The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 24, 2000

Sinking of the K-141
Death & disaster at sea
By Prashant Bakshi

EVEN the most formidable of fleets at sea cannot afford to let its guard down to the threat of the underwater predator — the submarine. Quite aptly known as the ‘silent service’ the submarine is all about stealth and lethality. Stealth comes from its ability to operate underwater and lethality from the deadly arsenal of weapons that a modern submarine carries. But there are times when the predator, too, becomes the prey, either to a smarter adversary or to the difficult conditions it operates in. It is the latter which caused the recent tragic sinking of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk (K 141). An Oscar II-class cruise missile submarine, Kursk was commissioned in 1995 and was one of the youngest members of Russia’s Northern Fleet.

From the U-boats of World War II to the hi-tech nuclear submarines of the 21st century, history of the submarine arm is replete with accidents. Prior to Kursk, six nuclear submarines have gone down out of which four belonged to Russia and two to the USA. Barring one Russian submarine, which was scuttled in the Kara Sea when repair was found impossible, all the others were victims of fire accidents. The exact cause of Kursk’s sinking is still not known but it is speculated that she sank due to flooding caused by an explosion onboard. It is reported that an explosion could have been initiated from either inside the vessel or by a collision, wrecking the forward compartment of the submarine and sending it to the seabed at high speed. The impact could have further led to a detonation of Kursk’s torpedoes in the torpedo compartment causing a much bigger explosion.


The Russian submarine, Kursk, which sank in the Barents SeaWith rescue efforts having failed, the Kursk is presently sitting on the seabed,at a depth of 108 metres (354 feet) and salvagers feel it may only be possible to raise the wreck and recover the bodies next year. Thomson, whose company sent deep-sea divers and a sophisticated ship to help with rescue efforts and the salvage operation, said the hazards include the state of the two nuclear reactors, torpedoes and other munitions on board. Experts have also cautioned that any attempt to raise the sunken Russian nuclear submarine would, apart from taking at least a year to plan, has to also consider the environmental risk posed by a potential radiation fallout.

The sinking of the Kursk and the Concorde crash are two recent catastrophes that have shaken people all over the world. Though, both were equally tragic, in the case of the supersonic Concorde, death was immediate while in the sinking Kursk it must have been agonisingly slow. Not surprisingly, the Russian State has come under heavy criticism and one school of thought feels that rescue of the crew could have been possible. What emerges from the incident is that the crew of a sinking submarine can be saved, provided the navy and the government get their act together in time, as each second is precious when a submarine is going down with a limited oxygen supply onboard. Navies of the world have to take stock of what happened at Barents Sea and prevent such a calamity in their waters.

There are some very important lessions in the Indian context, which has been fortunately devoid of a submarine-sinking incident. Although we do not have a nuclear submarine yet but there is an ATV (Advanced Technology Vessel) project underway for construction of an indigenous nuclear submarine. The Indian Navy had its tryst with operating a nuclear submarine when a Russian Charlie-class submarine was leased to the Indian Navy in 1988, for three years.

Rechristened INS Chakra, the submarine provided excellent training to the Indian crew. There has been quite a gap after Chakra’s return in 1991 and with the ATV project likely to take a few more years, a refresher course in nuclear submarine operations would give the Navy a much-needed head-start in operating and maintaining nuclear submarines. Over the years the Navy has developed tremendous expertise in maintenance of its conventional submarines. It is really commendable that the Foxtrot class which is now nearly three decades old is still operational and forms a potent force of the Navy’s fleet. However, with the Foxtrot aging, it becomes all the more imperative for the Indian Navy to have its submarine rescue equipment and procedures in place.

Relatives grieve for the Kursk victimsThe Indian Navy’s submarine rescue ship INS Nistar was decommissioned a few years back and its present-day capabilities are limited to INS Nireekshak which is not primarily a submarine rescue vessel. It is perhaps in this perspective that the Indian Navy has shown interest in acquiring submarine rescue equipment from the USA which happens to be the pioneer in the development of submarine rescue vessels and equipment. Although the exact details of the planned acquisition are not known, but the Americans have developed a sophisticated Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV) and a submarine rescue chamber (SRC) whose mission is to provide quick reaction and all-weather capability to rescue personnel from disabled submarines at depths up to 2000 feet. In an emergency, the DSRV, SRC and their support equipment can be loaded on to a transport plane and flown to the distress site. It is planned to use DSRV in conjunction with the Submarine Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (SEPIRB) which is a radio-signalling device used to locate a submarine in distress. Needless to say that whatever system is finally approved, the acquisition and indoctrination of the system in the Indian Navy should be done in as speedy a manner as possible.

Ironically, even the best of equipment sometimes may not be able to rescue lives as it may have happened in the Kursk incident. Paddy Heron, part of a team sent from Britain with a state-of-the-art LR5 rescue mini-submarine had this to say: "We had one of the most sophisticated vessels available in Europe sitting at the wreck site with a submersible specifically designed to rescue men from submarines. The Russians would not let us use that". It is said that the submariner’s worst nightmare is going down in a sinking submarine. Doesn’t it become the responsibility of every nation to ensure that they leave no stone unturned in making sure that this nightmare never comes true for its dedicated submariners?

Submarine accidents
(Vessels remaining on the ocean floor)

Russian submarines

May 24, 1968: A reactor fault on a Soviet sub designated K-27 released radiation that heavily contaminated the interior. The submarine was scuttled in the Kara Sea in 1981.

April 10, 1970: In the first major accident on a nuclear submarine, the K-8 sank in the Bay of Biscay, off the coast of Spain. Two fires began simultaneously, tripping the emergency reactor system and leaving the submarine without power. Some crew members were evacuated, but by April 11, the submarine had sunk to 4680 metres. Fifty-two people, including the captain, died.

October 6, 1986: The nuclear sub K-219, equipped with two nuclear reactors and carrying 16 nuclear missiles, sank in the Atlantic Ocean, north of Bermuda. An explosion in one of the missile tubes led to a chain of events that resulted in a major fire. The captain and nine members stayed behind when some of the crew was transferred to a rescue vessel, but the remaining crew members were forced to abandon the submarine when the bow began to sink. Four people died.

April 7, 1989: The K-278 Komsomolets, sank in the Norwegian Sea following a fire which damaged the electrical system and set off the emergency system. Despite efforts to extinguish the fire, it spread quickly and eventually the submarine lost power and ran out of compressed air. The crew began to evacuate the submarine, but there were not enough life rafts. The vessel sank to a depth of 1685 metres killing 41 people, including the commander. A nuclear reactor and two nuclear warheads were on board. According to survivors of the accident, the vessel had been found not seaworthy shortly before the accident.

August 12, 2000: The Russian attack submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea after an explosion in the forward area. Rescue attempts failed, and all 118 on board died.

US submarines

April 10, 1963: The American nuclear attack submarine USS. Thresher failed to resurface after a test dive, 350 km east of Boston, killing 129 personnel. The probable cause was a leak in an engine room seawater piping system. The accident stunned the navy and motivated widespread changes in submarine safety.

May 22, 1968: The USS. Scorpion sank 640-km southwest of the Azores after a suspected torpedo malfunction. All 99 personnel on board were killed. However, a second investigation revealed no torpedo damage. Over three decades later, there is still uncertainty as to what caused the submarine to sink.

(Another USsubmarine, also called the USS Scorpion, a diesel-electric boat, sank in 1944 on patrol in the northern East China and Yellow Sea. The submarine met with a nearby vessel to attend to a crew member’s broken arm and after that was never heard from again. Although the details are unknown, it is presumed the submarine hit a mine and that there were no survivors.)

(The author is a research fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies & Analyses)