Uncovering Soviet Disasters, by James Oberg
Random House, NY, 1986
Chapter 5: Submarines
The official Soviet explanation was simplicity itself: The missile submarine had sunk because it had quickly filled with water. While analysts chuckled over the tautology, they realized they had witnessed a breakthrough. It was October 7, 1986, and. for the first time in half a century of recorded Soviet history, the Soviets had admitted to the loss of one of their submarines at sea. The United States had lost two nuclear-powered submarines at sea, the Thresher off Cape Cod in 1963 with 129 men, and the Scorpion in the mid-Atlantic in 1968 with 99 men (the Soviets, describing the Scorpion loss, suggest that one of its nuclear torpedoes must have detonated). In the discussion and comparison of such event the foremost unforgettable fact is that death submerged is about as horrible an end as human engineering has devised. Chemical spills sear skin and lungs, electrical fires devour flesh, ammunition and fuel explosions tear limbs off, high-pressure water jets pierce through bodies, while salt water short-circuits power supplies and electrocutes anyone nearby, collapsing bulkheads crush and maim--and all through the terror-filled final moments, usually in the dark, there is no way "out" since on the outside is death. If death is not instantaneous, it can be hideously lingering as air becomes poisoned (carbon dioxide buildup kills long before breathable oxygen is exhausted). That human element must not be forgotten behind the following catalog of Soviet undersea disasters. The best available summary of early Russian submarine accident experience is Jan S. Breemer's article in Navy International magazine in May 1986. Breemer, who outlined the entire history of the Russian submarine service, pointed out that as early as 1913 Russia owned the world's third-largest submarine fleet, and its safety record was at least as good as (and maybe better than) that of West European fleets. Between the world wars the Soviets had about the same accident rate as the French, British, or German submarine fleet. Many incidents are known from that period. In late 1927 (Breemer suggests September) there was the loss of AG-16 (possibly named Bezbozhnik, ["Atheist"]) after a collision with a destroyer (only seven survived from a crew of twenty to twenty-five men); on May 22, 1931, the Rabochiy ("Worker") was lost in the gulf of Finland, with thirty-five fatalities; sometime in October 1931 a submarine sank during acceptance trials, but it was later raised; on July 25, 1935, the submarine B-3 collided with a battleship and sank with sixty-six crewmen (TASS officially announced this disaster); in November 1938 the M91 sank during a trial run; on July 24, 1939, the submarine Shch-424 went down off Murmansk after being rammed by a fishing trawler. It is a sad but not unusually costly list. Breemer noted that information about the period immediately after World War II is very sketchy. However, the introduction of new technologies increased the accident rate (Quebec-class subs in the mid-1950s were nicknamed cigarette lighters in honor of their frequent engine explosions), as did the expansion of operational areas. In the 1950s Soviet submarines began venturing out into the distant oceans, and unfamiliar operating conditions probably exacted their toll. Additionally, both nuclear power and on-board missiles were being introduced in the 1960s, and a number of accidents must have testified to the "learning curve" of these technologies. Former Soviet submarine missile test engineer Mikhail Turetskiy, in his memoir published in Virginia in 1983, recalls accidents caused by those new factors which occurred while he was on duty at a missile test range at Severomorsk. One type of sub-launched cruise missile, the P-5 in Soviet nomenclature, was installed aboard large containers attached to a submarine's topside. These containers seriously affected the sub's performance and handling qualities. Finally, according to Turetskiy's account, "An accident put an end to any further testing of the system. A submarine put to sea [sometime in 1960-1962] carrying empty containers and sank on its return voyage. A two-year search for the boat yielded nothing. It is possible that the high position of the containers significantly reduced the stability of the submarine, causing its destruction." A second incident in 1961 involved newly introduced nuclear-powered submarines on the high seas: One of the new nuclear submarines on a return voyage was assigned to practice a salvo-firing of two R-13 missiles [NATO designation SS-N-4] in the Northern Fleet's test range. Near the coast of England an accident in the submarine's nuclear power plant occurred. Crew members and other submarine passengers were seriously contaminated. Parts of the ship, and the missiles themselves, were also contaminated when a cooling pipe broke. The level of radiation was reported to have been five [rem] per hour in the space where the pipe broke. Soviet rocket engineers suggested that this was a good opportunity to test the effects of radiation on missile components and fuel, and "after a two-month ventilation of the submarine" the missiles were removed, installed on a diesel-powered missile submarine, and successfully launched. As the 1960s progressed, the Soviets began introducing a series of new submarines. Eventually they had more than twelve shipyards, each producing its specific type of submarine. NATO designations attempted to keep the different types distinct; Zulu, Golf, Hotel, Yankee, Delta, and other designators were applied to these different models with various types of weaponry and power plants. As these missile submarines, along with nuclear-powered attack submarines, began patrolling the oceans within missile range of the United States, accidents soared. Some of them were made obvious by sightings of surfaced crippled submarines; in a few other cases data obtained by Western naval intelligence activities were later released (or leaked). Many of the accounts, however, were based on interviews with knowledgeable Soviet citizens who had emigrated and later were interviewed by the CIA's Domestic Intelligence Division (DID); the reliability of such hearsay reports is a major concern, and they must be treated on a case-by-case basis. An early 1970s incident was related by a Soviet emigre who had served in the navy: A sailor aboard an unknown class ballistic missile nuclear submarine was exposed to excessive radiation through his own negligence. He was hospitalized and subsequently de- mobilized from the Navy six months prior to his scheduled discharge. He was continually in and out of hospitals and was hospitalized permanently in 1975. He died in 1976 after spending one year in the hospital.There was no doubt he died from excessive exposure to radiation. Another emigre reported an incident from "around 1966," on a submarine home-based at Polyarnyy, near Severomorsk. There was radiation leakage in the reactor area. On return to the USSR some crew members were hospitalized for radiation sickness at a specialized center on an island near Murmansk. The interviewee added: "[Many] of those sent to the island did not come back." The source went on to describe how the sub returned to port: "As the submarine entered port the captain requested permission to proceed directly to the shipyard. Permission was not granted but the captain took the vessel there nonetheless, and as it approached the pier several of the crew members jumped ashore and ran in scattered directions before the submarine was berthed." To repair the sub, a "special brigade" was formed. Sometime in 1968, according to an emigre, a sub (presumably nuclear) went down in a bay off the base at Severomorsk. A search was initiated a day or two after it had failed to return, but by the time it was found thirty days later ("on the bottom of the estuary to Kolskiy Zaliv") the ninety-man crew had died. All the food aboard had been eaten, but there hadn't been time for the men to starve; more likely the crew had later suffocated. The submarine was raised, repaired, and recommissioned. Two years later, on April 11, 1970, in the North Atlantic Ocean 350 miles southwest (and upstream) of England, a November-class attack submarine suffered an internal fire and nuclear propulsion system failure. Crewmen were seen on deck trying to rig a tow line to a Soviet merchant ship, but because of worsening sea conditions, the attempts to tow the sub were abandoned. The following morning the submarine was no longer in sight and was presumed lost. The number of crew casualties is not known, but it could have been everyone aboard, as many as eighty-eight. According to a 1986 statement from Captain Guy Liardet, director of British Naval Public Relations, the Russians still "regularly check it [the sinking site] for any radiation leaks." At almost the same time in 1970 a second disaster involving substantial loss of life apparently occurred, also off the British coast, according to another emigre. An unidentified nuclear submarine was lost after experiencing a major fire during the Okean-70 maneuvers. Other independent U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) sources corroborate this event. The full text of the heavily censored CIA interview summary reads: During the exercise, an unidentified Soviet nuclear subma- rine (class unknown) was tied up alongside an unidentified submarine tender (class unknown) in the vicinity of the Faeroe Islands. [Passage deleted.] ... interior of the nuclear submarine caught on fire. The cause of the fire was not disclosed. The fire was fought unsuccessfully, and the sub- marine captain gave orders for part of the crew to escape to the submarine tender. The political officer, who had not been ordered to leave the submarine, went on board the tender for fear of his life. The captain ordered the executive officer and several crew members, number unknown, to leave the submarine.'The executive officer and crew members refused and instead assisted the captain in fighting the fire. The fire could not be controlled and was spreading towards the nuclear reactor. Since there was fear that the nuclear reactor was about to catch on fire, the submarine captain ordered the submarine to be scuttled. The petcocks were opened, and the interior of the submarine was flooded to prevent the fire from reaching the nuclear reactor. The number of petcocks opened and the number of compartments flooded was [sic] unknown. The submarine sank "with great loss of life," but the specific number of casualties was not disclosed. It's conceivable that both these accounts are grossly distorted, independent versions of a single event somewhere off the British coast. In light of what we know about distortion factors in iemigre reports, that remains possible. Two "routine" submarine accidents also are known to have occurred in the following years. During January 1971, in the Mediterranean, a Foxtrot-class attack sub was apparently involved in a collision with a Soviet merchant ship, and a twenty-foot section of its bow was sheared off. Any personnel in the forward area (the torpedo room traditionally doubles as bunk space for several dozen crewmen who continuously rotate into and out of the "hot" bunks) would have been killed. A year later, in February 1972, in the North Atlantic Ocean about 600 miles northeast of Newfoundland, a Hotel II-class SSBN lost all power after a serious propulsion malfunction, possibly involving several deaths. The sub was taken in tow for return to the USSR. In December 1972, in the Atlantic Ocean a few hundred miles off the North American coast, an unidentified Soviet nuclear submarine experienced radiation leakage in a nuclear-armed torpedo storage compartment in a forward section. Consequently the compartment was sealed off with some crewmen inside. One account by an émigré was that the sub had to be towed home at a speed of two to three knots. This source (who also had described the 1968 Severomorsk submarine disaster) recounted what happened to the men in the isolated compartment. Evidently they could not be reached because of contamination of their surroundings and themselves, although it is appalling that the Soviets couldn't get them out quickly and put them through a decontamination procedure. "The crew members ... initially consumed dry rations that were perma nently stored in the compartment, and later they received food through a small opening from the weather deck." At Severemorsk they were evacuated from the compartment and hospitalized. Several crewmen had died shortly after the accident (from radiation, burns, poisoning? -- we don't know), and others died later. "'The majority of submarine crew members suffered some form of` radiation sickness," the source reported. On August 28, 1976, in the Mediterranean, an Echo-class submarine was involved in a surface collision with the USS Voge. Photographs released by the U.S. Navy show the submarine (its conning tower and periscope visible just over the surface) heading straight for the side of the frigate. Another view shows the sub's conning tower akilter following the impact. The navy claimed the sub had followed the American ship on a parallel course for an hour before turning in to it. Some hull damage was noted on the submarine, but crew injuries probably were minor. According to another Russian émigré, about October 1976, in the Atlantic Ocean, an unidentified nuclear submarine (possibly a missile sub) suffered a fire in its missile launch compartment. Casualties were reported to be three dead; the sub returned to the USSR under its own power. Another émigré reported that sometime the following year, l977, in the Indian Ocean, an unidentified nuclear submarine suffered an internal fire, possibly caused by an outdated reactor. There was an unknown number of deaths; the sub was towed home to Vladivostok. The CIA's account of the interview gave an intriguing view of just how this report leaked out. According to the informant, it had to do with the general Soviet housing shortage: Housing accommodations for wives and dependents at Soviet naval installations were extremely inadequate. Because of this, many students at the various naval academies and installations in Leningrad established residence in Leningrad upon graduation and maintained them throughout their naval careers. Because of [this], in 1977, when a fire of undetermined origin occurred on a Soviet submarine in the Indian Ocean, a select number of people in Leningrad were aware of the event while the fire was still under way. Several crew members were killed in the fire, and their wives and dependents in Leningrad were informed that the accident had taken place at that time. The submarine was forced to surface in an attempt to extinguish the fire which lasted for several days. Eventually, the fire was put out, and the submarine was towed by a Soviet trawler to a port near Vladivostok. Nothing on this accident appeared in the Soviet press at that time even though the event was well publicized in the world press. A submarine in tow through the Sea of Japan is newsworthy, and Japanese television and print reporters regularly charter aircraft to fly over the embarrassed Russians and photograph the crippled boat. There are no press accounts of this happening anytime in 1977. However, there was such an incident on October 13, 1978. According to a Reuters dispatch from Tokyo, "A 3,200-ton Soviet submarine, armed with anti-shipping missiles, was reported under tow by a destroyer in the Sea of Japan tonight with a typhoon bearing down from the Pacific. 'The Japanese Defense Agency said a navy reconnaissance aircraft spotted the Juliet class submarine." This could be the publicity the Soviet source referred to. The error in the year of the incident (if indeed it is an error) would not be particularly unusuan an American attack submarine trailing the Russian "boomer." Noted another Pentagon official: "I can't go into details, but let's just say they made one hell of a lot of noise under water with their fire alarm" and with the subsequent explosion. "The force of the explosion,' noted Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, "was very, very great. The USS Powhatan, an auxiliary rescue ship, was ordered into the area, but the Soviets declined a U.S. offer of assistance. Several Soviet merchant ships soon reached the stricken sub, and they took off most of its crew. The day after the accident eight Soviet sailors were seen circling the submarine in a small boat, obviously assessing external hull damage and probably seeking signs of continuing leaks. Two days later, during the night of October 5-6, shadowing Western patrol craft suddenly noticed a flurry of activity. The submarine had been observed to be floating lower and lower in the water. Green and red flares sliced through the predawn sky, and the towline to a Soviet merchant ship was cut. The Powhatan again offered assistance, and the Soviets again radioed it to "remain clear." The last of the crew took to lifeboats, and the sub sank within half an hour. The last man off was the captain, and according to intercepted radio messages, he was none too eager to be rescued. After leaving the sub on a small raft only minutes before it sank, he refused assistance from a boat from a nearby Soviet freighter. "We don't know what his problem was," a U.S. official told the Washington Post. "Maybe it was pride or fear, or maybe he wanted to paddle all the way to Virginia." Soviet naval officials radioed stern orders that the captain go aboard the Soviet ship, and he finally did. A second (and last) dispatch was issued by TASS at about 1700 GMT, October 6. Like the first, it was sparse and to the point: >From October 3 to 6, 1986, the crew of the Soviet submarine in which an accident happened, and the crews of the Soviet ships which approached the scene, were engaged in an effort to keep her afloat. Despite the efforts, the submarine has not been rescued. At 11:03 AM [Moscow time, 3:03 A.M. Bermuda time] on October 6, it sank to a great depth. The crew has been evacuated to the Soviet ships which appeared on the scene. There have been no other losses among the crew, apart from those which were reported on October 4. An effort is continuing to find out the circumstances which resulted in the loss of the submarine, but the immediate cause is the speedy flooding of water from the outside. The reactor has been shut down. According to the conclusion of specialists, the possibility of a nuclear explosion and radioac- tive contamination of the environment is excluded. Such a catalog of underwater catastrophe can be justified only if it provides some insight into Soviet submarine capabilities, including comparative reliability and safety, along with an explanation of why in 1986 the long-standing complete secrecy policy was set aside. To do the first task, however, requires knowledge of the total time spent at sea by Soviet submarines, and this is hard to estimate. Mere numbers of subs cannot be directly compared since American missile subs spend so much more of their time actually at sea than do the Soviets. Nevertheless, in Jan Breemer's words, "'The weight of evidence leaves no doubt that the American submarine fleet has been much less accident prone than its Soviet opponent." Understanding how the secrecy policy has been modified is even more difficult. Submarine disasters have traditionally fallen under the "military affairs" policy of total secrecy for reasons of national security. For routine submarine malfunctions, the Gorbachev regime evidently expects the world to understand that nothing has changed. But when the stricken submarine carries nuclear missiles aimed at U.S. targets, and when photographs of the boat's gaping holes are published around the world, traditional silence would have been impossible without repudiating glasnost before the entire planet. Western expectations thus propelled Moscow along a course of disclosure which it never would have been likely to choose from internal motivations. Such moral pressure was more powerful than that of water at great depths, which has crushed more Soviet submarines than we probably know about. The pressure of expectations of glasnost broke the hull of Soviet maritime defense security, at least this once. But as mathematicians can demonstrate, it takes more than one point to define a line, to describe a trend. The next Soviet submarine disaster and Moscow's reaction to it will define how far underwater the sunlight of glasnost extends. To judge from past experience, there won't be long to wait
Chapter 6 Disasters Afloat (Excerpt on Soviet unwillingness to ask for foreign help)
As the Soviet freighter Mekhanik Tarasov listed forty-five de grees off the Newfoundland coast, a Danish trawler approached and radioed an offer of aid. It was February 16, 1982, and the Soviet ship had been bound from Quebec to Europe with a load of newsprint when it endured a battering by a heavy storm. The oil rig Ocean Ranger had just gone down in the same area with great loss of life. The Russian captain waved off the would-be rescuers, preferring that his forty crewmen wait for the arrival of a nearby Soviet ship rather than accept help from foreigners. This second Soviet ship, the Ivan Dvorskiy, eventually showed up three hours after the Mekhanik Tarasov had sunk. The Ivan Dvorskiy was in time only to help the Danes pull some of the last bodies from the water. Seven survivors and eighteen bodies were eventually picked up. Once again, ordinary Soviet people had paid a bitter price for the official Soviet policy of refusing assistance from "enemies." One of the most famous "official" Soviet maritime disasters is the loss of the icebreaker Chelyuskin in February 1934 and the daring rescue of its crew. The ship was crushed by ice fields in the Chukotsk Sea (at the far eastern tip of Siberia), and 104 people on the ship had to abandon the sinking vessel and seek refuge on the ice field. Under severe conditions, half a dozen Soviet pilots made repeated flights to the site and over a period of days picked up all the survivors. This drama was covered live by radio. The pilots became the first in the USSR to be honored with the supreme award of the country, the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. And the Soviets did it all themselves; a plan to save time by flying pilots to Alaska and buying rescue planes there was rejected as politically unacceptable. If the stranded Chelyuskin survivors couldn't be rescued by Russians, they were not going to be rescued at all. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn documented another kind of maritime emergency along the same coast. In the spring of 1938 the steamer Dzhurma was transporting 3,000 or 4,000 slave laborers from Vladivostok to the Kolyma goldfields, which required passing very close to Japanese-held Sakhalin Island. Some of the prisoners got loose and looted a storeroom, setting it afire. As smoke poured from the hold of the ship, a Japanese naval vessel pulled alongside and offered assistance in fighting the fire. The captain refused the offer and ordered the hatches sealed, suffocating the fire and the thousands of political prisoners as well. Once the Japanese ship was out of sight, the bodies of the dead were thrown overboard. "Decades have passed since then," the fuming Solzhenitsyn wrote in a footnote to this episode, "but how many times Soviet citizens have met with misfortune on the world's oceans, yet because of that same secretiveness disguised as national pride they have refused help! Let the sharks devour us, so long as we don't have to accept your helping hand!"