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The Kursk and the Future of Naval Warfare

Tuesday, August 28, 2001

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I received this in mail August 26, 2001. I received it through a usually but not invariably reliable filter. It speaks for itself. Subsequently I have mail expressing considerable skepticism; that's attached below. It's not a subject I have much expertise in. Missiles in space I know something about. Submarines I don't know at all.


Thought you'd find this interesting.

BTW I saw a report that the Russians were going to raise the Kursk using a Norwegian barge after cutting off the nose. Now I know why. They want to keep the new and improved Shkval torpedoes on the sea floor.

This isn't a joke, but an interesting memo passed along to me by one of my old NASA buddies. If you think the sinking of that Russian submarine a year ago was a freak accident, you don't know the half of it....

r.c. ---

From: Roger J. C, ancient but concerned former U.S. submariner

To: potential interested parties

Subject: What really sunk the Russian Submarine Kursk, plus some added intrigue

All of us recall the sinking and great loss of life of the Russian submarine Kursk last year. At that time I gave my opinion of what I believed happened when interviewed by Channel 15 News here in Arizona. Little did I realize however how right on target I may have been. I had heard through submarine circles that Russia had been testing a new method of firing their new improved VA-111 torpedo, and assumed this could have been the cause of the Kursk explosion. What I didn't realize was what this new torpedo could really do, nor the magnitude this new weapon system could have on revolutionizing the future of submarine, antisubmarine, and naval warfare in favor of the Russians.

This is what I've since learned, and it has all the elements of a Tom Clancy thriller: ....a sunken Russian submarine with all hands lost, sophisticated Western naval surveillance, spies versus counterspies, high-level Kremlin intrigue, and a revolutionary secret-weapons technology that could turn battles and perhaps the tides of war.

Although the story of the Russian VA-111 Shkval torpedo had been percolating in the West for years, it was really only last August 12 when the high-speed undersea missile splashed into the news. On that day the Russian nuclear submarine K-141 Kursk sank mysteriously with 118 people on board in 354 feet of the icy waters of the Barents Sea. Forty-nine elite Russian submarine officers, 36 more than is customarily part of the ships complement, were aboard the Russian Oscar ll Class submarine that day to witness something big....the firing of the improved VA-111 Shkval (Squall) Underwater torpedo Missile -- an incredible undersea weapon, that when launched, rockets underwater at a speed over 200 mph, giving a targeted vessel little or no chance to evade it.

Similar in size to our Los Angeles Class nuclear submarines, and more than twice the length of a jumbo jet, Kursk was one of the most modern subs in the Russian navy. It had been built with multi purposes in mind, but its primary mission was to attack and destroy NATO aircraft carrier groups. The Kursk's double-hull titanium construction and internal compartmentation made it extremely resistant to damage; much superior to our subs. Only a very serious mishap could have sent it to the bottom.

The Kursk had been taking part in the largest Russian Northern Fleet exercise in a decade. Western naval intelligence assets were out in force to monitor the maneuvers. Not only were two U.S. Los Angeles-Class Attack Subs on the scene to eavesdrop, but so was the USNS LOYAL, a surface spy ship that tows a sensitive sonar array of listening devices. At least one British submarine was cruising nearby as well. It's therefore clear that the U.S. Department of Defense believed the Kursk's mission to be highly significant. The question was why? What made this mission more critical to Allied interests than some others?

Although the Russian government claimed at first that the calamity that befell Kursk had been caused by a collision with one of the foreign subs in the vicinity, this assertion was dismissed in the West. The scuttlebutt in Pentagon circles was that the sinking was precipitated by an explosion, as I had thought, during a test of an improved version of the Shkval torpedo. This unique device, if all goes according to plan, manages to defeat hydrodynamic drag and achieve extremely high subsea speeds by traveling inside a cavity of water vapor. America and the European powers have nothing remotely comparable to this weapon and have been seeking information on this novel weapons technology ever since news of it arrived after the fall of the Soviet Union.

As for the actual sinking of the Kursk, some Western observers subscribe to entirely different theories. One involves an accidental mishap occurring when the Kursk had trouble test-firing a second extraordinary top-secret device, the torpedo/supersonic missile, 100-RU Veder (NATO designation: SS-N-16A Stallion), which features a 200-mile range and a 220-pound conventional or nuclear warhead. My theory still lies with a malfunction while test firing the VA-111. Whatever the case, 118 men died, and the West is still perhaps a decade behind in torpedo technology.

And this is where Tom Clancy comes in. Several months prior to the accident, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in Moscow had arrested an American businessman, Edmond Pope, and a Russian associate, on charges of stealing state secrets. Pope was allegedly caught red-handed trying to buy the design details of the Shkval VA-111 from a Russian scientist who had helped develop it. Pope is a former U.S. Navy captain who had worked in naval intelligence and had founded the navy's Foreign Science and Technologies Program. When he retired from military service, Pope founded two companies that specialized in bringing foreign maritime technology to the West. Observers now believe that Pope was actually an American intelligence officer posing as a businessman. The speculation is that Pope was asked to obtain certain technical details about the high-velocity torpedoes prior to the scheduled tests in the Barents Sea. Coinciding with Pope's seizure was the arrest of Daniel Howard Kiely, a researcher in advanced power systems technology at the Applied Research Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University, which develops torpedoes for the U.S. Navy. The 68-year-old professor is said to have been in Moscow to provide Pope with any technical advice.

Kiely was interrogated but soon afterward, he was freed from custody and returned home. The Russian's held Pope, however, and charged him with paying $30,000 to one Anatoliy Babkin, head of the rocket engineering department at the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, for information on the Shkval. According to Russian media reports, Babkin was in fact a double agent who set Pope up, a belief supported by Babkin's relatively rapid release by the FSB.

Pope, who faced a 20-year prison sentence at hard labor, was tried and subsequently convicted of espionage. Soon afterward, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly set aside the conviction and the American was quickly repatriated. We don't know what America paid for his release.

Pope's ordeal was only the latest manifestation of NATO's interest in the Shkval and Stallion. The first public mention of the weapons in the West emerged in a Russian handbook of Soviet warships published in 1991. Following persistent rumors about the Shkval's startling capabilities, an April 1995 article by David Miller in Jane's Intelligence Review ("Supercavitation: Going to War in a Bubble") stated that "Russia has developed an ultrafast underwater missile for which the West has no equivalent. With a speed in excess of 230 miles per hour -- several times that of conventional torpedoes -- the rocket-powered Shkval is sufficiently swift that it would give a targeted vessel ... including another submarine ... little chance to evade it. The weapon, which was deployed in the 1970s, is said to be a "straight-shooter" that follows a linear trajectory. Its maximum range is listed at about six nautical miles with a maximum running depth of about 1200 feet." These are incredible capabilities when compared to anything we have at this time. Scary!

Its original purpose was to counter the U.S. Navy's Polaris missile submarines. The idea was to have the capability during nuclear war to strike the American sub quickly before it could launch all of its intercontinental ballistic missiles and has been going through an extended period of R&D ever since. The still-unrivaled undersea Shkval was first deployed all the way back around 1977. How many of us are still riding around in 24-year-old state-of-the-art automobiles? And we think Russia is backward?

Earlier this year, Patrick E. Tyler, a reporter for The New York Times, quoted retired Russian rear admiral and former sub commander Valery I. Aleksin as saying: "This was a complete new-stage breakthrough in the development of underwater weapons. And as far as I know, it is impossible to protect yourself against this kind of torpedo, and the Americans are behind in the development of this kind of technology."

Unfortunately, he's right. But what exactly is the Shkval VA-111 and what is its purpose? The Shkval is a sub-killer, particularly if it's fitted with a tactical nuclear warhead. Some in the West consider this torpedo a "revenge weapon" because any Russian ship that launched a nuclear-tipped Shkval against a target only a few miles away would likely also succumb to the shock wave.

Admiral Aleksin is reported in the Times article, however, to have said that Russian submarines are sufficiently robust to withstand such a blast. It could be -- Russia's subs are certainly beefier in construction than ours and in many ways superior ... those, that is, that are still seaworthy. Other informed sources claim that the missile is in fact an offensive weapon designed to destroy entire aircraft carrier battle groups with a higher-yield nuclear warhead. During a nuclear war, it could even be directed at a port or coastal land target ... like New York City, Washington D.C., Boston, L.A., or San Francisco. "As there are no known countermeasures to such a weapon," states the 1995 Jane's article, "its deployment could have a significant effect on future maritime operations, both surface and subsurface, and could put Western naval forces at a considerable disadvantage."

DISADVANTAGE?? That's really putting it mildly!

Now here's a kicker: Russia has openly offered the Shkval for sale at international arms shows in recent years. Though few in the West have witnessed the Russian Shkval missile in action, several expert sources have seen a marketing video distributed to potential buyers ... none, for some reason, American. As one described the scene: " It opens with the Shkval being launched off a patrol boat. [a patrol boat ... not even a submarine ... a patrol boat ... nothing more than a beefed-up commercial pleasure boat that is available to any terrorist group]. After it drops below the surface there's an extended pause, when without warning, there's a bright flash in the water and you sense some commotion underneath the waves. After a short time, a triangular trail of bubbles starts to appear at the surface and moves off into the distance at a good pace. Meanwhile, not much else happens until all of a sudden, you see an explosion on the horizon, followed by the delayed report. It's pretty amazing to see how far the thing has gone in such a short time."

And while America seems to ignore purchasing the Shkval at least for R&D purposes, China is not. U.S. "intelligence" (and I use that term loosely) has received several indications that the Russians were working on an advanced, much longer-range Shkval. Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported in February 1998, for instance, that tests of a "modernized" Shkval were scheduled by Russia's Pacific Fleet for that spring.

Soon after the Kursk accident, Russian submarine specialist Vladimir Gundarov reported in Red Star (the official daily newspaper of the Russian military) that despite high-level resistance from the Russian navy, the Shkval's original solid rocket propulsion system was replaced several years ago with a liquid fuel-based system. This system burns "a monopropellant containing a nitrate ester-based energetic ingredient" that can be very unstable and easy to ignite unless it's mixed with chemical stabilizers. Although the liquid-fuel torpedoes are difficult to store and dangerous to handle, they are significantly cheaper to manufacture ... a distinct necessity for Russia at this time.

Gundarov also wrote that the Kursk was retrofitted during the same period with a potentially problematic torpedo-launching system against the wishes of many high-ranking Russian navy officials who considered it to be "complicated and dangerous." The existing high-cost silver-zinc battery and propeller system used for years to send the Shkval out to a safe distance and orient it toward its target before its rocket engine ignites was therefore replaced. The new system, used on the Kursk, employs a higher-risk technology that uses a gas stream to propel the torpedo out of the tube. When the weapon is triggered, liquid fuel is burned generating pressurized gas that shoots the Shkval out the launch tube. It is perhaps suggestive that Gundarov's reporting on this topic was removed abruptly from the Red Star Web site only hours after it was posted.

Guidance at speed had been unavailable on the original model of the torpedo due to the difficulty sonar has in penetrating the surrounding gas envelope and what experts call "self-noise," but the Russians are said to have now added a homing capability to the deadly device. Reportedly, the improved homing version runs out at very high speed then slows to search for its target. If this is true, the new version really troubles top U.S. Navy brass, who would like to know as much as possible about the advanced Shkval before it finds its way to places such as China and Iran ... if it's not already in their hands.

After the Kursk disaster, several Russian media reports said that the sub was indeed testing a new weapons system, though few details were provided. The sources also stated that civilian torpedo design and engineering experts from the Dagdiesel defense company were on board the sunken sub. Moreover, the Kursk reportedly was at periscope depth (with periscope extended) when the catastrophe occurred. That is precisely the position from which a submarine normally fires its torpedoes. Based on their examination of the sonar and seismic data, 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 flammable propellant. I think they're safe in assuming that!

The resulting initial explosion blew a 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 to the bottom in seconds. There soon followed another larger explosion -- actually several nearly simultaneous detonations, which together amounted to about 5 tons of TNT. This scenario seems to be supported by reports from Norwegian rescue divers who said they saw extensive oxidative scarring on the inside of the sub's forward hull. This scenario also closely follows the opinion I gave of the accident shortly after it occurred.

Rushing ice cold water poring in through the opened water-tight doors would have finished the job. Only a handful, who may have found temporary refuge in a water-tight compartment, could have survived the cold and limited air supply for more than a dozen or so hours. Rescue was fruitless.

Seven months after the sinking of the Kursk, Russian vice-admiral Valery Dorogin confirmed that a small explosion was followed by a large one in the torpedo area of the stricken submarine. He added that the cause of the first blast had not been established, however, leaving open the possibility that the Oscar-class sub struck another vessel or a mine on August 12.

"It is evident that we will never know what the cause of the first explosion was," he told a news conference. Several weeks after Dorogin's statement, reports emerged from Moscow that a note purportedly left by Lieut. Rashid Aryapov, one of the men who survived the explosions and then later succumbed to exposure and lack of oxygen, said that the Kursk was sunk by the misfiring of a practice torpedo. My personal belief is that no firing of a "practice" torpedo could ever cause an explosion of this magnitude, let alone sink the sub.

"Practice" torpedoes are exactly as the name implies ... a torpedo used for practice ... not armed ... no warhead ... fully retrievable ... in short, a "dud". This mishap was witnessed by 50 of Russia's elite submarine officers ... elite officers from other submarines within her fleet. Were they aboard just to witness the firing of a "practice" torpedo? Perhaps recently announced efforts to salvage the doomed submarine from the sea floor will eventually bring the truth to light.

At least to the Russian brass. Hope you enjoyed my babbling. If so, pass it along. If not, ...well, let me know that as well.

And of course I find it fascinating... But note that many readers with some claim to expertise have their doubts.

Begin with Roland Dobbins:

I just wanted you to know that whoever wrote this is a conspiracy theorist and an amateur . . . that isn't to say that sometimes conspiracy theorists and amateurs don't get things essentially correct, but the devil is in the details.

For example, an Oscar-II is anything but 'modern'. And whilst the officer/crew ratio is indeed ununsual - if it's true - this entire article is built, with the inexorable logic of the self-convinced, upon one supposition after another.

Also, Polaris submarines weren't really an issue for the Russians in 1977 - but Poseidon and the then-new Trident were. Professionals and those in the know don't get details like this wrong.

The stuff about Capt. Pope (and his technical advisor, Daniel Kiely, unmentioned in this blurb) is actually pretty accurate - though whether or not Skhval actually exists and works as advertised is another matter.

Finally, I find it interesting that nobody ever seems to actually -see- the Shkval in action, there are just always third-hand reports of someone watching a videotape, as in this tall tale. It may exist in one form or another, (though I seriously doubt it; more of a FUD/maskirova than anything, I should think) in some form, but I don't think that one ought to take it as gospel, to say the least.

Then more:


My expertise is primarily surface ship oriented, I know nothing about the supposed VA-111 torpedo, but there are some obvious inconsistencies in the report that cause me to doubt the rest:

"Sank mysteriously with 118 people on board in 354 feet of the icy waters of the Barents Sea. Forty-nine elite Russian submarine officers, 36 more than is customarily part of the ships complement..."

In the Russian (as in the Soviet) Navy virtually all enlisted personnel are short term conscripts and virtually all equipment maintenance and operation requiring technical training is done by officers. 49 of 118 personnel being officers seems fairly typical to me. 13 of 118 is far to low. Perhaps about right for a western submarine.

"Similar in size to our Los Angeles Class nuclear submarines..."

The Oscar II class, of which Kursk was one, displaces about 18,000 tons submerged. The LA class is around 7,000. I recognize that similar is not a precise term, but not one I would use here. It might not be unreasonable to compare Oscar II to the Ohio class SSBNs (16,000 tons submerged), but they are huge compared to our attack subs.

"The Kursk's double-hull titanium construction and internal compartmentation made it extremely resistant to damage"

Oscar (both I and II) have steel hulls.

"This unique device, if all goes according to plan, manages to defeat hydrodynamic drag and achieve extremely high subsea speeds by traveling inside a cavity of water vapor"

No mention of how this "Cavity of water vapor" is made. Easy enough to go fast if you assume away the water. I do not believe one could store enough energy in an object the size of a torpedo to vaporize the water in front of it. I'm not enough of a thermodyamicist to do the math, but it sounds ridiculous on the face of it. Perhaps one of your readers could crunch the numbers?

"'Practice' torpedoes are exactly as the name implies ... a torpedo used for practice ... not armed ... no warhead ... fully retrievable ... in short, a 'dud'."

And the warhead on the Exocet that killed most of the sailors in the USS STARK didn't explode. High energy fuels are very volatile. They blow up. Even a practice round is very dangerous.

Finally, using an Oscar SSGN to test a new anti-carrier torpedo doesn't make much sense. The primary weapon of the Oscar is its SS-N-19 Shipwreck missiles. These have a range (according to published sources) of 300NM. A new carrier killer torpedo would much more likely be tested off an attack boat. They are designed to get in close. Oscar is designed to attack from long range.

I don't know if this new torpedo exists or not. I can't disprove a conspiracy, since believers will just take lack of evidence as confirmation of the conspiracy. This report does not, however, appear to be that credible. Among the facts that can be checked, it doesn't come off to well.

Scott Kitterman


Regarding the Kursk and the future of naval warfare:

I received the link to this article on one of my mailing lists: sfconsim-l, the science fiction conflict simulation list. I felt highly opinionated about this article, and after posting a response to sfconsim, one of my fellow posters suggested I send it along to you. My response post is listed in its entirety below, feel free to post it publicly if you wish. --------------------------

Judging from the tone and content of the material, the contributor is probably a WWII-era submariner without access to recent submarine operations and procedures information. Many of the statements he gives are conjectural, and he completely blows the capabilities and tactical importance of the "Shkval" torpedo out of proportion. 2 things to think about when reading this:

1. Can you shoot something you have not detected yet? 2. If your opponent's weapon has a longer range than yours, what is your weapon's tactical benefit?

Point 1: US submarines are traditionally quieter than their Russian counterparts, and are arguably the quietest in the world. US sonar technology is similarly advanced. Point 2: The reported range of the US Mark-48 torpedo according to the website is 40,000 yards, with a reported speed of 40-50 knots. The reported range of the BA-111 Shkval is 7,500 yards, with a reported speed of 200 knots. Shkval has 4-5 times the speed of the Mk48, and the Mk48 has a little over 5 times the range. If both weapons are fired at their operational range, they will impact the opposing targets at the same time. Clearly, this does not make the Shkval a groundshakingly superior weapon.

Several points in the contributor's narrative bothered me:

"Similar in size to our Los Angeles Class nuclear submarines" - The Kursk is 140 ft. longer, and has twice the displacement of an LA class.

"The Kursk's double-hull titanium construction and internal compartmentation made it extremely resistant to damage; much superior to our subs" - Kursk was the 10th unit of the Oscar-II class (Project 949a class). The 11th unit (K-512 St.Georgy Pobeditel) had serious quality control issues. According to "This eleventh unit of the 'Oscar II' SSGN class had been launched in July 1995 despite irregular materiel and component delivery problems." The K-512 in fact suffered a cooling system accident in 1998 that injured 4 and killed 1. The later in the series, the more likely that Russia's economic issues played havoc with the structural and operational integrity of the boat.

The implication that the presence of 3 allied subs and a US surveillance vessel was due to some sort of secret super weapon test - The contributor himself stated that it was the largest Russian Northern Fleet exercise in a decade, reason in and of itself for the presence of the additional naval assets. The Kursk was operating in what the Brits consider strategic waters, and the UK frequently maintains seperate Intel assets from the US - they have different methods and procedures for gathering info than the US does.

"The weapon, which was deployed in the 1970s, is said to be a 'straight-shooter' that follows a linear trajectory" - That was the original version of the weapon, which also had a tactical nuclear warhead. If this version had been present, the diving teams that went down to the Kursk would have detected the radiation from the warhead contents that would have been omnipresent after the large explosion that penetrated the hull. More likely they had the improved Shkval, which has a conventional warhead and limited homing capabilities - no longer a 'straight shooter'. The contributor adds later in the narrative that "the Russians are said to have now added a homing capability to the deadly device", but the statement implies that this version of the Shkval is still nuclear. Anyone on the list who works around the defense industry that an "improved" version of any weapon is usually practically a brand new weapon that happens to fit in the old casing.

"My personal belief is that no firing of a 'practice' torpedo could ever cause an explosion of this magnitude, let alone sink the sub" - The most credible version of events on the Kursk says that there was a fuel fire that cooked off the warheads of the other torpedoes in the compartment. The torpedo firing could very well have been a practice torpedo - the presence and firing of a test article does not preclude the inclusion of live ordnance on the vessel.

Apologies for the length of the post - this guy really bothered me. The entire tone seemed to smack of cold-war hysteria. There's a big difference between being prepared and being paranoid, IMO.


Which is enough to give one pause. Again I just don't know enough about the subject to have much right to opinions. I know technology in general and something about the strategy of technology, but specifics no.