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”Kursk” – 10 years after

This Thursday marks the 10th anniversary of the “Kursk” submarine disaster. Today, Russia and Norway are far better prepared to cooperate on difficult rescue operations in the Barents Sea. Unfortunately, that might be needed, argues the editor of BarentsObserver in this opinion.

The entire world could for two weeks in August 2000 watch live on TV how the one rescue effort followed by the other failed. None of the 116 crew members and two weapons experts onboard survived.

Let’s recall what happened before the worst submarine accident in post-Soviet naval history.

Acting President Vladimir Putin won the 2000 Presidential election on March 26. Shortly after, on April 6, Putin went to the Northern fleet’s main base Severomorsk where he embarked the strategic nuclear-powered missiles submarine “Karelia” and set off for the Barents Sea. He spent the night onboard, watched the launching of a Sineva intercontinental missile and praised the submarine fleet as the mainstay of Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Also, he made it clear that Russian submarines again should sail the world’s oceans, after mainly staying in their ports during the 90ties.

Following the April instructions of the President, the Northern fleet started to prepare for the largest naval exercise in years. “Kursk” – the Oscar-II class submarine carrying cruise-missiles and torpedoes, was supposed to have a special role; first to participate in the August Barents Sea exercise; thereafter to sail to the Mediterranean to show the world that the Russian navy no longer stays in port.

Kursk” never made it to the Mediterranean. She sank northeast of Murmansk in the Barents Sea after torpedo explosions onboard. First 48 hours later, in the morning on August 14th, the first news about the ill fated submarine was released. First, the Russian Northern fleet didn’t want any rescue assistance from abroad. When it became clear that their mini-rescue submarine was not able to operate properly, assistance from Norway and Great Britain was accepted. The following Russian, Norwegian, British rescue operation became ad-hoc, learning by doing while fighting against the clock.  

Putin himself didn’t return from his summer residence by the Black Sea before it became clear that there were no survivors. When he first appeared in Vidyayevo, the homeport of “Kursk” on the Kola Peninsula, he was bashed for his alleged mishandling of the disaster. Putin learned something about live TV-broadcast that day in Vidyayevo.

The “Kursk” rescue co-operation with Norway and Great Britain could little do to save the crew members life. However, it represented an historic change in military-to-military contacts cross the former Cold War barrier between East and West in the Barents Region. Another submarine disaster, just 11 years before “Kursk” sank, represented the grim example of how bad it could become with a non-cooperative approach. When the Soviet submarine “Komsomolets” sank in April 1989 south of the Bear Island, a Norwegian Orion surveillance plane circled over the life raft holding the crew partly afloat in the ice-cold Arctic water.

Three years after the “Komsomolets” accident, I met with a few of the survivors. For me, as a Norwegian, it was not easy to listen to their words on how it was to see the submarine go down, jump over to the just partly floating life raft, see one after the other of their fellow crew members giving up and disappearing in the cold dark water. Simultaneously they could see the Norwegian aircraft circle over their heads. I couldn’t answer their obvious question about the existence of any life raft onboard the Norwegian Orion plane that could have been dropped down in an attempt to assistance. 1989 was Cold War, 42 of the crew died.

That was 11 years before the “Kursk” disaster. Today, 10 years after, Russian and Norway are much better prepared for rescue cooperation in the Barents Sea. Over the latest decade, the head command of the Russian Northern fleet has built good relations with the Norwegian military operational headquarters. Especially, the joint bi-annual exercises named Barents Rescue have been successfully. Last fall, Barents Rescue 2009 took place in Murmansk. This are exercises with practical approaches, where civilian and military personnel on both sides of the border learn to cooperate across different languages, culture, structures and history. Sweden and Finland also participate in the Barents Rescue exercises.

Also, in 2008 the Royal Norwegian Navy and the Russian Navy created history by completing a simulated rescue of submariners from a Norwegian submarine by a Russian rescue vehicle. The submarine rescue exercise took place outside the southern coast of Norway.

We in BarentsObserver can only praise all such joint military and civilian rescue exercises. This is not only with focus on the submarine activities in the Barents Sea. Both Norway and Russia are key players in the increasing shipping activities in the Arctic. With the ongoing climate changes and the retreating of the Arctic sea ice, we just don’t have time not to join rescue forces in the north. 

Another disturbing fact that we need to mention ten years after the “Kursk” disaster is the increasing numbers of Russian nuclear powered submarines that are in line to be put on sea over the next two decades. Last year, ”Yury Dolgoruky” started its first sea trails. She is the first new nuclear-powered submarine designed to carry intercontinental missiles put on sea since the last Delta-IV class submarine was taken into use by the Northern fleet in 1992. Several others of the same Borey-class are under construction at the Sevmash yard in Severodvinsk.

Also at this White Sea naval yard, a new generation of multi-purpose submarines is under construction. Like “Kursk”, they will carry long-range cruise missiles. The first one was launched in mid-June this year. President Dmitri Medvedev was present in Severodvinsk when the submarine was put on water. Also last summer, Medvedev visited Severodvinsk when “Yury Dolgoruky” sailed out in the White Sea for the first time. The President then said:

“ Whitin 2020 we will have obtain building the core of Russia’s new naval forces   […]   Our new submarines will be equipped with modern weapons, they will be able to meet competition and they have to match or exceed their foreign counterparts. ”

Yes, we have heard it before. In 1989, “Komsomolets” was sent to sea from its base on the Kola Peninsula after Moscow’s need to show the Americans that they had a weapon that could go deep enough to sail undetected all cross the Atlantic to the east coast of the US. Several high-ranking officers in the Northern fleet then said “Komsomolets” was not seaworthy, but couldn’t resist the words from Moscow. And then, in 2000 we do remember the words of Vladimir Putin making it clear that Russian submarines again should sail the world’s oceans. Then “Kursk” sank.

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Let’s hope that the naval engineers, not least to talk about the missile engineers, are clear about one thing: A submarine, or a missile, is nothing you put to sea following some high-ranking political words from Moscow. A nuclear powered submarine is the most advanced weapon humans ever have created. BarentsObserver underlines that the ultimate goal is a Barents Sea without nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered submarines. Until then, make sure it works before sailing it.

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One of the reasons why we raise this warning is the on-going test program with the ill-fated Bulava intercontinental missile. So far, seven out of 13 missile tests have failed. The last one, in December 2009, was visible in the horizon over large parts of Northern Norway.

How big pressure isn’t there on the missile engineers, when knowing that the submarine “Yury Dolgoruky” to carry the Bulava has been waiting for its weapons since last year? Knowing that Moscow puts most of its nuclear deterrent prestige into the Bulava missile, because it can (when it works) carry multiple warheads not possible to take down by any kind of anti-missile defense systems? 

Let us see no more catastrophes with nuclear powered submarines.