Written by Olivier Guiberteau
As dawn broke on the morning of the 12th August 2000, the first large-scale Russian naval exercise since the collapse of the Soviet Union just under a decade before was set to begin.
Known as the “Summer-X” exercise, the operation consisted of 30 ships and three submarines,
among them the Kursk, a Project 949A Antey submarine, also known by its NATO designation, Oscar Class. It was a vessel that already developed a sizeable reputation, with many even whispering that the Kursk could withstand a direct torpedo hit that made it more or less unsinkable.
What began as a routine military operation quickly escalated into a crisis that rocked Russia and left much of the world looking on in horror as it finally became clear that the imperious and “unsinkable” Kursk would not be returning home.
The Kursk submarine disaster was a harrowing ordeal for the families of the crew on board as time ebbed slowly away and the possible window for any rescue attempt came and went. It led to a furious reaction within Russia at the perceived ineptitude of the Russian Navy and the astonishing disregard for life shown by the nation’s leaders.
It remains a harrowing story of naval disaster and national pride that may well have prevented a rescue.
The Kursk was a fearsome beast of a submarine measuring 154.0 meters (505.2 ft) – twice as long as a Boeing 747. One of the thirteen Oscar I or Oscar II submarines produced during the 1980s and 1990s aimed to combat U.S aircraft carrier superiority, the Kursk was commissioned in December 1994 but completed only one mission during its first five years of service.
The Oscar II class represented the pinnacle of Soviet – and then Russian – submarine technology. They remain the second-largest cruise missile submarines ever after some of the U.S Ohio Class subs were modified in 2007. The Kursk came with an 8.5 mm (0.33 in) high-nickel, high-chromium stainless steel outer hull, a 50.8 mm (2.00 in)-thick steel pressure inner hull, and a 1-to-2 meter (3-to-7 ft) gap between the two. Easily enough to break through thick Arctic ice and according to rumours, enough to prevent a torpedo strike.
In terms of weaponry, the submarine was armed to the teeth and came with 24 SS-N-19/P-700 Granit cruise missiles, eight torpedo tubes in the bow, as well as 18 SS-N-16 Stallion anti-submarine missiles. She was unquestionably a formidable opposition, but the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union had seen not only the traditional enemy emerge as the widely perceived victor, but huge funding cuts across all Russian armed forces that had begun to seriously affect military capabilities.
To really explain what happened to the Kursk, we need to backtrack a little to the 1990s, because the funding cuts to the Russian military, and in particular the Navy, would come back to haunt the country.
While the 1980s was far from smooth, Soviet military spending had remained high as it attempted to keep pace with the booming U.S military budgets. New weapons, ships, and submarines were constantly appearing, but the fall of the USSR, and the quick understanding that it would be impossible to maintain the status quo, meant that Russian military spending was slashed.
The 1990s was a wild ride for the Russian nation as its economy lurched unsteadily after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian GDP dropped by around 50% between 1990 and 1995, a crash that far outweighed even what occurred in the U.S during the Great Depression.
The period also saw two failed coups and the kind of astonishing financial impropriety that saw the rise of the many oligarchs that we still see around today. Let’s be clear, there was a lot of money in Russia, but it became concentrated around a very select few as mass privatization swept the country. As the economy began to sag, the nation needed to make serious cuts to have any hope of balancing the budget.
The only area that retained anything approaching a sufficient budget was Russia’s nuclear forces, while other areas saw enormous cuts. This had been particularly apparent within the hugely expensive to run Russian Navy where sailors even went unpaid and services were stripped back to the bare essentials including vital front-line equipment used for search and rescue.
The Dictatorship of Law
In 2000, a young, but wildly ambitious politician campaigned for the presidency, under the slightly chilling slogan ‘the dictatorship of law’. Vladimir Putin promised to reign in the staggering corruption and plundering that had left Russia a pale shadow of its former glory, and it worked, as he was elected President on 7th May 2000.
One of Putin’s ambitions from the very get-go was to reignite a sense of pride in the Russian nation and a degree of fear in those who stood against her. Large-scale military practice drills were planned and it wouldn’t be long until Russian bombers began making their long-distance patrols once again, something that had been seen since the Soviet days.
These kinds of drills were without a doubt designed to show off the Russian military, but as we’ve seen, the Russian military was nowhere near what it used to be.
Summer X Exercises
In early August 2000, preparations for the largest Russian naval exercise since the disbanding of the Soviet Union nine years before were nearing completion. In total, 30 ships were taking part, including the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and Pyotr Velikiy, a battlecruiser ranked as one of the largest surface “line of battle” warships in the world.
Also taking part in the Summer X Exercises were three submarines, including the K-141, more famously known as the Kursk. The Kursk was a hugely respected ship and, as I mentioned earlier, it even came with the uber-ambitious tag of being “unsinkable” – but let’s be honest, after the Titanic, you’d have thought people would stop saying that about naval vessels.
However, the crew on board as the submarine prepared for the Summer X Exercises were far from grizzled naval veterans. This was a young group of men who had only limited experience between them but with only a relatively simple set of procedures required during the exercises, there was little doubt that the crew of the Kursk could handle their mission.
12th May 2000
On 12th May 2000, naval vessels assembled off the coast of Russia in the Barents Sea were preparing for the day’s planned exercises. Just before 9 am, the Kursk requested formal permission to launch two practice torpedo drills. The approval came through almost immediately and the crew on the Kursk prepared to launch.
Now, there is a lot we still don’t know about the Kursk submarine disaster as only a four-page summary of a 133 volume Top Secret report was ever released.
One of the mysteries is what occurred between 9 am and 11.29 am when the first torpedo was fired. We don’t know whether this delay was down to events on the submarine or whether it was ordered to hold fire. All we know is that at 11.29 am, a practice Type 65 “Kit” torpedo was loaded into Kursk’s number-4 torpedo tube on the starboard side and seconds later, the order came through to fire.
At exactly 11:29:34 am, seismic detectors around the world picked up an event that measured 1.5 on the Richter scale. It was placed in an area northeast of Murmansk, around 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the Kola Peninsula. Russian Naval vessels too reported the explosion, but many simply assumed it was all part of the drill and continued as normal.
Two minutes and 14 seconds after the first, another, far-larger explosion left little doubt that something had gone catastrophically wrong. The second explosion, which erupted at 11:31:48, was over 250 times as powerful as the first, measuring 4.2 on the Richter Scale – the power of a small-ish earthquake – which also came with the strength of 2-3 tons of TNT.
Seismic patterns showed that the second explosion had most likely occurred on the seafloor around 400 meters (1,300 ft) from the first. Most well-schooled in deciphering the complex language of underwater sounds were left with little doubt about what had happened – somewhere out there, a submarine had just exploded.
But despite media reports and the gentle urgings of other governments and their navies, Russia initially remained silent on the issue.
Considering how large the explosion had been, it seems quite unbelievable that the Russian Navy didn’t expect the worst. A helicopter was soon dispatched to search for the Kursk but failed to find anything. At the same time, search and rescue teams based at the Northern Fleet base at Severomorsk, not too far from where the incident had occurred, were placed on high alert.
Earlier we mentioned that the Russian Navy had taken a real post-Soviet budget beating and tragically for the survivors who now hurdled in the stricken Kursk as the bottom of the sea, search and rescue capabilities had been savaged.
The Russian Navy had once operated two India-Class submarines that each carried a Poisdon Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV) but both submarines had been laid up in a shipyard since 1994 waiting for repairs and general upgrades.
This left the 20-year-old former lumber carrier, Mikhail Rudnitsky, the only ship in line to assist with the submarine rescue. It came with two AS-34 DSRVs, both of which should have been more than capable, but unfortunately, the Rudnitsky lacked stabilizers capable of keeping the vessel in position during stormy weather, meaning any rescue attempt would need to be done in calm seas.
At 6 pm, with the Kursk having missed a scheduled communication check, the Russian Navy ramped up its efforts with more aircraft and ships joining the search. At 10.30 pm, the Summer X exercises were officially cancelled, and with mounting concern, the full attention of the Russian Navy now turned towards finding the Kursk.
While the Russians were throwing everything they had in the search for the missing submarine, officially the incident was downplayed. Vladimir Putin was at the time on holiday in Sochi and it would not be until 7 am the following morning when the President of Russia was finally informed that one of its nuclear submarines was missing.
By this point, other nations around the world already had a pretty firm idea of what had happened, and once the Russians formally announced that the Kursk was indeed missing, Britain, the U.S, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, and Norway, offered to help in any way they could. All offers were firmly rejected by the Kremlin. It was a case of thanks, but with the rescue already underway, we can find our own submarine.
It immediately became clear that the Russian government had absolutely no intention of accepting outside assistance, either because of pride or the fact that the Kursk was considered a gem of the Russian Navy and one which came with plenty of highly classified technical information that the Russians would be loath to fall into foreign hands.
But while the international back and forth gathered pace, it was back at the Vidyaevo Naval Base, the Kursk’s home station, where rumours began to swirl as early as the morning of the 13th August. Information was patchy and tightly controlled but slowly it became clear that a submarine was in serious trouble – which one however was not immediately clear.
The Mikhail Rudnitsky arrived in the area where the Kursk was thought to be in on the morning of Sunday 13th August. While setting anchor, the crew thought they heard a faint sound coming from the depths, but this was soon dismissed as the sound of the anchor hitting the sea bed – although later reports seem to suggest that it was in fact the remaining survivors on the Kursk.
At 5.30 pm, the first DSRV was slowly lowered into the water and for a brief time hopes climbed that they may be able to save whoever was left onboard. But unfortunately, this simply began a steady series of problems that would not only hamper the entire operation but highlight with brutal clarity the limitations of the Russian Navy at the time.
To begin with, the DSRV collided with a large object underwater, which was soon identified as the Kursk, but with the vehicle damaged in the accident, it was forced to the surface for repairs. In the meantime, the second DSRV was dispatched to the murky depths below, but quite unbelievably failed to locate the submarine and eventually had to surface.
A salvage tug, the Nikolay Chiker, arrived that evening and using camera equipment was able to film the wreck of the Kursk, a shattered mess with a deep open scar running along its side. The submarine was listing at a 25-degree angle and had dug about 22 metres (72 ft) into the clay seabed. The Kursk lay at a depth of 108 meters (354 ft) with its periscope still raised, suggesting it had been close to the surface at the time of the accident.
The following morning, the now repaired first DSRV descended once again but failed to attach the aft escape trunk over Kursk’s ninth compartment because the vacuum seal failed repeatedly. With its batteries fading, the vehicle once again surfaced and in what must be one of the most glaring acts of incompetence throughout the entire rescue mission, no reserve batteries had made the trip and those on the surface were forced to sit and wait while their batteries recharged.
In a final act of torrid luck, the weather turned against the Russians, and with winds increasing to 15–27 m/s (29–52 knots), and the waves rising to 1.2–2.4 m (4–8 ft), all rescue operations were suspended. What little hope the men still alive within the carcass of the Kursk had, began to fade.
Whatever you might think of the state of the Russian Navy at the time and those higher up who dallied at the most critical time, we do need to give enormous credit to the Russian sailors at the scene who did absolutely everything they could over 5 days. Time and time again the DSRVs descended but repeatedly failed to secure the vacuum seal and any hope that Russia had of saving face and carrying out the rescue themselves all but disappeared.
Five days after the two explosions, the Russian government formally accepted outside assistance, and British and Norweigan teams arrived on the scene on the 18th August, along with divers from the Russian 328th Expeditionary rescue squad, part of the Navy’s Office of Search and Rescue.
But even here, the Russians insisted on several demands, namely that the international divers focus only on the stern of the ship and that Russian divers should be the ones to enter the Kursk – no doubt to clear up any sensitive information that was lying around. This was said to have infuriated the foreigners in attendance who saw it as a serious impediment to the rescue, but the Russians remained steadfast.
It wasn’t until the 20th of August that the first remotely operated vehicle (ROV) approached the Kursk and not until the following day that the hatch on the rescue trunk of the submarine was finally opened. It was at the point that the faintest glimmers of hope were finally extinguished, the entire submarine had flooded and all 118 men on board were dead.
Battle of Narratives
The immediate days after the Kursh disaster were nothing short of a complete disaster for the Russian government. Not only did it reveal their military as disorganized and at times shambolic, but images of Putin enjoying himself in the Sochi’s August sunshine in the days after the disaster went down like a lead balloon.
It is worth mentioning at this point that Russia in 2000 was very different than it is today. Just over twenty years ago there remained at least some form of independent journalism that was unafraid to call out Putin over the military’s response.
But you can take Russia out of the Soviet Union, but you can’t necessarily take the Soviet Union out of Russia. Shades of Soviet coverups and brazen lies soon emerged as the Russian government sought to counter the devastating narrative that was emerging from both the international and Russian media.
Even before the international team had arrived, the story that the Kursk had collided with a NATO submarine, rather than experience two enormous explosions, began to emerge. This is one narrative that has continued up to the present day and many refuse to admit that the pride of the Russian navy was simply brought down because of poor maintenance and out-of-date torpedoes.
A 133 volume report was compiled in August 2002, and while the overwhelming majority was never released, a summary described the incident as occurring because of “stunning breaches of discipline, shoddy, obsolete and poorly maintained equipment”, while lambasting rescue attempts for its “negligence, incompetence, and mismanagement”.
The cause of the accident was found to be one of the practice torpedoes which experienced a leakage of high-test peroxide (HTP), a form of highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide. The resulting explosion caused a fire than burned to 2,700 °C (4,890 °F) before setting off the second explosion that included the remaining torpedoes less than three minutes later.
The second explosion punched a 2-square-meter (22 sq ft) hole in the boat’s hull that flooded much of the submarine and sent it careening into the seafloor.
While the Russian government went to great pains to assure the public that nobody had survived the blasts, evidence suggested otherwise. 23 men remained alive after the second explosion and gathered in the submarine’s ninth compartment where an escape hatch was also located.
It seems here Captain-lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov, head of the turbine unit in the seventh department, took control of the situation and wrote two notes that were later recovered by rescuers, one penned at 1.15 pm and the other at 3.15 pm. It was noticeable the difference in handwriting in just two hours with oxygen and hope fading, the second note read,
“It’s dark here to write, but I’ll try by feel. It seems like there are no chances, 10–20%. Let’s hope that at least someone will read this. Here’s the list of personnel from the other sections, who are now in the ninth and will attempt to get out. Regards to everybody, no need to despair. Kolesnikov”
It’s not clear how long the 23 men survived in compartment nine at the bottom of the sea. Perhaps 2 or 3 hours, maybe a little longer. But gradually the last of the flickering lights went out and with carbon dioxide consuming their tiny space, the men who had survived the explosions drifted slowly towards unconsciousness.
The Kursk submarine disaster was a painful ordeal for just about everybody involved. The Russian government’s attempts to spin the narrative infuriated the relatives of the deceased and it painted the nation as borderline incompetent to the rest of the world. The once-great Soviet Union was long gone and so was the aura that once accompanied it. It was a devastating event to occur so early in Putin’s presidency and he has spent the best part of the next 22 years attempting to reestablish Russian prestige on the world stage.
Kursk submarine disaster – Wikipedia
The True Story of the Kursk Submarine Disaster (popularmechanics.com)
Russian admiral: Kursk disaster caused by NATO sub (navytimes.com)
What really happened to Russia’s ‘unsinkable’ sub | Kursk submarine tragedy | The Guardian
The Coronavirus and the Kursk Submarine Disaster | The New Yorker