THE SEA MONSTER
The Kursk, commissioned in 1995, sank on August 12th with 118 people aboard in 354 feet of water in the Barents Sea. An Akula class (Typhoon) type 949A nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine (SSGN). Typhoon class submarines are mammoth, by far the world's biggest submarines, 560.9 ft. long and 78.7 ft. wide, weighing 14,000 tons. Its double, skillfully insolated hull construction makes it nearly indestructible, it would take more than a single heavy torpedo ever to sink one. If that behemoth had collided with a NATO submarine, as Defense Minister, Marshal Igor Sergevev insinuated, the Kursk would have unquestionably prevailed over a smaller allied adversary. Its outer hull contains missiles, torpedoes and other stores, and with a total of 5 separate pressure vessels within the outer pressure hull, the sub would absorb a lot of energy before the inner hull ever fractured.
She was the star of the largest naval exercise the Russian Northern Fleet has staged in a decade, being observed by two U.S. Los Angeles class attack submarines some 50 miles from the scene, along with several other allied monitoring vessels. She was conducting exercises in mock sinking of American submarines and aircraft carriers. She had loaded at her homeport of Murmansk, 28 torpedoes and 24 cruise missiles, known to NATO as SS-N-19 Shipwreck. These missiles can carry a conventional 1,600 pound warhead or nuclear warhead that can pack a punch equal to half a million tons of TNT. That fateful morning, she was observed testing one of these missiles, with the 1,600 pound conventional warhead, scoring a direct hit on a target 200 miles away.
At precisely 07:28:27 GMT, US navy hydro-acoustics picked up the first blast, then at least a twice as powerful second explosion at 07:30.42. Based on examination of the sonar data, the second one was actually several, nearly simultaneous detonations and was equal to 5 tons of TNT. It nearly deafened the sonar operators, and shock waves were registered at seismic stations 2,000 miles away. The controversy today is what caused these detonations and what it could all mean in terms of strategic defense for both the West and for Russia.
Speculation turns around a torpedo accident, one reason being the sub was at periscope depth when the calamity began, which is the level at which a submarine usually fires its torpedoes. Reports also state that weapon-firing exercises were in progress and Moscow sources corroborate that the Kursk was testing a new weapon system and that might well have been the cause of the accident. Former vice president and now governor of the region, Alexander Rutskoi, confirmed it when he said two high-ranking military officers had told him that civilian military experts were aboard the Kursk to test new torpedoes. They could have been testing either of two types of weapons, an upgrade of the Squall or the newer Stallion.
The latter is a new highly secret weapon known as the 100-RU Veder missile, NATO code-named: SS-N-16A Stallion. It utilizes silver battery driven propellers to send it out from the submarine to a safe distance before a liquid fueled rocket engine kicks in to send the missile to the surface. From there it flies under rocket power at supersonic speed until just above its target, where it ejects a lightweight-torpedo with a parachute and a 200 pound explosive warhead, that slowly drops into the water, which then homes in on the submarine. It can be armed with a mini-nuclear warhead and can engage targets at depths of up to 500 meters.
The Shkval (Squall) is an amazingly fast torpedo-type weapon, developed by the hydro-aerospace systems department of the Moscow Sergo Ordzhonikidze Aviation Institute. Most torpedoes go about 35-45 kt; the fastest allied one being the UK's Spearfish, which has a maximum speed of 75 kt. The Squall can go 200 kt and it is rumored that newer models can reach an astonishing speed of 260 kt!. It was back in 1994, that Russian reports first surfaced regarding an anti-submarine missile called Shkval, a rocket propelled, supercavitation weapon, 533 mm in diameter and 8.23m long, that could attack targets at a depth of 400 m and at ranges of up to 12 km.
SUPERCAVITATION CHAPTER AND VERSE
To understand supercavitation, one needs to understand the principles of cavitation. Cavitation is the formation of a partial vacuum in a liquid as a result of the passage through it of a swiftly moving object. It reduces the water pressure along its surface, forming bubbles of various sizes, depending on the size and shape of the object. Supercavitation occurs when, instead of bubbles, a cavity is created by the low-pressure region, which reduces hydrodynamic drag. Which means with a submerged object completely contained in such a gaseous envelope, the resulting reduction in drag translates into very high speeds. The shape of the nose of the weapon, the velocity and the static water pressure determine the shape of the gas cavity. One of the most efficient methods to create this envelope is by deflecting the exhaust forward and out of the nose section of the weapon. Since there is no direct contact between the projectile and the water, incredible velocity can be attained.
The drawbacks are that only straight-line trajectory is feasible, (as any course change would collapse the envelope), as well as the substantial sound factor. The target easily detects the considerable noise the weapon creates; only its speed compensates for its lack of stealth. Nowadays, in submarine warfare, mutual detection is nearly simultaneous and usually at relatively short distances. The subs circle each other like aircraft trying to get into a position to shoot a torpedo. The target ship takes evasive action when it hears the conventional torpedo heading its way. But with this supercavitation missile, it does not have time to take evasive action. The kinetic energy of the missile on impact can negate the warhead requirement. There are no known countermeasures, putting western navies at a severe disadvantage. And to add additional menace, the Shkval can carry a tactical nuclear warhead incorporating a timer to destroy an enemy sub, torpedo, large surface ship, or even a land target.
Russian submarine specialist, Vladimir Gundarov wrote in the Russian military's newspaper, The Kursk was retrofitted 2 years ago, at the Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk, with a potentially dangerous torpedo-launching technology against the wishes of many high-ranking navy officials. The expensive silver battery and propeller system was replaced by a new but risky technology using a gas stream to propel the torpedo out of its tube. When the weapon is triggered, liquid fuel is ignited, producing a gas that shoots the torpedo out of the tube. At the same time they replaced the torpedo fuel with modern (UGST) duel purpose, liquid monopropellant which has a nitrate ester energetic ingredient that can be very unstable and have a low flash point and impact resistance unless chemical stabilizers are used to prevent the problem. The new torpedoes are difficult to store and dangerous to handle, the plus side was they are cheaper to make.
THE POPE CONNECTION
An American businessman and retired Naval Intelligence officer, Edmund Dean Pope, was arrested on April 3rd on charges of espionage and held since in Moscow's grim Lefortovo prison. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. He was arrested by the Federal Security Service (FSB) while allegedly attempting to buy technical, classified documentation relating to ballistic missiles and torpedoes in the arsenal of Russia's submarine fleet, from Professor Anatoliy Babkin, a department head of rocket engineering at the Bauman Moscow State Technical University. Babkin is considered by the FSB to be an agent recruited by an American intelligence agency. (He could also have been turned). On the same day, the FSB arrested Pope's associate and head of Energy Science and Power Systems Division, State College, Penn., USA., Professor Daniel H. Kiely. He had joined Pope in Moscow to offer technical advice. The laboratory headed by Dr. Kiely designs and develops torpedoes for the US Navy. 68 year old Dr. Kiely was interrogated as a witness then released and allowed to return to the United States on "humanitarian grounds" and for the sake of good bilateral relations. Pope remains to this day in prison.
DEEP MYSTERY PROBED
Examination of the physical and seismic evidence, the fact that the torpedo section of the bow was blown open, leaving an enormous hole on her starboard side, and the two explosions 2 min. 15 sec. apart, strongly suggests a torpedo accident caused the sinking. The fact that the second blast was considerably more powerful than the first one, implies that a torpedo failed to leave the tube, perhaps because the liquid gas booster ignited prematurely, causing the first detonation. The second twice as powerful blast occurred when the warhead blew up and consequently exploded several other torpedoes, explaining the almost simultaneous multi-explosions. The ship had no opportunity to save itself, the massive hole and blast damage certainly crippled the whole structure, the sudden intense expansion in air pressure and flooding left no chance for survivors. The "boomer" didn't pitch down; it just fell to the seafloor 354 feet down like a rock.
Because of shortages of cash flow and essential supplies the status of the assets of the Russian Northern Fleet is very unreliable and can hardly be seen as commensurate to a superpower; and they know it. Their nuclear submarines appear to be the favored operational priorities, no doubt because they consider them so important to home defense. Russia's fleet of aging nuclear submarine has dwindled to 50, and even fewer are operational due to a lack of spare parts and bad maintenance. With their defense budget for next year at $7.43 billion they will find it hard to maintain that level of readiness. Moreover, the budget shortage makes them look for quick fixes, for those "silver bullet" solutions, which in turn provoke inherent pitfalls. Just as an injection of a tranquilizer calms the distraught briefly, entails risks and does nothing to alleviate the cause of the suffering likewise; a strategy of injecting inadequate funds into the Russian navy can increase the likelihood of an accident, is only transiently beneficial and creates a paranoiac syndrome resulting in such a reflex action as the Pope affair. They are very concerned by their fragile hold on national security and every secret counts.
Without an efficient and modern industrial and maintenance base there is no cure in sight. Maintenance is critical in peacetime operations as it is to sustaining one's armed forces in time of war. Furthermore, the "Soviet reaction" during and after the Kursk disaster does not harbor much hope for serious change in the future. Paradoxically, The Kursk was scheduled to escort a Russian flotilla to the Mediterranean later this year in a show of force intending to symbolize the rebirth of Russia as a world power. The Kursk tragedy brings to mind the Marquis de Custine's abrasive but penetrating observation: "The Russians have rotted before they have ripened.
Peter B. Martin