MOSCOW, Aug. 14 A damaged Russian nuclear-powered submarine sank in the Barents Sea off Russia's northwestern coast Sunday, trapping at least 100 sailors beneath 500 feet of Arctic waters, Russian naval officials said. As rescuers reached the crippled vessel, the commander of the Russian navy said there was little hope of raising the submarine or its crew.
The submarine Kursk sank about 100 miles from the Russian port of Murmansk during a naval exercise that involved about 30 vessels, officials said. Adm. Vladimir Kuroyodev, the Russian navy commander, said there were "signs of a big and serious collision," but he did not specify its cause. Some Russian press reports quoted officials as expressing doubt that the sub was damaged in a collision.
The officers and crew aboard the Kursk--a 500-foot-long craft that NATO designates as an Oscar II class attack submarine--lost radio contact with other vessels shortly after it began to sink, but officials said crewmen appeared to be alive and were communicating through rhythmic tapping on the hull that was captured by navy sonar devices. The Interfax news agency quoted officials from the navy's Northern Fleet, based in Murmansk, as saying that efforts were underway to restore power to the sub and provide its crew with fresh oxygen.
The Kursk reportedly shut down its two nuclear reactors after it was crippled, and both Russia and the Norwegian Defense Ministry said no sign of a radiation leak had been detected. The vessel, one of the most modern in the Russian fleet, is capable of carrying 24 tactical missiles with nuclear or conventional warheads, but Russian officials said no nuclear weapons were aboard.
Pentagon officials denied that any U.S. ship or submarine collided with the Kursk. "We have no indication that a U.S. vessel was involved in this accident," said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Defense Department spokesman.
A U.S. Navy electronic surveillance ship, the USNS Loyal, was monitoring Russian submarine movements in the Barents Sea about 250 miles from the Kursk when it went down, senior Navy officials said. Officials would not comment on whether the Loyal had gathered information about the Kursk.
[Two U.S. Navy submarines were operating in the area at the time of the accident, and one reported hearing an explosion at the site Saturday, a Clinton administration official said late today, according to the Associated Press. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, is familiar with U.S. intelligence reports on the matter.]
The Barents Sea has been the scene of secret hide-and-seek exercises involving Russian and U.S. submarines since the start of the Cold War. In 1993, a Russian Delta III-class nuclear-powered sub collided in the Barents Sea with the U.S. submarine Grayling, also nuclear powered. Both vessels were able to return to base.
Although the nature and cause of the Kursk's sinking remain unclear, naval experts say that the fact it was immobilized on the sea floor at about half the depth it can withstand suggested heavy damage. "Judging by the fact that this is a modern submarine, a very big one, that had to shut down its reactors and cannot move, the situation is serious," said retired Russian admiral Georgi Kostin.
Kuroyodev, the naval commander, dampened hopes of any rescue. "Despite all the efforts underway, the probability of a successful outcome from the Kursk situation is not very high," he told the Russian Tass news agency. The Kursk normally carries a crew of 107, but observers speculated that for the weekend naval exercises, up to 130 might have been aboard to take advantage of a rare training opportunity.
Ten navy ships rushed toward the Kursk today, among them the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, the nuclear missile cruiser Peter the Great, three submarines and a patrol boat. Russian officials reported calm seas but vicious currents in the area. The Northern Fleet commander, Adm. Vyacheslav Popov, took charge of the crisis operation.
U.S. officials said they had received no request for assistance in the rescue effort. "The situation is serious, but according to the command of the Northern Fleet, its rescue teams have enough resources to deal with the issue without turning to others for help," Russian Tass quoted the fleet command as saying. There was some confusion, however, about whether rescue efforts actually had begun. Some reports said discussions were underway on how to try to evacuate the crew.
Tass said small rescue submarines circling the Kursk found it damaged but sitting straight on the seabed. Government television reports suggested rescuers using subsurface viewing devices could see that the bow of the submarine was badly damaged and flooded. The report said also that the final radio contact with the submarine's commander before the Kursk went down was a request to fire two torpedoes. Early reports said that the bow filled with water after a pair of torpedoes misfired.
The Russian navy, and particularly the Northern Fleet, has a long history of submarine accidents. Three Soviet-era subs sank, two after fires broke out on board, one after an explosion. A fourth was scuttled after catching fire off Russia's northern coast. In all, 507 Russian sailors have died in nuclear sub accidents, including fires and radiation leaks.
Much of the information provided by the government or news agencies on the Kursk sinking was contradictory. At one point, officials said radio communication was restored, but others expressed doubts about this. Some Russian authorities said that an electrical generator was functioning; others said only batteries were in use.
By mid-evening, naval authorities cautiously began to speak of evacuating the crew, but just how this would be accomplished was not clear. It is theoretically possible for crewmen to escape a vessel trapped at such a depth, but only with sophisticated breathing gear that the sub is unlikely to have aboard. Although the Kursk, which was commissioned in 1995, is one of Russia's most modern submarines, the Norwegian environmental group Bellona quoted former Russian naval official Alexander Nikitin as saying that the Oscar II class is not equipped with any sort of escape chamber that could raise crew members to the surface. He said a deep-diving rescue vehicle would have to be used.
A navy spokesman said that such a rescue module was on the scene, but he declined to say whether it had been lowered to the submarine. Interfax said the module was supplying the submarine with oxygen.
In recent years, the Russian navy has experienced sharp budget cuts, and many ships and submarines have been decommissioned. The coastline near Murmansk is littered with the rusting hulks of about 100 nuclear-powered subs that have fallen into disuse. Reprocessing of spent fuel from the vessels has been slow, due to lack of funds. Radiation leaks are so common that the local Murmansk radio station broadcasts radiation-level reports along with the weather.
The last Russian sub to sink was the Komsomolets in 1989, according to a report written by Nikitin. His account said that a fire aboard the sub set off a chain reaction of malfunctions, including a leak in the compressed air system. The sub lost buoyancy, and the crew began to abandon ship. The Komsomolets sank in mile-deep water in the Barents Sea. The vessel had been supplied with an insufficient number of life rafts and 42 members of its 69-man crew perished.
In contrast to the Kursk, the Komsomolets surfaced for a while, even with a fire raging within. "There must be serious damage to the body of [the Kursk] for it to sink," said Andrei Zolotkov, an expert with Bellona, which monitors environmental damage caused by decaying or sunken Russian naval vessels.
The 13,900-ton Kursk is one of a dwindling number of submarines built in post-Soviet Russia, an era in which defense budgets have shrunk dramatically. The backbone of Russia's tactical undersea fleet, it usually carries up to 24 nuclear-capable Granit cruise missiles in banks of 12 between an inner and outer hull. The missiles, called Shipwrecks by NATO, have a range of about 300 miles.
Staff writers Roberto Suro and Kathy Sawyer in Washington contributed to this report.
The Stranded Sub
The Russian submarine Kursk, which sank off Murmansk on Sunday, is one of 12 Oscar II class submarines. It can fire torpedoes and cruise missiles, both conventional and nuclear, with a range of up to 300 miles. The Oscar II submarines are primarily targeted against NATO carrier battle groups.
Length: 500 feet
Weight: 13,900 tons
Speed: 28 knots dived; 15 knots surfaced
Engines: Two nuclear reactors that power two steam turbines
Crew: 107, including 48 officers
Weapons: Up to 24 Chelomey P-700 Granit (SS-N-19 Shipwreck) missiles with nuclear or conventional warheads. Up to 24 torpedoes or anti-ship Novator (SS-N-16 Stallion) missiles with conventional or nuclear warheads.
Diving depth: 980 feet
Description: Double-hull construction. The ships reportedly are difficult to detect because of their noise-suppression system and the fact that they seldom venture very far from Northern Fleet home waters, making collection of sound signature data more difficult.
SOURCES: Jane's, Periscope, Associated Press