The Soviet Submarine Legacy

By October 14, 2000 No Comments

The Soviet Union killed tens of millions of people in massacres, the gulags and deliberate famines. Another legacy of Soviet contempt for human life is now sitting on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean — the 118 sailors of the Oscar Class Submarine Kursk. Following an accident, presumably with the hydrogen-peroxide fueled torpedoes carried forward, the cruise missile armed submarine sank with all hands in early August 2000.

The Kursk was another of the many products from the massive military expenditures wrought by the Soviet Union. Few people remember the USSR’s militaristic nature, but it produced an amazing amount of weaponry – often making more of some (tanks and artillery for example) than the rest of the world combined. However, the Soviet’s social and industrial infrastructure decayed as the 20th Century wore on.

From 1960 onwards, the Soviets grew incapable of matching the quality of equipment produced in Western Nations. To overcome this, they relied on vast amounts of equipment instead. To achieve this end, Soviet designers made compromises in safety and reliability that no Western Army would ever accept. For example, many Soviet tanks (the T-64, T-72 and T-80 family) had an automatic loading device for the main gun that frequently ripped off the arm of the gunner and stuffed it into the breach.

The Soviet Army was not alone in accepting dangerous trade-offs to get a measure of enhanced performance. In an underwater duel, the submarine with the fastest torpedoes might be able to compensate for its weaker electronics and noisier hull. While the Russians are reluctant to describe some aspects of their military technology, the Kursk was certainly armed with torpedoes fueled with hydrogen peroxide. These provide an awesome speed (70 knots or more in the basic model and 250 in an advanced one), but the fuel is incredibly corrosive and explosive. This is not a substance that should be mixed up with sailors and machinery all crowded together in the tight confines of a submarine. However, this inevitable result of theoretical performance over real safety was typical of Soviet thinking.

Even now, a decade after the USSR disintegrated, the Russian military is still almost entirely equipped with Soviet-era material.

There are few things as complicated as a warship, where everything is a compromise between firepower, sea-worthiness, protection, speed, sensors and crew endurance. The Soviets gave low priority to the latter. The problem is worse in submarines where size is even more important, and the operating environment is deadlier.

The history of submarines is a fatal one, and hundreds of sailors have died in them through normal accidents. As nuclear reactors, deeper diving depths and faster speeds appeared in the 1950s, submariners faced even more hazardous challenges.

Since the 1950s, the US Navy lost the USS Thresher in 1963 and USS Scorpion in 1968. Neither the British nor the French navy lost any nuclear submarines. The Soviet penchant for sloppy workmanship and rushing unproven designs into production led to a worse record.

Another unpleasant aspect of Soviet ideology was the refusal to acknowledge accidents or disasters. For example, if no foreigners were killed in a Soviet air-crash, it might not be officially reported. The Soviet penchant for secrecy still applies to many incidents where hundreds of people were killed. As the families of the Kursk’s crew have discovered, old habits can die hard.

The Soviet record of their submarine losses is incomplete. Instead, émigrés, veterans and an occasional intelligence leak suggest the following [1] :

A Soviet sub vanished without a trace in 1962, presumably when its external missile bays accidentally flooded. A nuclear-armed diesel-electric submarine sank off Hawaii in 1968. (Part of this was later raised by the US, whose experts were stunned at the crude technology in the vessel).

Three Soviet subs may have been lost in 1970. One sank in shallow water near Severomorsk. While the crew died of suffocation, the vessel was later recovered. A November class submarine sank under tow — presumably after a reactor failure — southwest of Great Britain, and another unidentified one sank after a major naval exercise near the Faeroe Islands.

In 1972, two subs were towed home after lethal reactor leaks (the Soviet military joke that men from the submarine fleet glowed in the dark had a strong currency). The same thing reportedly happened to a Soviet submarine in the Indian Ocean in 1977. While the Japanese didn’t notice the transit of such a sub in 1977, they did in 1978. A reactor leak on another Soviet sub prompted the evacuation of 12 crewmen off Newfoundland in 1977. An Echo Class submarine was towed home from off Scotland in 1978.

A fire on another submarine killed 9 sailors off Okinawa in 1980, and yet another influx of irradiated sailors into Soviet hospitals was noticed in 1981 after an undisclosed incident in the Baltic.

A Charlie-I submarine sank off the Kamchatka Peninsula in June 1983. In October 1986, the Soviets lost a Yankee-I submarine near Bermuda. Finally, the experimental Mike Class submarine Komsomolets sank near Norway in April 1988.

The USSR lost at least four nuclear submarines between 1960 and 1989, and may have lost nine altogether. There were also at least another eight cases (that seem obvious) where lethal levels of contamination or fires occurred on board a nuclear submarine.

Fortunately for Russian submariners, the end of the USSR meant an enormous reduction in the size of the fleet. Many of the elderly subs were scrapped or abandoned, and the smaller fleet also meant a huge increase in crew quality as the proportion of officers to conscripts narrowed dramatically.

It is to the credit of submariners like those of the Kursk, that more accidents did not occur between 1988 and today. Unfortunately, they put to sea in vessels that were designed and built by a society that placed little value on safety and reliability. The legacy of the Soviet Union is still lethal.