In the 1980's the East and West had been in a high-tech duel. While America built up her military forces, the Communist Soviet Union could not keep pace and, in 1991, finally collapsed, leaving the United States as the lone super power of the world. Huge amounts of Russian military hardware were mothballed and more than 100 submarines and warships - including search and rescue equipment - were decommissioned and left to rot in the harbors of the Kola Peninsula, home of the Russian Northern Fleet. Some frontline equipment was retained and maintained along with the soldiers and sailors needed for respective their operation but the majority of Russian military men were out of work and not being paid. As such, many went home and did what they could to feed themselves and their families.
Despite all this loss of power within the Russian government, the military somehow found a billion rubles for "Project 949A Antey" and constructed the K-141 "Kursk" - the largest attack submarine in the world. She would become one of the most important and highly feared anti-ship weapons ever developed.
The Kursk was built at the Severodvinsk docks and launched and commissioned in 1994. The hull was 30-feet longer than the previous Oscar I-class submarines, being some 505-feet in length. She had advanced electronics and was more maneuverable than the Oscar I boats while still being even quieter - surprise was the ultimate goal of a hunter-killer. She was twice as long as a passenger Jumbo Jet - so long, in fact, that additional room allowed all the senior officers to have their own individual state rooms. She was so large that upgraded extras never seen on American boats were added such as a sauna, solarium, swimming pool. It didn't stop there - also included were an aquarium and an aviary. The Russian navy felt the additions were a good idea for crew morale due to the low rates of pay and extensive time spent away at sea.
Kursk was built with a 2-inch "double hull" which comprised of an inner pressure hull and an outer hydrodynamic hull - the latter made of a concentrated content of nickel and chrome stainless steel some 8.5mm thick. The distance between the hulls provided additional buoyancy and for the crews mental welfare, the designers indicated the hull design improved their survivability against American torpedoes. The outer hull had a minute magnetic signature that helped avoid detection by American submarines through Magnetic Anomaly Detection (MAD) systems. The inner hull was divided into nine watertight compartments making her, some thought, unsinkable. To break through the Arctic ice the large sail superstructure was reinforced. Onboard, she could hold enough supplies to stay submerged for 120 days at a time. Her weapons were formidable with 24 x P-700 Granit supersonic cruise missiles (each having a range of 550km) and the massive 650mm 65K torpedo tubes capable of launching both torpedoes and anti-ship missiles. The Kursk also had 4 x 533mm torpedo tubes for SS-N-16 Stallion anti-ship missiles, these having a range of 50 km.
Her powerplant consisted of 2 x OK-650b pressurized water nuclear reactors delivering 120,700 shaft horsepower, in turn, powering 2 x steam turbines with these delivering 49,600 horsepower each to 2 x shafts, these fitted with 2 x 7-bladed propellers. The large boat was slow when diving and unhurried to maneuver, but they had a submerged speed of about 30 knots which proved sufficient in keeping pace with the American carrier task forces.
Even in the mid-1990's, the Northern Fleet sailors had still gone unpaid but the situation changed by 1999. The Kursk carried out a reconnaissance mission in the Mediterranean, shadowing the US Navy's Sixth Fleet during the Kosovo War. In August of 2000, the Russian Navy held a fleet exercise in the Bering Sea with more than thirty warships and three nuclear submarines in play. To monitor the exercise, the American Navy sent two submarines - the USS Memphis and the USS Toledo - along with a number of surface ships while Norwegian and US aircraft were overhead on watch. Like the "Belle of the Ball" coming late to the party, the pride of the Russian Fleet - the Kursk - joined the exercise on the 10th and the training began with a massive firing of surface ship weapons of all kinds. While submerged, the Kursk successfully launched her most advanced cruise missile - the Granit - with a dummy warhead.
On August 12th she was ordered to pull back from the main fleet so she could test fire one of her largest 650mm torpedoes (again using a dummy warhead) at the Pyotr Velikiy, a decommissioned Kirov-class battlecruiser. Fleet Admiral Popoff, from his flagship Peter the Great, a heavy missile cruiser, radioed to the Kursk at 9am to fire the torpedo and Kursk acknowledged the signal - this would be the last anyone would hear from the submarine. Something, it seemed, had gone terribly wrong and no one had heard from her for two days despite her orders to maintain radio contact. The day she went silent, at 11:28am, the USS Memphis, charged with monitoring the fleet, had picked up two underwater explosions.
The Russians launched a rescue mini sub but due to previous Russian Navy cutbacks, the vessel was old and few knew how to operate it. As such, the mission to reconnoiter the Kursk subsequently failed. On August 16th Russian divers found the Kursk lying on the bottom of the Barents Sea in 350 feet of water not far from the Russian military complex at Murmansk. The divers said they heard faint knocking but were unable to open the outer or inner hatch because of a lack of proper tools and necessary experience. The men of the Kursk, it seemed, were doomed.
In true Soviet fashion, the Russian military had put a blackout on the disaster but news leaked out to the Russian public, resulting in their people crowding churches to pray for the men to be safely recovered. The Russian government refused offers of help from the British and Norwegian governments and, after a week, all hope for a rescue was lost. Finally, relenting due to pressures from Kursk families, the British and Norwegian divers were allowed to try to gain entrance to the submarine. The drivers worked for 7 hours and opened the hatches, finding the inner spaces flooded. They then examined the Kursk from bow to stern, finding the double hull ripped open with a hole more than 200 feet long. It now became evident that the crew and observers onboard had either drowned or suffocated within a few hours of the accident.
Grief-stricken family members demanded an explanation and the Russian Navy felt one of the American submarines following the Kursk had collided with her, causing the sinking. The American Navy rebuked the charges but the Russian Navy insisted in trying to keep blame from their underfunded military complex. The collision was put to rest when the British Blacknest Institute proved that, at the time of the loss of the Russian submarine, two underwater explosions were, in fact, recorded. The Russian military insisted the noise was from a collision with an American submarine but Blacknest provided data showing a collision supplied a different sound than that of an underwater explosion. The two explosion events were recorded 135 seconds apart - the first registered 2.2 and the second 4.4 on the Richter scale.
Western experts felt the explosions were due to the failure of one of the Kursk's hydrogen peroxide-fueled super cavitating 650mm torpedoes. They surmised that HTP, a form of concentrated hydrogen peroxide used as the propellant for the torpedo, was the culprit. Some of the HTP may have seeped through a rusted area in the torpedo casing thus causing the explosions. HTP was a cheap fuel and was used by the Russians as torpedo propellant as a cost-saving measure due to the lack of funds supporting the Russian Navy. In 1955, a British submarine was similarly lost when a torpedo using HTP exploded in the tube, sinking the submarine and killing 13 of its crew.
The Russians did not have the naval salvage equipment that could raise the sunken submarine and delayed hiring western companies that had such expertise and equipment. This need for western assistance exposed and embarrassed the Russian government on how limited their abilities were when faced with a disaster at sea like the Kursk. In 2001, two Dutch companies - Mammoet and Smit International - were contracted to raise the Kursk using the barge Giant 4. The barge was towed into place above the wreck but progress was slow due to regional storms. When the weather conditions improved, 26 steel cables were attached from the barge to the 18,000-ton vessel below and the Kursk wreckage was lifted off of the seabed floor. When it was raised to the surface, the submarine was attached to the bottom of Giant 4 for transport to a dry dock near Murmansk, Russia, to be examined for the cause of the sinking.
The Northern Fleet sent four tugs, a hydrographic vessel and, as escort, the cruiser Pyotr Veliky to bring the Giant 4 holding the Kursk back to the port complex at Murmansk. Once port had been made, the Russian Navy and salvage workers indicated the Kursk's reactors have been safely shut down and were not a danger. Work continued and the navies removed the remains of the sailors for burial and also removed the 22 Granit supersonic cruise missiles onboard. The bow was cut off before the body was lifted and, due to financial constraints, it was never raised and was destroyed by explosives in 2002.
The official investigation indicated the first blast detonated 5 to 7 torpedoes, causing a series of internal explosions that blasted a 200-foot hole forward that was measured on a geological seismometer as far away as Britain. The secondary explosions fatally damaged the Kursk. The Russian government denied claims that the sub's Granit cruise missiles were carrying nuclear warheads. Officially the report concluded that a faulty torpedo sank the Kursk. The remains of Kursk's reactor compartment were taken to Sayda Bay on Russia's northern Kola Peninsula. There the reactor compartments were defueled in early 2003 and the boat was dismantled.
After the first explosion, 23 crewmen made it to the aft 9th compartment - one of these crewmembers was Captain Lieutenant Dmitriy Kolesnikov. Recovery workers found notes on his body addressed to his wife talking about the men's final hours. The Russian military read the sorrowful personal notes in the media to the Russian nation. Worldwide sympathies and donations for the family's soon poured in.
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