of this date (October 28, 2001), investigators have begun penetration of the hull and disassembly. The temperatures discovered to have ran through the sub destroyed most everything inside, rendering almost everything visually unidentifiable. Work on the Kursk will be slow. She was only 8 years old. Most subs are designed with a life expectancy of 15 - 20 years. Also making the recovery and disassembly extremely difficult is the level of destruction and the fused materials. Items must be identified before being removed further. Although there have been no indicators that the structure has been weakened by this ordeal, one must assume that is stable. The Kursk recovery has captured the public's eye since the very beginning. Nothing remotely similar to this has openly occurred since the USS Thresher disappeared in 1963. The Kursk sinking, like the Titanic did for the world, will have ramifications in Russian society. Public outcry for the Russian president's seemingly cold attitude toward the loss of the sub and her crew, became overwhelming. Never before would the public openly criticize the Presidency and the Russian navy. The world was watching. They couldn't get to the sub in time. It seemed like they let those 23 survivors die. It seemed like they had secrets to keep. They may still be keeping them. We don't know if the truth will ever be found out. The previous theories have resurfaced. But will we ever know? Not even those aboard the Kursk in the first few seconds before the explosion may know.
It takes a special kind of man to serve in a submarine; no one will ever deny that. Especially when you live in a country of economical upheaval where people had to line up for bread. When you believe so much in your country, in the faith that your country can become something better than it has been, your beliefs make it just a little bit better a place to live. To give your life for that country is the ultimate act of faith; of patriotism. But to have that country seem to turn its back on you, on your sacrifice, is the ultimate insult to patriotism.
There are a lot of questions about what happened that day in August 2000. Was it a mine? Was it a defective torpedo that "cooked-off"? Was it a collision with an American submarine observing the Russian military exercise the Kursk was participating in? Was it a misfired torpedo from another Russian sub? To date the favored theory is that of a malfunctioning torpedo. The torpedoes the Kursk was carrying at the time were known for their instability. Whatever the case may turn out to be, LostLiners and its partners offer their moral support to those who are being reminded of their loss from last year. Although recent world events have changed focus from the waters of Russia, the loss of the Kursk and her crew is no less grave.
We sympathize. We feel. We fear.
Next: Chapter Three: Remember the Fallen
the third and probably last installment on the sinking of the Russian
submarine Kursk, it was finally and officially designated that it was
a malfunctioning torpedo that detonated inside the torpedo bay of the
once-monstrous and proud K-141 Kursk.
As the Kursk was removed from the muck and broke the surface of the Barents Sea and made ready for transport to outside of Murmansk, and the recovery of its unfortunate crew, the world watched quietly and with the certainty that 'we knew what went wrong. After the extensive evidence made available by both Nato and Russian sources, it was commonly believed that it was an errant or malfunctioning torpedo that destroyed the Kursk. Despite Russia's assertions that it was a collision with a Nato sub or a World War II mine, the world believed it was the torpedo.
After the bulk of the Kursk was raised, the wreckage was sent to the Nerpa ship repair plant in the town of Snezhnogorsk, outside of Murmansk, for dismantling. In what was looked-upon as a 'curious sort of operation', the Kursk was cut in two pieces before being salvaged, the nose, (torpedo room), being left on the bottom of the Barents Sea. Although many around the world watched this operation with curiosity and the hope of closure to a sad tale, we all wondered: ' Why leave the piece that had the evidence in it, behind?' Although the truth to this question may never officially come about, this past May, the last remains of the sub were raised. And yet the questions remain. Although the Russian Government's official statements were that they believed that any remaining, intact torpedoes left, were too unstable for recovery, one has to wonder how then, could they any more stable now, after being exposed to the extremes of the Barents Sea?
So another question
forms: What were they hiding? Perhaps the last secrets of the Cold War.
Will we ever know? Probably not. There were so many secrets on both
sides of the Iron Curtain. Here is what is known. Due to a highly unstable,
though widely used fuel, (hydrogen peroxide), there appears to have
been a leak from the deadly torpedo. Due to the chemical nature of the
fuel, even the most minor type of spark could set off a fire. This first
torpedo caught fire, exploding in the small, cramped torpedo room. Although
this torpedo didn't have a warhead because it was being used in an exercise,
those surrounding it, were combat-ready. Twenty seconds later, the other
torpedoes 'cooked-off'. The massive concussive energy of that blast
blew out the forward two-thirds of the sub, flooding it within seconds
and sending it to the bottom. With 24 of her crew still alive in her
remaining, intact rear-quarters, the world watched, as bungled and weather-cursed
attempts were not producing any substantial results to save those men.
One week later, when the rescue hatch of the aft section of the sub
was opened, allowing carbon-dioxide-poisoned air escaped the sad truth
revealed itself. All 24 were dead.
"The two-year long inquiry - which Russian TV says looked at 18 different versions of the event - ruled that a fuel leak in a defective torpedo caused the disaster and the death of 118 crew members. The report also said that navy commanders could not be prosecuted on criminal charges either for the loss of the ship or the death of the crew as no one could have foreseen the accident. The chief prosecutor, who presented the report, said relatives would be allowed access to the files but said the inquiry was now officially closed, but the relatives say they are shocked no one was directly to blame for the accident. "The report was done in such a way to imply that the crew was responsible for the disaster," the mother of a crewmember who died in the disaster, Galina Eparkhina, told Russian radio. "We already know that a faulty torpedo is to blame. The question is why it was allowed to be on board in the first place," she said, pulling no punches in apportioning blame. "I think it was the commanding officers' fault."
She accused the authorities of trying to silence the relatives, and remove them from the Kursk's Arctic base of Vidyayevo "so that we wouldn't ask awkward questions". "We have become outcasts," she said, adding they had "been forgotten. Nobody is helping us". (Quote: BBC News) Such is the disbelief and anger of the relatives that they will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights for a re-examination of the 100-page report. In the port of Vidyayevo, where the crew was based, relatives of the dead laid wreaths at a black granite memorial, dedicated to the Kursk, representing the torn bridge of a submarine, and threw red carnations into the Barents Sea. In Moscow, a bronze statue commemorating the disaster was unveiled to mark the second anniversary of the sinking.
Is this the end of the Kursk's Story? For the sake of truth, one hopes not. However, the truth is often the first victim of politics and personal agendas. Whatever may be revealed in the future, LostLiners and this author in particular, dedicate this story to the men who were just serving their country and died for it. Let it be known, your sacrifice is noticed and mourned throughout the world. May you rest in peace and sail the seas of tranquility.