- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2000

The Russian navy yesterday launched a frantic operation to save at least 100 crewmen trapped inside a huge missile submarine that sank 500 feet to the bottom of the Barents Sea during a naval exercise near Murmansk.
Moscow first claimed the Oscar-class submarine Kursk collided with a foreign vessel. But the Tass news service later reported that a collision had been ruled out.
The Pentagon, which typically deploys submarines to closely spy on major Russian sea games, said there is "no evidence" that an American ship hit the Kursk.
A diving bell reportedly found the stricken ship and was attempting to replenish the air supply.
Small submersibles should be able to reach it, officials said. But Norman Polmar, a U.S. expert on the Russian navy, said chances for a successful rescue were slim yesterday.
"At this stage, it seems very unlikely they can rescue the crew," he said, "because they haven't done it yet with an escape capsule onboard the ship and because of the amount of time it takes to get rescue craft out there."
He estimated the ship's system of storage cylinders contains two days to a week's worth of air.
Tass quoted Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, the navy's overall commander, as saying: "The chances for a positive outcome are not very high."
But Tass later quoted the Northern Fleet command as saying, "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."
A Pentagon official, who asked not to be named, said the accident probably occurred Saturday, not Sunday, as reported by the Russian navy. The source said the Kursk and five other missile and attack submarines were participating in what the Russian military calls "SummerX." It was a major mock battle of surface ships and subs during which torpedoes, a ballistic missile and cruise missiles were fired.
"Units were coming and going in and out of the exercise," this source said. "Anything could have happened."
The crew, reported to be between 107 and 140 officers and enlisted sailors, shut down the ship's powerful nuclear reactor. Experts doubted that radioactive material could leak from the reactor's reinforced casing. Russia said the boat carried no nuclear weapons.
The sub's captain, 45-year-old Gennady Lyachin, has communicated with rescuers via radio, Moscow news services reported. The 500-foot-long, wide-body sub is lying at a 60-degree angle on its side, according to news reports from Moscow.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said the administration "made clear to the Russians that any assistance we can offer is available." He said National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger reiterated this in a telephone conversation with Russian officials. "At this point, there's been no request for our assistance," added Mr. Lockhart.
Hampering the rescue attempt is the state of the Russian navy. Russia in 1993 mothballed its only two India-class submarines designed to deliver a submersible to a crippled sub.
Moreover, the cash-poor Russian navy only maintains a few sub rescue surface ships, and none is currently stationed in the Kursk's Northern Fleet, according to A.D. Baker III, a naval expert.
"In addition to their sub force deteriorating over time, they've also let their auxiliary force deteriorate," said Mr. Baker, editor of "Combat Fleets of the World." "Where they used to have a large number of rescue ships, they are not there."
Mr. Baker said the crew's only hope is that smaller submersibles, or diving bells, can mate with the Kursk and bring people to the surface, a few at a time.
"There are a lot of small submersibles in the Russian Navy," he said. "The question is, can they get down to it?"
Mr. Baker discounted the chance that the Kursk hit another ship. Instead, he believes the ship operating in water as deep as it is long veered out of control due to compartment flooding and struck the bottom. He said he based his theory on press reports that the ship's forward compartments were flooded.
The damage left the sub unable to clear its ballast of sea water and float to the surface, experts said.
Moscow's NTV network quoted the navy command as saying there were 116 officers and sailors on board.
Interfax news agency quoted a source in the Northern Fleet command as saying it was "not excluded" that there were casualties.
But the duty officer at the fleet's command sounded upbeat.
"Decisions are now being made on how to rescue people and the chances that they are alive are very good," he said by telephone from the Arctic base of Severomorsk, according to Reuters.
Russia's mighty submarine force has a spotty safety record. In 1989, for example, the nuclear-powered Komsomolets sank after catching fire. Its twisted hull and its reactor still sit on the sea bottom.
At more than 500-feet long and 19,000 tons, the Oscar-class Kursk is the world's second-largest submarine, behind Russia's mammoth 33,000-ton Typhoon-class ballistic missile boats.
While the Typhoon-class subs patrol the far-flung oceans ready to strike the United States with powerful nuclear missiles, the Kursk and seven other Oscar-class ships stay close to home. Their job is to protect the Russian coast with 24 conventionally armed cruise missiles, each the size of a jet fighter and able to reach ships 300 miles away at over twice the speed of sound.
The Cold War plan for the Kursk was to knock out a U.S. Navy carrier battle group. But by the time the ship deployed in 1995, the Cold War had been over six years. Russia didn't have the money to launch the radar satellites that were to guide the SSN-19 missiles from below the sea.

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