Russia: August 22, 2000


Russia has declared the entire crew of the submarine Kursk lost at sea. Norwegian divers confirmed that the sub was flooded. This is not the first such disaster to plague Russia's northern Fleet. This has always been a hard luck outfit. A lot of that has to do with the fleet's location, near the arctic circle. Murmansk, and Vladivostok in the far east, are Russias only two naval base with unhindered access to the high seas at all times. But Murmansk is cold most of the year, and has too much darkness in Winter and too much sunlight in Summer. Nevertheless, Murmansk has long been Russia's largest naval base, with half the submarine fleet operating from there. Much of the economic activity in Murmansk these days is decommissioning older Russian nuclear subs. More than half of Russia's nuclear subs operated from Murmansk. Even though some 90 percent of the ships in the 1990 Soviet fleet have been taken out of service, Russia is having problems funding and manning the remaining ships. This has led to safety problems. But this is nothing new for the Northern Fleet. For a long time Russians told a chilling joke, "How do you recognize a sailor from the Northern Fleet? He glows in the dark." Radiation sickness from poor shielding and accidents in submarine reactors were so common that there was a special hospital to treat the many victims. There were other problems. Lax supervision and bad safety practices led to several explosions in ammunition depots. One massive explosion in 1984 destroyed so many essential naval munitions that the fleet was unready for war for some six months. The end of the Cold War also made naval service much less attractive to the career sailors who had previously kept the Northern Fleet going. The lower quality of personnel and leadership was one reason for the decommissioning of so many ships. Even then, there still weren't enough capable crews to keep all of the ships operating effectively. It's likely that the Kursk went down because of poorly maintained munitions and equipment. Russian ships have suffered onboard explosions because of this before. The "Shipwreck" cruise missiles on the Kursk were particularly tricky beasts. They were launched underwater and then flew at several times the speed of sound to their targets. These missiles carried several tons of highly volatile rocket fuel and explosives. An accident with a Shipwreck could easily cause one. 


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