- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 23, 2000

The doomed submarine Kursk was fitted with new gas-powered torpedo tubes in 1998, a launching system that is potentially riskier than the air-pressure method it replaced, according a Russian military daily.

The Red Star, a Russian newspaper that chronicles the military, also quoted seamen complaining that cost-cutting measures in the new system had made the torpedoes difficult to store and dangerous to handle.

Speculation on what disabled the attack submarine has centered on two explosions in the ship's forward torpedo compartment. No exact cause of the blasts is known.

However, the Red Star called attention to the new torpedo launchers that the Kursk received during repairs at the Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinskn, near Murmansk.

"The sailors believed that the new torpedoes were difficult to store and dangerous to handle as the propulsion of the new torpedoes did not use the expensive batteries containing silver but cheap liquid fuel," the Red Star said.

"The torpedoes were launched with the help of a trigger that produces gas, shooting the torpedo out instead of high-pressure air on the old torpedoes."

Such speculation about the cause of the disaster came as Russia began planning for the daunting task of trying to lift the 14,000-ton Kursk from 350 feet below the surface of the Barents Sea. Experts estimated the cost at $100 million and Russia has asked for international aid.

President Vladimir Putin, his handling of the crisis widely criticized by the press and public, started a campaign to rehabilitate his take-charge image. He traveled to an arctic naval base to meet grieving and angry relatives of 118 dead crewmen. Later, he was to helicopter to the site that has become the sailors' tomb.

The Red Star article was translated by the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental group that contends Russia mismanages its nuclear navy and has dumped radioactive waste in arctic waters.

A.D. Baker II, a naval expert, said gas-launched tubes can be riskier than air-pressure launches. He said a fuel leak during launch or the escape of gas into the torpedo room could ignite an explosion.

"This is a new one for the Russians," he said. "I've never heard of anyone else using a gas generator. In order to have gas, you need combustion. A gas bubble forces out the torpedo."

But opinions on the cause of the explosion still are pure speculation, he said.

"This may not have been the cause at all," Mr. Baker said. "All we know is there is a huge amount of damage to the area of the submarine for the storage and use of torpedoes. It could turn out it has nothing to do with a torpedo launch."

Mr. Baker, editor of "Combat Fleets of the World," said that for decades the Russians have developed a hodgepodge of torpedoes.

"They use so many types of torpedoes," he said. "That's their Achilles' heel, rather than the U.S. which has one torpedo that does everything."

The U.S. Navy, he said, uses a method whereby the torpedo "swims" from a tube powered by a liquid-fuel motor.

"Liquid fuel per se is not dangerous," he said. "It's what the liquid fuel is and how you handle it and how well the people are trained."

Oscar II-class attack subs like the Kursk use 24-inch-diameter torpedoes designed to destroy surface ships. All are liquid fueled and carry up to a 1,000-pound warhead.

The U.S. Navy has begun an acoustics analysis of sounds picked up by a sonar-towing Tagos surveillance ship that monitored the Russian navy's major weekend exercise Aug. 11 to 13. Navy sources said the service has made some initial conclusions.

The Kursk suffered two explosions at around 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 12 in the forward part of the ship. The first was relatively small; the second occurred about two minutes later, unleashing the destructive power of 2 tons of TNT.

Navy sonar picked up sounds consistent with the explosions and flooding, but heard nothing that would indicate the Kursk collided with another vessel or object. Some Russian officials still insist the crew was the victim of a wayward NATO ship.

"We listened to everything," said one Navy source.

The submarine experienced flooding in multiple compartments from the nose to midship, killing some crewmen. The blast also damaged compartments in the ship's aft section. Sailors in those compartments may have lived a day or two before sea water engulfed those sections. The Russians say they detected tapping from inside the hull for three days after the sinking.

After Russian rescuers repeatedly failed, Norwegian divers were able to open an escape hatch on Monday. They reported the entire ship was flooded.

U.S. Navy subs heard no tapping, but a computerized analysis of Tagos sonar could reveal such sounds.

A Navy officer said the Pentagon may choose not to publicly release what it finds out. "We don't want the Russians to know our capabilities," he said.

Russia's Tass news service quoted Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanovas as saying it will take weeks just to draw up plans to raise the vessel. "Not a single country on its own can handle such an operation," he said.

Completely flooded and with its ballast tanks full, the ship weighs more than 19,000 tons. But naval experts said it could be lightened by pumping out some water and affixing it to huge flotation devices.

"It will be surprising if they do not salvage it. Three hundred fifty feet of water is not that deep," Richard Sharp, editor of Jane's Fighting Ships, told the Associated Press.

Mr. Putin, who remained on vacation last week as the sailors perished, has become the target of strong press criticism. His administration failed to seek international help until it was too late, and stiff-armed family members seeking information on the trapped men.

Emma Yevdokimova, whose son Oleg was a cook on the Kursk, wept on Russian TV as she recalled how he helped her prepare the holiday dinner last New Year's Eve.

"When they offered him to join the Kursk, he was so glad," she said on Russia's RTR television. "He was so good. He still is."

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