The Kursk Tragedy
edited: Saturday, February 23, 2002
By Douglas De Bono
Posted: Saturday, February 23, 2002
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A reasonable speculation as to what happened to the Kursk. Plus, my readers started emailing me when this happened and urged to look into it. It all led to new novel - Rogue State.
The K-141, christened Kursk and one of the newest boats in the Russian Federation’s Northern Fleet, sank on August 12, 2000 at 11:28 AM local time. The loss of 118 men to the cold Barents Sea is something no nation can replace in the lives of those mothers, wives, and daughters. It is a scar and a tragedy both sudden and regrettable. The families certainly have my prayers.
I started hearing about Kursk on Monday, August 14. Fans who have enjoyed my novels started sending email and voice mail to the effect of: “Hey Dougy, you hear about that Russian sub?” or “What do you think? You got to get on top of this one!” or “You need to put this in your next book!” Unfortunately by Monday, it appears any survivors of the original calamity were already dead.
The story emanating from the Russian Federation’s Defense Ministry did not add up. The Kursk was down in 354 feet of water inside a practice area where fleet exercises were taking place. They claimed they had secured power and air to the stricken submarine. They were in communication with the 118 men aboard. They did not need any assistance from Norway, England, or America. Only true statement was that the Kursk was down in 354 feet of water. Russia’s Northern Fleet and Defense Ministry had returned to the old ways of lying through their teeth.
Despite the varying claims made by the Russian Federation, the Kursk did not collide with another submarine, nor did it strike an ancient World War II mine.
The Kursk is an Oscar II class boat. It can be armed with up to 24 nuclear tipped, cruise missiles (NATO designation Shipwreck). The Kursk was built with one primary mission: To kill Nimitz class American aircraft carriers like the Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), the Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) or the Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) which I had the pleasure of visiting this summer. A Nimitz class carrier has a crew of 5500 men and women, and the Kursk was designed to kill them all. While I mourn the deaths of 118 men in the Barents Sea, I do not regret the loss of this carrier killer.
The loss of the Kursk can be traced to a new type of torpedo called the Shkval (translates to Squall). The Shkval is designated as a supercavitating torpedo capable of speeds approaching 500 kilometers per hour under water. It is a radical design in underwater technology.
The main problem with any underwater projectile is the drag imposed by water on the object’s skin. Obviously, it is easier to move through air than it is through water because the drag coefficient is much less.
Cavitation is the natural production of air bubbles around any object moving through the water.
Supercavitation basically creates an air pocket around the projectile and eliminates the heavy drag imposed by the water. Thus, a projectile or manned vessel could approach and exceed the sound barrier underwater. Indeed, unmanned projectiles have already exceeded the sound barrier underwater.
To achieve such high speeds, the Russians employ a liquid fueled rocket motor as the main propulsion system for the Shkval. Experts differ on the initial launch mechanism arguing between a catapult system designed to accelerate the torpedo into the water, or a conventional motor designed to get the torpedo clear of the submarine before engaging the rocket. The torpedo warheads were most likely inert dummies and put in place to prevent any live fire accidents. One thing is clear, convention warheads could not cook off fast enough to generate a simultaneous explosion as has been theorized, and if the warheads were inert (as would be the practice for fleet exercises), then the warheads did not explode.
As long as the rocket motor ignites outside of the submarine, everything proceeds according to plan. However, if the rocket motor ignites inside the forward torpedo room, and if there were fuel vapors from other torpedoes, then the result could be a devastating and catastrophic explosion. A stray spark, static electricity, or any number other igniters could have triggered the explosion.
Norway recorded an explosion measuring 3.5 on the Richter scale coincident with the time the Kursk sunk. It is the largest seismic event ever recorded between the Kola Peninsula and the North Cape.
To me the premature ignition of a liquid fueled rocket motor inside the forward torpedo room seems the most likely scenario for the sinking of the Kursk.
For those of you who called or wrote me about the Kursk, my answer is yes, and I will just add that my igniter was not as benign as a stray spark or static electricity.