August 21, 2000
According to Norwegian divers, all 118 members of the Russian submarine Kursk are dead on the Barents Sea floor. A panel discusses the sinking, and the implications for the Russian military.
TERENCE SMITH: For more on the Russian submarine and what it says about Russia's military, we get three perspectives from: Norman Polmar, a naval analyst and author of more than 30 books, including "Guide to the Soviet Navy"; Sherry Sontag, a journalist and co-author of the book "Blind Man's Bluff" about submarine espionage during the Cold War; and from Lieutenant General William Odom, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, adjunct professor at Yale University, and author of "The Collapse of the Soviet Military."
Welcome to all three of you.
|Doomed from the beginning?|
|Sherry Sontag, from what you know now, do you think that
the crew members were doomed from the beginning, or would it have made
a difference if the Russians had accepted help sooner?
SHERRY SONTAG: I think if the Russians has accepted help sooner, the crew members' families would have got on the see an international effort and would have gone away with a sense that everything that could have been done was done. But honestly, I don't think any of us could have gotten there on time. The world's rescue capabilities are not that good.
TERENCE SMITH: Norman Polmar, what do you think?
NORMAN POLMAR: I think that the United States, our submarine community should have immediately dispatched our deep submergence rescue vehicle, which is sitting right now, I believe packaged, as San Diego at the air field where we always keep one ready to be flown away in a couple hours. We should have flown it to northern Norway. We should have at the same time dispatched one of the submarines that can carry it from the Atlantic fleet up to Norway. The Norwegians, a NATO ally. We've exercised the system with them and announced to the Russians, it's sitting there, it's ready to go, it can be on-scene within a matter of hours. It's yours if you want to use it. We should have gone out and tried to rescue.
It wouldn't have worked, by the way. We now know that the damage to the submarine was so catastrophic that the submersibles could not have made it with the rescue hatch.
TERENCE SMITH: Sherry Sontag, you tried to say something.
SHERRY SONTAG: I mean, even the guys who were waiting in San Diego next to that DSRV, they were figuring that at best they could get there within three days, and even if there was a tiny air pocket, at best, the Russian could have lived for three days, so it would have been a great gesture, and, like I said, it would have been wonderful for the families, but in the end, we couldn't have made any difference. We have it set up now that we can perform a great rescue in our own waters, especially if we know there's a sub going for a test dive, but ask the guys, they don't expect that if they're at an op and they're far from home that we can reach even them. So it wasn't even a matter of getting permission. I don't think we could have saved our own guys in the Barents.
TERENCE SMITH: General Odom, what do you think of the U.S. role, what was appropriate and what was done?
LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM: Well, I think the Russians would have within better off politically, Putin would have been better off politically at home had he invited the Americans in. He didn't. I think that's hurting him politically. I think there are arguments technically about whether they could have rescued anybody are probably very compelling. I find them compelling. But the political fallout from this I think will be very negative. It's showed that Putin at a very serious time made a series of ineffective, wrong decisions.
NORMAN POLMAR: I think at a minimum we're going to see a couple of people from the government, a couple senior civilians leaving and several admirals will also be leaving their jobs within the next couple weeks.
SHERRY SONTAG: There was already...
|The causes of the disaster|
|TERENCE SMITH: Sherry Sontag, let me ask you this. As somebody
who's studied this sort of thing, how could a torpedo explode?
SHERRY SONTAG: Very easily. This particular torpedo had rocket fuel because it was meant... the one that we think exploded because it was meant to leave the water, fly through the air, and come back in. From everything that we've heard, it was the rocket fuel that exploded first, and then the warhead detonated. Our Scorpion may have gone down because there were problems with our torpedo batteries. We think they that may have caught fire. Torpedoes are weapons. If there were problems with training, if there was a hydraulic line that broke in the carriage that moved the torpedo from one part of the sub to another, anything could have gone wrong.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, Norman Polmar, the Russians continued to allude to the possibility of a collision - of it striking another ship or a mine. Is there anything to that?
NORMAN POLMAR: Just obfuscating the obvious. If another submarine had created that much damage on their submarine, the other sub would be lying next to her on the boom. No surface ship was in the area that reported any damage. It might have been World War II mine, but that probably would not have sunk the ship, because you are unlikely to get the type of sympathetic detonation of the warhead going off. As Sherry said, the first detonation was heard was probably a rocket or a torpedo - a rocket or torpedo fuel up here in the bow of the submarine, the forward area -- and two minutes and a few seconds later, a tremendous secondary explosion. I think it was only one warhead, but it ripped out the whole forward area of the submarine here. So immediately you probably had a fireball racing back. The hatches, the doors and hatches were open in here, because the crewmen were probably coming forward to help fight the fire from the original incident, the original explosion of fuel. This meant that the doors were open and you have a catastrophic effect here of the second explosion, just going down the pressure hull until it might be stopped in here by machinery, by water-tight doors. By the way, this is not the Kursk. This is a much earlier Soviet nuclear submarine. That meant some of the people back here may well have survived for a couple of days.
TERENCE SMITH: And this could have explained the tapping or knocking sound that was heard.
NORMAN POLMAR: It may.
TERENCE SMITH: That may have been heard.
NORMAN POLMAR: May have been.
SHERRY SONTAG: Were we ever able to confirm that that tapping existed, or was that wishful thinking on the part of the rescuers?
TERENCE SMITH: Well, I think it goes with the category of the unconfirmed reports, of which there are many.
NORMAN POLMAR: Unconfirmed at this time. But there were several ships that reported hearing it on their hydrophones.
|The state of the Russian military|
|TERENCE SMITH: General Odom, what does this say to you,
this whole incident say to you about this state of the Russian military,
the Russian armed forces, particularly the Russian navy?
LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM: Clearly the Russian military is in a great state disrepair and deterioration. It was already in a fairly serious state of deterioration by the end of Gorbachev's time. And the intervening ten, twelve years, ten years, it has gotten worse. And the senior ranks of the military have refused to reform, and they've played games with the leadership. Yeltsin played games with them. When they wouldn't reform, he just cut their resources. That left too many generals and admirals not enough troops. And so the admirals skimmed off the money. Things have gotten very, very bad.
Putin has made a rather significant change in the military policy. He's really emphasizing the role of the military in Russia's international standing -- not only the ground forces, but... well, the ground forces got the least of it until the Chechen War, but the land-based missile forces were coming into the fore under the new military doctrine. They were supposed to be the core of Russia's defense system. The Navy is now, over a number of months, in the fight, because Putin has talked openly since last fall about coming once again a world class naval power. And the Navy's essentially saying, look, we can do the strategic missile deterrence role from sea.
TERENCE SMITH: And so...
LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM: So you've got an inner service rivalry inside the defense ministry of the worst sort, and this large exercise one has to ask, why a Navy with this much repair would put 30 ships out in this kind of terribly complex combat exercise.
TERENCE SMITH: You think the answer might be competition for resources?
LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM: I think it has to be much related to the decisions Putin is making about who's going to get more of the defense pie.
NORMAN POLMAR: And part of the reason for this exercise was to ready the Kursk and the carrier group to go into the Mediterranean, which Putin would have liked, and which would have demonstrated that, hey, our Navy is a political instrument for you.
TERENCE SMITH: Sherry Sontag, I'm sorry. Go ahead.
SHERRY SONTAG: I was just going to say, there are a lot of people saying it's so easy to say Russia's Navy is run down, this is why this happened. This is the same argument that says the Kursk was anything but run down. This was the jewel in their crown. So that makes it scarier. It makes it one of those things that may have been able to happen to any of us.
LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM: But I think that's true, but that doesn't change the political context. No matter what sank the Kursk, if it was a first-rate ship and went down, it has this impact, given the run down, general state of the Navy. It has the political fallout. I'm not arguing about the detail. But political impact is very adverse for Putin. The Navy has really made him look silly. And his own decisions have made him look silly.
SHERRY SONTAG: Well, I agree with you. I was thinking more cause than effect. I think you're absolutely right about the effect.
|The potential environmental impact|
|TERENCE SMITH: Sherry Sontag, let me ask you, is there a
risk here of radioactive leak, and if so, is that something the United
States should be worried about?
SHERRY SONTAG: You know, right now all reports are that the two reactors are not leaking, but, you know, this should actually point to something else, which is there are radioactive leaks all throughout the Barents. The Soviets - the old Soviet Union dumped reactor cores in the Barents Sea. Greenpeace has been tracking this. There are rotting submarine hulls. It's one of the worst pollution problems that we face, and it really is going to need an international solution. So unless... I'm less worried about Kursk and worried more about the other reactors that are leaking.
TERENCE SMITH: Norman Polmar.
NORMAN POLMAR: Yes. Basically, I don't think we're going to have problems with the Kursk in the context that the submarine was operating at the time the reactors would have automatically "scrammed" or closed down. We've got on the ocean floor right now three Russian nuclear submarines, each with two reactors. We've got two American...
TERENCE SMITH: Disabled on the floor.
NORMAN POLMAR: Disabled, yes, sunk. Two American submarine, each with one reactor, the Scorpion and the Thresher, and continuous monitoring of them have revealed no adverse radioactivity. The reactors are designed with I hate this term fail-safe features, so that if electricity is cut off, if there is any violent action, they automatically, the safety rods go in. They automatically shut down.
TERENCE SMITH: I can see why you hate to use that term after this incident. General Odom?
LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM: I think Sherry is right about this practice of dumping of fuel, spent fuel. I think that's much more serious than the problem that the Kursk will have. And if you are looking for a silver linings in this terrible tragedy, I think the Russian press has regained its courage. It is really standing up and putting a lot of information out. The Committee of Russian Soldiers' Mothers deserves great praise. They gathered this information, put it out. They've mobilized people. It now may be that people like Captain Makitin, the Russian naval officer who has been helping the ecologists prove that the Russian Navy is doing these sorts of things, will now have a standing that he hasn't been able to have thus far in Russia.
The impact on the submariner community
SHERRY SONTAG: I think there is one other little bit of fallout that's on the positive end, and that's that the Russians got to see just how much people here care. I've been... the Internet is burning up with submariners just... U.S. submariners just writing notes of condolences and farewell to the men of "Kursk" and everything else -- and it's clearly all over our media that this was of great concern over here.
TERENCE SMITH: And it's a huge tragedy. Do these American submariners feel a similar risk?
SHERRY SONTAG: They look at other submariners, any other submariners as brothers. These guys share more with them than they could with anyone else because they can't tell their wives and kids and parents what they do. So now these other guys have gone done. It doesn't matter what their nationality is. They're just brokenhearted about it.
TERENCE SMITH: On a human level.
SHERRY SONTAG: On a purely human level. Other submariners have gotten hurt. And that's a bad day.
NORMAN POLMAR: Historically, our submariners have felt our submarines were safer, our people better trained. I think those of those are established facts. And despite the fact that the first two nuclear subs that went down were American. But I think especially in this day and age, as we look at the condition and the maintenance and training of the Russian Navy, there's no question, our people are a lot safer.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Thank you all three very much.