On August 12, 2000, the Russian Oscar-class submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea during naval exercises, killing all 118 crew members on board. The sinking of the Kursk stands as one of the worst submarine disasters ever. Over 20 years later, speculation still swirls over what exactly caused the initial catastrophic explosion that doomed the submarine.
Background on the Kursk and the Russian Northern Fleet
The Kursk was a Project 949A Antey-class cruise missile submarine that entered service in 1994. At 154 meters long and displacing 24,000 tons submerged, it was one of the largest attack submarines ever built. The Oscar-class was designed to hunt down American aircraft carriers and launch anti-ship and land-attack missiles.
The Kursk served with Russia’s Northern Fleet, which faced decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Funding shortages impacted training and maintenance. However, the Kursk was considered one of the best vessels in the fleet at the time of its sinking.
The Disaster During Naval Exercises
On August 10, 2000, the Kursk joined the Northern Fleet for major naval exercises in the Barents Sea. Two days later, at 11:28 AM local time, seismic sensors registered a massive explosion aboard the submarine. The Russian navy did not realize something was wrong until hours later when the Kursk failed to communicate.
A second, larger explosion occurred 135 seconds after the first, powerful enough to register on seismic stations across northern Europe. The two explosions doomed the Kursk and her crew. Over 90% died instantly. The few who survived took shelter in the ninth compartment, but later succumbed after a fire consumed the remaining oxygen.
Theories on What Caused the Initial Explosion
Russian authorities have never reached an official conclusion on what triggered the Kursk disaster. Experts have proposed numerous theories over the years:
Faulty Torpedo Theory
Many believe the initial blast stemmed from an explosion of one of the Kursk’s own torpedoes. Examination of the wreckage found torpedo fragments embedded in the submarine’s hull. The pattern of damage indicated an internal explosion.
Speculation focused on the high-test peroxide used to power Russian torpedoes. This volatile compound could explode if mishandled or if a torpedo valve failed. However, the crew was experienced, making an accidental torpedo detonation unlikely.
Another theory posits the Kursk collided with another submarine, warship, or surface vessel. The navy was conducting maneuvers with multiple ships and submarines in proximity. An accidental collision could have caused the Kursk’s torpedoes to detonate.
However, no vessel reported a collision. The Navy denies any collision occurred. And with acoustic conditions ideal, the Kursk’s sonar should have detected any approaching ships.
Mines and Sabotage Theories
Other theories involve the Kursk striking an old mine or sabotage. But no evidence indicated the presence of mines. Experts also dismissed sabotage since it occurred during Northern Fleet exercises far from foreign naval activity.
Testing New Technology Theory
A more conspiratorial theory speculates that the explosion resulted from secret testing of a specialized warhead, fuel, or torpedo aboard the Kursk. But again, no solid evidence supports testing of any experimental systems.
Ongoing Uncertainty and Lessons
Russian authorities have withheld critical records, preventing a definitive account of the Kursk disaster. The lack of transparency has fueled rumors and distrust.
The tragedy highlighted how Russia’s economic crisis impacted naval readiness and training. It also showed weaknesses in rescue capabilities for submarines.
The Kursk disaster ultimately stands as sobering reminder of the immense risks faced by submariners around the world. It also demonstrates how even advanced submarines remain vulnerable to catastrophe from unforeseen dangers.