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Howard’s End: The Mission Of The Kursk

While we mourn the death of the crew of the Russian submarine Kursk and we ponder the non-future of our own maritime submarine surveillance role, we should reflect on exactly what Kursk's mission was. John Howard writes.

The Kursk, an Antyey type 949A nuclear attack submarine, was one of eight active Oscar Class II submarines. She was the pride of the Russian Navy and at the cutting edge of the Northern Fleet.

Her primary functions were simplicity itself. Destroying aircraft carriers, submarines, ships and coastal targets.

On that fateful morning the Kursk reportedly completed a successful firing of her main weapon - the Chelomey Granit missile code-named SS-N-19 Shipwreck.

The Kursk, and her sisterboats, each carry 24 Shipwreck missiles which are stored on each side of the submarine between the twin hulls in banks of 12.

The launching tubes are external to the inner pressure hull where the 118 crew lived and worked.

One Shipwreck missile fired that August Saturday morning is now said to have contained a 1,600 pound conventional warhead. It reportedly scored a direct hit against a Russian hulk target over 400 kilometers away.

The Shipwreck can also be armed with an H-bomb warhead equal to one million tons of TNT, more than enough to flatten any of the world's major cities.

In the dim August afternoon light of the Arctic summer sun, the Kursk began her last action - the simulated destruction of a submarine using the 100-RU Veder missile.

The Veder, code-named SS-N-16A Stallion, is a rocket-boosted torpedo. The Stallion is launched from large diameter torpedo tubes seperately installed on the submarine - once launched, it then flies like a missile.

The rocket booster ignites under water once the weapon is clear of the submarine sending the missile to the surface and beyond.

It then flies to the target under rocket power where it finally ejects a lightweight torpedo at supersonic speed. The mini-torpedo then homes in on the target for the final kill.

Janes Defence reports that the missile can also be armed with a mini-nuclear warhead equal to 200,000 tons of TNT.

The last moments of the Kursk seem to have been recorded as she prepared to fire the Stallion.

Seismologists in Norway told Janes Defence that a monitoring station registered two explosions at the time the Kursk sank.

The first registered 1.5 of the Richter scale with the second stronger explosion measuring 3.5 just two minutes later.

It now appears that the rocket motor may have ignited inside the sealed torpedo tube just before firing which would have twisted the tube melting the walls within seconds.

Then, the warhead probably exploded blowing a hole in the side-skin - which would have immediately caused the submarine to fall forward as it filled with icy water.

The rush of water would not have extinguished the fire since the Stallion rocket booster is designed to burn without air. An exploding warhead would also have sent huge chunks of flaming metal into the forward control room leaving men no time to escape.

As it hit the bottom the 14,000 ton weight of Kursk would likely have detonated one of the other weapons on board - it would be highly unlikely that anybody would have been left alive at that time.

The Kursk was commissioned in 1995 and it made made a high-profile voyage to the Mediterranean last September showing the flag to Russian allies like Syria, Libya and Serbia.

It was due to return later this year as part of the Russian nuclear task group deployment to the Middle East but the August naval exercise in the Barents Sea put paid to that.

Russia continues to build and deploy the Oscar Class submarine with the latest, the Belgorod K-530, rumoured to be for China. They also form part of the Pacific Fleet.

Our government has not only decided against upgrading our maritime patrol aircraft but is considering abandoning military surveillance flights altogether - that, in my view, is isolationist and a big mistake which the nation may come to regret.


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