How a Freak Chemistry Accident Sunk One of Russia’s Most Powerful Submarines

2019-10-31 17:30:00

Key point: Life aboard a submarine is dangerous.

In 2000, a Russian submarine designed to sink aircraft carriers became a victim of its own arsenal. The cruise-missile submarine Kursk suffered a massive explosion and sank after an onboard torpedo accidentally detonated. The accident was the worst naval disaster suffered by post–Cold War Russia.

The Soviet Union’s greatest adversaries at sea were the aircraft carriers of the U.S. Navy. With their versatile air wings, American carriers could frustrate the Warsaw Pact’s plans wartime plans, doing everything from escorting convoys across the Atlantic to bombing Soviet Northern Fleet bases above the Arctic Circle. They also carried nuclear weapons, making them exceptionally dangerous to the Soviet coastline.

The Soviets’ solution was the construction of the Oscar-class submarines. Some of the largest submarines ever constructed, they displaced measure 506 feet long with a beam of nearly sixty feet—nearly twice that of the Soviet Union’s Alfa-class attack submarines. At 19,400 tons submerged, they were larger than the American Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines.

They were large for a reason: each Oscar carried two dozen huge P-700 Granit missiles. The P-700 was a large missile designed to kill large ships. The P-700 was thirty-three feet long and nearly three feet wide. Each weighed 15,400 pounds each, most of which was fuel for the ramjet-powered engine which propelled the missile at speeds of Mach 1.6 to a range of 388 miles. The missile packed either a 1,653-pound conventional high explosive warhead, enough to damage an aircraft carrier, or a five-hundred-kiloton nuclear warhead, enough to vaporize a carrier. The missiles would be fed targeting data from the Legenda space surveillance system, which would hunt fast-moving carrier battle groups from orbit.

The missiles were concealed beneath the hull in two rows of twelve, in silos pointed upward at a seventy-degree angle. It was this arsenal that earned them the then-unusual SSGN designation in the West, with the G standing for “guided missile.”

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