August 27 2000 RUSSIA

Secret torpedo test 'blew sub apart'

Nicholas Rufford and Stephen Grey

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 torpedo warheads.

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 out.

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 the Squall.

Accidental ignition of the propulsion system of either weapon before they
launched would have had devastating consequences for the Kursk.

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

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 up rockets."

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 contact.

"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 link."

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 array.

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.




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