Russia: August 27, 2000


Ships of Fools; Another Russian submarine has gone down. This time it's the five year old pride of the Northern Fleet, the 14,000 ton Kursk. 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 year round unhindered access to the high seas. But Murmansk is cold most of the year, and has too much darkness in Winter and too much sunlight in Summer. It's a dreary place. Nevertheless, Murmansk has long been Russia's largest naval base, with half the submarine fleet operating from there. But since the end of the Cold War, fleet operations and ship building have declined and much of the economic activity these days is decommissioning older Russian nuclear subs. 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. For decades, the main source of sailors was unenthusiastic and lackadaisical conscripts. This has led to safety problems, especially with nuclear propelled ships. 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 also led to several nasty accidents 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, especially officers, 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 3M45 "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. Russian torpedoes are also temperamental, and carry massive warheads. Ironically, Russian subs are carefully designed (with multiple hulls) to survive a torpedo hit, but these design features are useless if a torpedo detonates inside the sub. Unlike the Shipwreck missiles, the torpedoes are often worked on by technicians while the sub is at sea, and problems with cranky torpedoes are not on unknown.

But Russia's main problem is not bad crews, quirky weapons or poor leadership. No, the main problem with the Russian navy is that Russia doesn't need a navy. Russia is a classic continental power, one that can do without control, or even use of, the high seas. Indeed, during the five hundred years that Russia has existed, a navy has rarely been a national priority. Every few generations, the nation gets bit with the navy bug and an attempt is made to build a fleet. These endeavors have always ended badly. Always. Even when foreigners were hired to help out, it didn't work. American naval hero John Paul Jones served for a while as a Russian admiral, before he fled what he saw as a disaster waiting to happen. The Turks regularly humiliated the Russians at sea. The Japanese defeated a Russian fleet in 1905. During World War II, the Russian submarine fleet lost more boats than it sank. This was a unique record for underachievement, but the sort of thing that is common in the Russian navy.

While Britain and American sailors have a tradition that scares enemies, the Russian fleet suggests just the opposite. After years of operating against Soviet ships during the Cold War, American sailors became openly contemptuous of their potential foes. But the Russian navy has become a matter of national pride in Russia. Few will openly argue that Russia does not need a navy, and the loss of the Kursk is unlikely to change that. Thus, ironically, the Kursk disaster makes the Russian navy a force to be feared. Not so much for what Russian ships can do to anyone else, but for what they can do to themselves and anyone unfortunate enough to be nearby.


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