Four Doubts Related to the Kursk Tragedy

by Xian Fengli

Why the Kursk Crew Were Unable to Save Themselves

According to an official Russian report, the initial rescuers got in touch with the submarine crew by knocking on the hull after Kursk sank. But such contact stopped soon after, meaning the crew was in no condition to continue communications. Various signs show that the submarine sank in a very short time, and, while it was sinking, crew members had no way to save themselves other than waiting for the fatal drop to the seabed at a depth of some 100 meters.

It is well known that a submarine is composed of various sealed chambers, and when something goes wrong in one or more chambers, the crew immediately try to move to safer areas and close the airtight hatches to isolate the trouble. When the accident is not so serious, self-rescuing strategies can be adopted to avoid loss of both the submarine and the crew. If the accident is very serious, the submarine will seek to send a SOS. It is obvious that the Kursk crew were unable to do either. The reasons could be twofold. First, affected by a huge blast, each airtight hatch could not be properly closed, or efforts to close them were too late, resulting in flooding of most chambers in a twinkling.

Consequently, the crew had no time to move to safe areas. Second, an external force distorted the hatches of some chambers, and, although they were closed, water leaked in, gradually flooding the remainder of the boat.

Why There Were No Survivors

Both the United States and Russia suffered casualties during previous nuclear-powered submarine accidents. Some submarines are still stranded on the seabed several thousand meters down.

A submarine usually sets out on a voyage on its own, and spends a long time hidden underwater to carry out special missions. As it keeps in touch with the land command center through communications at regular scheduled intervals rather than continuously, it can be some time before the land center learns of any accident. In case of the Kursk, it probably sank within a short time following a severe accident. The crew had no time to take self-rescuing measures, and the external rescuing efforts lost any chance of success. Such a catastrophe is fatal to a submarine and is beyond human capacity. This perhaps is the fundamental reason why there were no survivors on the Kursk.

What Caused the Disaster?

The Kursk, a fourth generation nuclear-powered submarine of the former Soviet Union, belongs to the "Oscar" II attack class. It is 154 meters long, with a displacement of 13,900 tons. This submarine model has a double-hull structure, and there is 4m-distance between the pressurized and non-pressurized hulls to cope with collision or torpedo attack. It would be almost impossible for such an underwater monster to sink instantly, unless it was severely damage. Divers discovered the submarine was seriously wrecked with a huge hole near the bow and all sections flooded. The degree of damage indicates that the destructive force came directly from inside the vessel, not from outside. The most likely sequence of the events is that the torpedoes and cruise missiles the submarine carries detonated in chains due to some cause, destroying the front of the boat and allowing seawater to pour in. Some part of the boat's equipment accordingly became distorted, and the seawater rapidly flooded the entire vessel, sending it to the seabed at high speed.

But, what kind of force could cause the detonation of ammunition inside the submarine? I'm afraid this is now an insoluble mystery. Even if the sunken vessel is salvaged some day, there are difficulties to solve the mystery for political and military reasons. At present, there are four guesses: first, collision between the submarine and other ships; second, collision between the submarine and an unidentified underwater object; third, the submarine being hit by torpedoes; and fourth, breakdown of the arms launching units on the submarine.

Why Russia's Rescuing Endeavor Proved Ineffective

After the Kursk sank, Russia eventually launched its rescue effort. But no matter what it did, it is evident that there was no clear-cut judgment as to what had happened to the vessel. Why did Russia, a previous great military power, miss the point in terms of rescue? The reasons could be as follows:

First, as the Russian military has long suffered from fund shortages, the maintenance of crucial weaponry has been unable to ensure the continued high quality of the huge armament left by former Soviet Union. Worn down by the years without repair, many armaments have hidden dangers. Some ships and vessels have to be anchored in harbor instead of putting to sea. Under such circumstance, it is possible to guess what was the state of the rescue equipment and training responsible for guaranteeing submarine safety. Russia's rescue capsule was unable to dock properly with the escape hatch of the submarine, nor were divers able to open the escape hatch to get inside the submarine. This actually is a true reflection of the reality in the Russian military today. Suppose there were survivors inside the submarine for some time, I'm afraid the Russian Navy could not save them in time relying on its own strength.

Second, conditions for the rescue were very poor. The depth of water in the area where the Kursk sank was only about 100 meters, and the water pressure was not great. Normally it is not very difficult to rescue at this depth. But in the following days after the disaster, the area was plagued with vile weather. Strong winds and high seas created great obstacles. The serious damage to the submarine itself, with its body tilted, also added to the difficulties of linking the rescue capsule to the Kursk. In addition, the backwardness of Russian rescue equipment and unskilled operation also contributed to the failure.

(CIIC 09/05/2000)

*The author is a naval arms specialist with the Beijing-based the Academy of National Defense.

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