- Two civilian experts from a Russian military plant were
conducting secret munitions tests aboard the Kursk submarine, which sank
after the hull was ripped apart in an accident, it emerged last night.
- The final moments of the doomed craft have been pieced
together by Western military experts, who believe a test firing went disastrously
wrong, igniting highly inflammable propellant and detonating missile and
- The resulting explosions blew a huge hole in the right-hand
side of the Kursk's nose, where the torpedo room is located. Water flooded
in, causing the pride of the Russian submarine fleet to sink in seconds.
- Any members of the crew who may have survived had no
time to close watertight doors, or to send distress signals. Self-sealing
emergency hatches failed because the submarine's control systems were knocked
- Military experts said they believed the crew of the Kursk
were testing one of two weapons systems: an anti-submarine missile that
fired from a torpedo tube out of the sea, then re-entered it to attack
submarines; or an upgraded version of a fast and silent torpedo called
- Accidental ignition of the propulsion system of either
weapon before they launched would have had devastating consequences for
- Rustam Usmanov, head of the Dagdizel military plant on
the Caspian Sea, told The Sunday Times that his chief engineer had been
on the Kursk to monitor weapons tests. Mamed Gadzhiyev, a veteran weapons
designer with Dagdizel, and Arnold Borisov, another employee of the plant,
were among the 118 men who died.
- Usmanov denied, however, that the two men were working
on a "secret weapon" for the Russian navy. "Mamed Gadzhiyev
and Arnold Borisov were supervising a regular test launch of torpedoes
on the Kursk," he said. "The task of our men was to supervise
and check if the torpedo was working as it should. Our specialists were
not dealing with any new or modernised torpedoes."
- Western experts say they believe the Russian navy was
upgrading the Squall, a torpedo that can reach speeds of 200 knots. It
is unique because it travels in a gas capsule, which reduces friction with
the surrounding water.
- "The weapon is very clever; it uses propellers to
boost it out of the sub, then a rocket kicks in at a safe distance, burning
liquid propellant," said one British expert. "The danger is if
the second stage fires inside the submarine. Then you can say goodnight."
- Russian military strategists describe the Squall as a
rocket rather than a torpedo, and insist there were no rockets on the Kursk.
However, a letter written by a crew member to his mother, which arrived
the day the vessel went down, said: "We are sitting in port, loading
- Further support for the "secret weapon" theory
came last week from Alexander Rutskoi, governor of the region from which
many of the submarine crew were recruited. Rutskoi, a former Russian vice-president,
said he had been told by two high-ranking military officers that civilian
experts were aboard the Kursk to test new torpedoes, but declined to give
any further details.
- American experts believe that one of the Kursk's rocket-
propelled anti-submarine weapons - an SSN15 or an SSN16 - could have become
stuck in its launch tube and exploded.
- According to the Russians, the last contact with the
vessel was on August 11. Gennady Lyachin, the Kursk's commander, had successfully
test- fired a missile during a military exercise. He asked permission to
fire again on Saturday morning. Admiral Vyacheslav Popov gave the go-ahead
from his nuclear-powered flagship, Peter the Great. There was no further
- "The submarine's objective was to launch a cruise
missile, and then, in a certain area, to identify missiles and hit the
main target with a torpedo salvo," said Igor Sergeyev, the Russian
defence minister. "The commander reported having fulfilled the first
task and, by 1800 (1400 GMT on August 12), he was expected to report the
fulfilment of the second task. The submarine failed to establish a communication
- What had happened in the meantime remains a matter of
dispute between Russian and Western military experts. Sergeyev was still
insisting yesterday that the most likely cause of the disaster was a collision
with a foreign submarine. The Russians have produced no evidence to back
this claim, however, and Sergeyev also admitted it was difficult to say
what time the accident occurred, because the exercise involved maintaining
radio silence for extended periods.
- Western experts have almost unanimously rejected the
Russian version. A collision certainly could not account for the explosions
detected by a Norwegian seismic institute at 11.28am and 11.39am Russian
time (0728 and 0739 GMT) on August 12, the second of which registered 3.5
on the Richter scale. "This was the single most powerful explosion
we have ever registered in this area," said Frode Ringdair, a scientific
adviser to the institute.
- Neither would a collision have caused such devastating
damage so quickly. Underwater footage gathered by Russian rescue teams
days the accident indicated that a massive force had ripped open the Kursk's
entire front section, including the control room. Lyachin, 45, and his
closest aides probably died immediately.
- Anthony Watts, editor of Jane's Underwater Warfare Systems,
said Russian claims of a collision were disinformation. "There are
10 watertight compartments in that class of submarine. It can withstand
flooding of two or three compartments and remain afloat."
- Further reason to pin the blame on exploding munitions
was the fact that the Kursk's periscope was extended, indicating that it
was at periscope depth when the accident happened - the correct depth for
launching a torpedo.
- It now also seems certain that nobody on the submarine
survived longer than 60 hours, because no watertight compartments remained
- intact. The Russians backtracked on early claims that
tapping on the hull had continued for four days after the accident. They
now admit the last sign of life was two days earlier, on August 14. The
messages were "SOS. Water." Even that claim has not been confirmed.
- Without doubt, the Russians are hiding a terrible secret.
Norwegian officials said last week that their divers had been refused permission
to go anywhere near the front of the boat and were given firm instructions
to keep away from the damaged area.
- Perhaps even more surprising, though, is how little American
authorities have said about the tragedy. An American submarine was close
enough to the naval exercises to detect the underwater explosions. Also
patrolling nearby was the Loyal, a spy ship that tows a sensitive sonar
- Both should have been able to piece together the events
that sunk the Kursk. If they did, they are keeping quiet about it. The
cold war lives on.
- Additional reporting: Mark Franchetti in Moscow, and
Tom Rhodes in Washington
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