Wednesday 9 March 2005

What Really Happened to the Russian Sub Kursk

by Trowbridge H. Ford

On August 14, 2000, according to media reports, the Russian submarine K-141 Kursk was rocked by a terrible explosion outside its Severomorsk base on the Barents Sea - while engaged in a naval exercise, observed by foreign military officials, especially Chinese, interested in its possible purchase - resulting in the loss of all the 118 sailors on board. While Russian Admiral Vladimir Kuroyodev at the scene
immediately announced that the sinking was the result of an underwater collision with another submarine, an unknown object, or being blown up by a mine remaining from WWII, the recently installed President Vladimir Putin's government in Moscow soon changed the explanation to a demonstration which had gone horribly wrong - an anti-submarine torpedo from the heavy cruiser Peter the Great had unfortunately hit the target, and then the ship had fatally compounded the disaster by colliding with the stricken submarine as it tried to surface.

This explanation soon started to unravel, though, because of the sonar evidence recovered from the crash site, and seismic readings provided around the area when the incident occurred. Sonar readings determined that two submarines were lying on the sea floor shortly after the accident, and one of them
had slowly moved away afterwards. The seismographic soundings recorded at Arces on Norway's Finnmark coast, at Spits on Spitsbergen, and at Norway's Nores station in Helmark showed that there had been two explosions - the first a kind of scraping impact, and then two minutes later, a gigantic one, 45-50 times greater than the first one - indicating that the Russian sub had collided with something, apparently another submarine, given the sonar sounding, and then blown up, either by something exploding inside, or out.

Then the Russian cover up from Moscow began to be questioned in all kinds of ways. How could be official one be true when the heavy cruiser was 12 miles away from the Kursk when the five anti-submarine torpedoes were fired at the beginning of the exercise; yet, be right over the stricken submarine when it tried to reach the surface, causing the collision. And live torpedoes are never used in exercises, so how could the errant, last one have somehow caused the horrific explosion. And then there were reports of still another submarine, definitely an American one, making its way across the Norwegian Sea down to Scotland's Royal Navy port at Fuslane.

The Norwegian Ambassador to Moscow had reported to the Kremlin that an American attack submarine, apparently the SSN 691, the USS Memphis - was putting into port at Norway's naval base at Bergen for repairs. Then the Norwegians changed the story, claiming that they had meant to tell the Russians that it was coming into harbor for food, not repairs. Apparently, in Russian, the words can be mistaken one for the other. Finally, the Norwegian Ambassador admitted that the Memphis was coming for repairs, and it did arrive at Bergen 7 or so days after the accident, as its presence could not be hidden from Russian satellites. While some observers explained the slowness of its arrival to the fact that it had been seriously injured in the accident, it may have been just to coordinate its arrival with a scheduled visit.

But the purpose of the visit still remained unclear when Norwegian military spokesman Lt. Col. John Espon Lien tried to make out most awkwardly that it was a routine one, and with no repair work done on the ship when viewed from across the fjord. "We didn't see below the waterline," he explained to The New York Times in December. "But the crew used their time off in Bergen as normal." If everything was ship shape, and Norway desired to be most transparent about the visit, why didn't Olso issue an authoritative statement about it?

This was after the Norwegians had been so protective of their airspace during the previous week - while the submarine was making its 1900-mile journey along the coast - to make sure that Russian surveillance planes did not locate it with sonar buoys, and determine its identity and condition. Obviously, Norway was more desirous of satisfying its NATO allies, especially the US, and its military commitments rather the public concern, apparently out of fear that a real understanding of what might have happened would threaten a great power crisis, possibly leading to war.

By then, there had been enough notices in the press to determine that at least three American ships had been monitoring the Russian naval exercises: the Memphis, its much newer sister ship in the Los Angeles Class of attack submarines, SSN 769 USS Toledo, and the SURTASS Loyal. The Toledo is slightly bigger in all respects, especially firepower and speed, than the Memphis. The Loyal is a state of the art surveillance ship which can, with its passive, acoustic-towed, array sonar systems, determine the positions, speeds, and directions of ships, both surface ones and submarines, at great distances, even along a rough coastlines, with incredible accuracy.

It turns out that when the mammoth Kursk, having a 18,000 metric-ton displacement, and carrying 24 SS-N-19 cruise missiles, left port, the Loyal was stationed 300 miles to the northwest out in the Barents Sea, the Toledo was about 15 miles out to sea, and the Memphis was hiding close into shore. The purpose of the American exercise apparently was to have the Memphis locate the Kursk as soon as it left port, follow it so that the surveillance ship could make all the necessary determinations for an attack, and then have the Toledo carry out a dummy one.

The Americans were most desirous of proving that the apparently unsinkable Kursk could be tracked down, and sunk. The Oscar II Class submarine had two hulls, separated by a 3.5 meter layer of rubber which was considered capable of preventing any torpedo puncturing the inner one. While many people thought that these submarines were nuclear missile ones, they are actually designed to destroy carrier battle groups - the centerpiece of American attacking strategies - thanks to their ability to fend off any attack submarines, and then destroy the surface vessels with their cruises missiles which have a range of 550 kilometers.

If the Kursk measured up to its capabilities, Washington's worldwide maritime strategy could be put in jeopardy, and the thought of hostile or even potentially hostile states purchasing them sent shivers up the spines of naval planners in the Pentagon. America's 12 carrier battle groups around the world could simply be sitting ducks for any state possessing one, and willing to use it. The Chinese having some would radically change the naval dynamic in Straits of Formosa as Taiwan seeks independence, and Iran just having one in the Persian Gulf would be a serious threat to the oil-producing states the West is so dependent upon.

The reason for such an aggressive exercise was that the Navy had finally been released from the backlash from similar ones during John Lehman, Jr.'s tenure as Reagan's Secretary of the Navy a decade and a half earlier, and was most interested in determining what the Russians were still capable of regarding underwater warfare. Lehman and his crony admirals, especially Chief of Naval Operations James D. Watkins, and Vice Admiral Frank Kelso, had been most eager to see how far they could push the new Maritime Strategy against the Soviets underwater deterrent in the hope of achieving a non-nuclear conclusion to the Cold War . They were confident that if they could essentially destroy the Soviet nuclear submarines - the boomers - and their bases, Moscow would surrender.

As Iran-Contra became more and more illegal, and complicated, the plotters, led by the NSC's Oliver North, finally gave the go-ahed to a massive wave of attack submarines to sink the boomers in the Barents, and to attack bases on the Kola Peninsula when NATO's Anchor Express Exercise, buttressed by America's Altantic Fleet's Operation Eagle, after the assassination of Sweden's statminister Olof Palme on February 28, 1986 had triggered the surprise first strike. It was prevented, however, by crucial spying by the Soviets which allowed them to take appropriate counter measures, Atlantic Fleet Commander Admiral Carl Trost refusing to follow Lehman's orders regarding his carrier battle groups, and the plotters not having forseen avalanches in Norway's Finnmark area which prevented the necessary land and air assaults from ever taking place.

For nearly the next 15 years, the US Navy was trying to contain the fallout from this fiasco while keeping up with its expected and changing duties. While the forced retirement of Lehman had been easy to arrange - once the worst of the Contra scandal had been contained - the Navy had to deal with the bloated resources he had left while trying to meet new needs, especially integrating women into the ranks and ships, and chainging missions, particularly carrying out land raids from carriers and submarines during the 1990s, while facing increasing budgetary restraints. Lehman's search for a 600-ship navy was turning out to be a Pentagon nightmare, particularly for the fleet admirals who were used to having the lead in everything.

While this battle was being fought behind the scenes, the public was presented with a series of lesser scandals, starting with the disclosure of the famous Tailhook Conventions tarnished by the behavior of sex-mad airmen, fuelled by various forms of cheating up and down the ranks, and culminating in Clinton's personnel changes regarding homosexuals and women, which kept its attention occupied. The process ultimately engaged the Navy's top brass in most bitter disputes about who had attended the most promiscuous sessions at the conventions, and what they had done about them, resulting in the most unexpected suicide by CNO Jeremy 'Mike' Boorda in 1996 for allegedly destroying the Navy while misrepresenting his service off Vietnam back in the late '60s. It took another four years for the Navy to put the pieces somewhat back together under the guidance of CNO Admiral Jay Johnson.

When Johnson stepped down on July 21, 2000 - replaced by Altantic Fleet Commander Vern Clark - and with the Clinton administration on its last legs, the Navy decided to take matters into its own hands when it came to the Russian underwater threat. When Clinton had just taken office, the USS Grayling had collided with an old Delta III missile submarine while following it smack-dab in the middle of the Russian Fleet's training ground, 105 miles north of Murmansk in the Barents, and the President hit the roof, apologizing to Russian President Yeltsin, promsing $1.6 billion in aid, and demanding that it never happen again. (Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, pp. 377-9) With only three months left for the Lame Duck American President in the White House, the Navy decided to risk it, confident that 'Bubba' would never know about it.

Unlike when Lehman tried such a risky move back in March 1986, the Navy brass had all the key people lined up to go along now. When Clark became CNO, he was replaced as Altantic Fleet Commander Admiral J. Paul Reason, the first African-American to become a full admiral. Reason was completely committed to integrated naval units, based upon the carriers, making the most of their surface, air, and underwater capabilities - what he called 'battle group integrity'. Unlike Admiral Trost, Admiral Reason was willing to take risks to guarantee their integrity - what the potential of the Oscar II Class submarines threatened globally.

What was most alarming about the American exericse, though, was what would happen if the monitoring was discovered, and something terrible followed - what, unfortunately, occurred, as the wrecked hull of the Kursk demonstrated when it was finally recovered from the seabed. When the Memphis started trailing the Kursk, it overran it, not appreciating how silent it was at slow speed, scrapping a terrible gash along its starboard side up to its tower - what caused the first explosion.

The Toledo then panicked, assuming that the exercise was now in big trouble at home, and fearing that the Memphis was either sunk or severely damaged. To limit the damage, possibly even cover it up, it fired its most powerful torpedo at close range, and it hit the Kursk broadside, right below the long gash, and it penetrated the Kursk's inner hull, setting off explosions which doomed it.

Then the Memphis and the Toledo made their getaways, and their gamble paid off, as the disaster was covered up - at great financial expense to Washington again - rather than played out for all it was worth militarily. The Russians did indicate, though, that they thought than an American torpedo had done it all, putting American torpedo expert Edmund Pope, the former US Navy attaché in Stockholm when Palme was assassinated who they had been holding for seven months on charges of espionage, on trial in October, and sentencing him to 20 years in prison - a term which was drastically shortened apparently by more American money.