On August 12, 2000 the nuclear powered Russian submarine, ‘Kursk’ sank in the Barents Sea, for reasons unknown. It would be years before the fate of the Kursk was fully understood, and even now there is still some controversy surrounding it. But it’s hard not to wonder, what happened out there that day?
Today, we’re going to take a look at what happened to the Russian submarine that exploded and killed 118 sailors.
The Kursk submarine was a big, burly piece of Russian engineering. Specifically, the Kursk was what was known as an Oscar II Project 949A/Antey, which is to say, a nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine designed and built to go after NATO aircraft carrier groups. From an engineering perspective, the Oscar IIs were built with a double hull separated by 3.5 millimeters and were divided into 10 different compartments. The sail had a reinforced double cover, which was designed to give the sub the ability to break through the arctic ice cap.
At a length of about 154 meters, it was 10 meters longer than the previous Oscars. 11 of these subs were made 1985 and 1999, and several of those are actually still in service today. These big boys were considered pretty much unsinkable. So when the Kursk went down on a training exercise, it really caught the Russians off guard.
It was at 11:28 AM on August 12, 2000 while doing training exercises in the Barents Sea, that an explosion rocked the Kursk. The vessel quickly sank to the seabed, 354 feet below the surface, and came to a rest at the bottom of the freezing cold watery depths. Just a little more than 2 minutes after the initial explosion, a second more massive one took place inside the Kursk. What was supposed to be an exercise wherein the Kursk fired two dummy torpedoes at the Russian battle cruiser, the Pyotr Velikiy, had turned into a real life drama that had the world watching in disbelief to see if any members of the 118 member crew would survive.
However, it would be several long agonizing hours before anyone even knew if anything was wrong. The first indication that something was amiss came when the Kursk failed to check in that evening. At that point, the Russians sent out rescue ships, which located the accident area the next morning, on August 13. All of the initial rescue attempts failed however, due to a combination of factors, including poor weather, the angle of the Kursk, and perhaps most significantly, a lack of appropriate rescue equipment.
The United Kingdom, the United States, and Norway all offered to assist with rescue operations, but the Russians refused the assistance, at least they did it first. Four days after the initial disaster, the Russians changed their minds and agreed to accept international help.
Putin Didn’t Return from his Vacation in Response to the Disaster
As all this was going down the newly elected President Putin was vacationing in a resort on the Black Sea. You would think losing a nuclear submarine would send the new president leaping into action but Putin, not so much. Instead of cutting his vacation short, Putin stayed on holiday for four more days. While Putin claims that it wouldn’t have made a difference in the handling of the incident, since he is connected to the military everywhere he goes. Even he admitted that in retrospect, it would have been better to return to Moscow, at least for public relations sake.
118 Crewmen Perished
The delay in asking for international help may have been a major mistake. When Norwegian divers finally managed to open the Kursk’s airlocks on October 21, they did not find the survivors they were hoping for. Instead they found that the cabin had been flooded and concluded that all 118 crewmen had been tragically killed. Saddest of all, when they found the body of Lieutenant Captain Dmitri Kolesnikov, they noticed a note in his pocket. It was written several hours after the explosions, and there were 23 survivors. Unfortunately, rescue crews did not arrive in time for them.
Initially, some high-level Russian officials claimed that the accident was caused by a collision with a NATO submarine that was spying on the maneuvers. According to this claim, the USS Memphis collided with the Kursk and then went to a Norwegian port for emergency repairs. While there is no direct evidence that this occurred, the theory can’t be completely dismissed. The Russians supported their assertion by pointing to satellite imagery of a US submarine that was docked in a Norwegian port on August 19, a few days after the accident and a collision wouldn’t have been unprecedented. There have actually been 11 such collisions recorded in the area since 1967.
The Explosion Registered on Seismographs in Alaska
The explosion that ultimately destroyed the Kursk must have been massive. At least that’s what’s suggested by seismic readings of the event. Here’s how it went down, first there was a small explosion that registered on seismographs. Then 135 seconds later, there was a second explosion, it was an astounding 250 times larger than the first. The second explosion was so big it registered all the way on the other side of the Arctic circle, in Alaska.
Whether a collision occurred or not, the United States did admit to having submarines in the area monitoring the Russian naval exercises. And after the initial incident Russian dive teams found, what they claimed to be a piece of a conning tower from a US or British nuclear submarine. The object couldn’t be raised from the seabed however, and the Russians guarded it with warships so that no other nations could approach the debris. It was around this time that the Russians claimed the remains belonged to the USS Toledo, a different US submarine that actually was docked in Scotland at the time of the accident.
Not everyone is on board with the collision theory, others have suggested that the Kursk was testing experimental torpedoes at the time of accident. However, how the experimental torpedoes may have caused the accident remains unclear.
Theories range from a malfunction in the squall torpedo itself, to NATO subs firing on the Kursk in order to destroy the Squall. While none of this can be entirely ruled out, the Kursk wasn’t known to have had any squall torpedoes aboard at the time of the accident.
While the collision theory and the squall theory are both plausible, the most credible and likely explanation are both plausible, the most credible and likely explanation for the accident is that it was caused by a malfunctioning torpedo, which set off a chain reaction that caused the rest of the torpedoes on the Kursk to explode. The first explosion that registered would therefore have been the initial torpedo explosion, and the second explosion would have been when the resulting fire detonated warheads on some of the Kursk’s munitions. Official intelligence reports confirms this theory. According to this explanation far from an experimental new torpedo, the Kursk was carrying older torpedoes that used hydrogen peroxide liquid as a propellant.
The use of high-test peroxide or HTP powered torpedoes, had been stopped in British submarines after a similar accident in the 1950s. Nonetheless, it was still cleared for use by the Russian Navy in 1997.
Seafloor Investigations of the Sub Provided More Evidence
When the decision was first made to raise the Kursk from the seafloor, plans to bring up the entire submarine were rejected. Instead, the decision was made to cut off the forward torpedo compartment and leave it at the bottom of the sea. This raised some eyebrows, even though it was built as a safety measure because the front end had an unknown amount of potentially live torpedoes still sitting in it. However, this explanation doesn’t really hold up, the sub indeed carry nuclear warheads that had to be carefully removed.
Later underwater investigations got a chance to examine the torpedo compartment and found a piece of hull debris, from the number four torpedo hatch, just 50 meters behind where the main explosion occurred. This discovery gave further credibility to the theory that a tarpedo malfunctioned in the tube, starting a fire that then spread to the other torpedoes.
While all these theories have their merits, there is still one more. In 2005 the French made documentary, Kursk A Submarine in Troubled Waters, suggested that the accident was actually caused by a combination of several theories. In this version not only was the Kursk testing the Squall torpedo, but it was also demonstrating it to the Chinese, whom the Russians intended on selling it to. Obviously this upset the US which sent its own submarine in the area to observe. The USS Toledo and Memphis submarines were following the Kursk when the Toledo accidentally collided with the Kursk. This collision, according to the theory, did not register on seismographs. The Toledo retreated and then, fearing retaliation from a Squall torpedo, the Memphis opened fire on the Kursk. The torpedo from the Memphis entered the Kursk’s torpedo compartment, marking the first recorded explosion. Then the resulting fire detonated the explosives in the torpedo compartment including the highly explosive Squalls. This was the second registered explosion which sank the Kursk. This was followed theoretically by an international cover-up and there is no evidence to prove this exotic all-of-the-above version.
For now the truth of what happened to the Kursk remains a mystery. So what do you think what is your theory on why the Kursk went down?
Here is a very interesting video by the Weird History exploring various theories on why the Kursk went down:
Here is another very interesting video throwing light on the salvage operation to raise the Kursk: