The 'Kursk' submariners await their fate

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is a terrible human drama being played out in one of the most inhospitable and - beyond argument - most dangerous places on earth. The Kursk, a modern jewel of Russia's Northern Fleet, lies trapped on the floor of the Barents Sea, its oxygen levels dwindling, the lives of its 100-plus crew dependent on rescue technology which the impoverished former superpower may be unable to operate, or not possess.

It is a terrible human drama being played out in one of the most inhospitable and - beyond argument - most dangerous places on earth. The Kursk, a modern jewel of Russia's Northern Fleet, lies trapped on the floor of the Barents Sea, its oxygen levels dwindling, the lives of its 100-plus crew dependent on rescue technology which the impoverished former superpower may be unable to operate, or not possess.

Since the first Soviet nuclear submarine, the Leninsky Komsomol, put out into the White Sea in July 1958, accidents have plagued the Northern Fleet - 121 by the count of the anti-nuclear group Greenpeace, in which at least 500 people have died. The Kursk was not carrying nuclear weapons on this voyage, but in human, if not environmental terms, she threatens to be the worst submarine disaster of all.

The vessel is apparently lying 100 to 150 metres (330 to 500 ft) down, making unaided escape almost impossible. The batteries providing its light and heat will last, experts say, a maximum of 72 hours. That is how long the Russian navy has to bring up its men alive. Or, rather, those who are still alive.

The normally reliable Interfax news agency says some of the crew may already be dead, and Russian spokesmen appeared to be preparing public opinion for the worst. Admiral Vladimir Luroyedov, commander of the Russian navy, has said the chances of recovering the vessel were "not good".

The Northern Fleet, so far as is known, does not have advanced submarine rescue ships. The crew could be taken off by midget submarine, or via rescue capsules which would enable them to survive the huge change in pressure and reach the surface. As a last desperate resort, they could swim out through the torpedo tubes.

No two naval accidents are identical, and the precise nature of the incidenton on Sunday which forced the crippled 14,000-ton vessel to the seafloor may not be clear for months, if ever. An early account blamed water pouring through the Kursk's torpedo tubes during a firing exercise, flooding the bow of the submarine and causing the crew to lose control, while the navy spoke simply of a "malfunction".

By evening the Northern Fleet high command was peddling a more sinister version - that the Kursk had been badly damaged in a serious collision with a foreign submarine, which itself might have been damaged. The theory is not entirely implausible. Possibly, the Russians are reverting to an old Soviet ploy, of blaming foreigners for home-made disasters. The Ministry of Defence in London declared there were no British submarines in the area.

Even so, perilous cat-and-mouse games between rival submarines are a feature of the Cold War which probably has not entirely vanished.

Summer exercises in the Barents Sea are a regular event, but this year's are said to have been particularly extensive, affording Western military planners an unusual chance to assess the operational strength of the Northern Fleet, Moscow's principal naval strike force. If so, then the Kursk would have been a prime object of their attentions.

She is one of the most modern submarines in the fleet, commissioned in December 1994 and put into service in 1995. The Kursk, in Nato classification an Oscar-II category sub, spearheads the Russian navy's strategically crucial anti-aircraft carrier force. She is normally armed with 24 SS-N-19 cruise missiles, carrying nuclear or conventional warheads with a range of 500km (300 miles). One Oscar-II submarine is capable of wiping out an entire US Navy carrier group.

In one sense, the unfolding tragedy is a sign of how Russia has changed for the better since Soviet times. In April 1986, only when radiation counters in Sweden went off the meter was Mikhail Gorbachev, the inventor of glasnost or "openness", forced to admit that two days earlier there had been a serious incident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukraine.

This time, word first came in the Russian media, less than 24 hours after the disaster. Would the British media have been as quick to latch on to a similar calamity, with a nuclear submarine of the Royal Navy?

But other respects - collision or no collision - the crippling of the Kursk was an accident waiting to happen. Britain and the US have had their submarine disasters, but on nothing like the Soviet/Russian scale.

The front page of the very first issue of The Independent on 7 October 1986 carried the story of the Yankee class submarine, K-219, which caught fire and sank east of Bermuda, killing four people. Years later, a Russian scientist said nuclear warheads on the 16 missiles on board caught fire, sending deadly plutonium-239 spilling into the open Atlantic.

Three years later K-278, the Mike class Komsomolets, sank in the Barents, on her way back to the main nuclear submarine base at Zapadnaya Litsa, on the northern edge of the Kola peninsula, 30 miles east of the border with Norway. Before and since there have been scores of "incidents", some admitted, some fudged, others unconvincingly denied.

Small wonder President Vladimir Putin wants to reduce Soviet totals to 1,500, far below the 3,500 ceiling permitted by the Start-II treaty. Russia doesn't have the resources to maintain its nuclear submarine fleet. In its Soviet heyday in the late 1980s, it had 250 vessels. Today a quarter of this number, at most, is seaworthy.

The Norwegian environmental group Bellona reckons that more than 90 decommissioned submarines are rusting at various bases on the Kola peninsula, in varying states of decay, their nuclear power plants nearly open to the elements.

At Andreyeva Bay alone, 21,000 spent fuel rods, equivalent to 90 reactor cores, are housed in makeshift containers and tanks, their contents slowly seeping into the ocean.

At one stage, the Northern Fleet accounted for no less than 18 per cent of all nuclear reactors on earth, making the peninsula the most heavily, and now casually, nuclear place on earth. The Russian authorities freely admits they cannot cope, but a compulsive sense of secrecy inherited from Soviet times prevents them from offering the necessary access to Western specialists.

The civil authorities of Murmansk would happily be rid of the lot, but on the Kola peninsula the Russia military, however underfunded, however low its morale, still calls the shots.

Severomorsk, the submarine base further north up Murmansk fiord, is a closed city. So far as is known, no foreigner has ever set foot at Zapadnaya Litsa. Now the Kursk too is unlikely ever to return there.

Comments