Kursk: A trust betrayed

By Charles Bloomer
web posted August 28, 2000

The recent sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk is a sobering reminder of the challenges of undersea warfare. Not only do submarines have to deal with enemy ships harboring potentially antagonistic intentions, they must also operate in a hostile environment that shows no mercy.

Every submariner knows the dangers of operating under the ocean surface. A submarine is a warship, filled with potentially deadly equipment and weapons. After all, the purpose of a warship is to destroy the enemy, while at the same time remaining alive to fight another day. Submariners are highly trained in the safe operation of the dangerous equipment with which they share their living quarters.

Men who go to sea in submarines place a great deal of trust in their equipment and in their shipmates. These sailors also place a good deal of trust in the political and military leadership to look after their best interests while they patrol. That trust was destroyed by the bungled response of the Russian government when Kursk sank.

The Kursk
The Kursk

It has now been determined that all hands aboard Kursk most likely died within a short time after casualty that caused the submarine to sink. But it took a week to make this determination -- a week of unknowns, a week of foot-dragging, false reports and denial.

The Russian leadership's response to the sinking was negligent and irresponsible. This lack of effort to mount a rapid rescue mission can be attributed to Russian cold-war paranoia. The tragedy was seen first as a military problem, and only secondarily as a humanitarian catastrophe.

From the Russian perspective, asking for foreign help, especially from the US, might possibly open up an opportunity for the US to find out something. Never mind that gleaning information about a disabled submarine in 350 feet of water above the Arctic circle would be next to impossible. Did the Russians think we would load our Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV) with spies? Did they think we would try to interrogate survivors while being transported to safety?

In addition, asking for foreign help would be an admission of the inability to perform the rescue mission. Asking for help would be an admission of inferiority, hardly the image an aspiring superpower wants to project.

The Russian insistence on an unsupportable story of a collision with another submarine is an attempt to draw attention away from their own inexcusable behavior. The Russians want to shift the blame rather than own up to their own failures. The most probable casualty scenario advanced so far is that a rocket propelled torpedo exploded in the torpedo room. Admitting to this scenario would require the Russians to acknowledge a less than perfect weapon design or inadequate proficiency in handling the weapon aboard the ship.

The collision story also obscures the lack of rapid response. If the reports are true that there were indications of survivors during the first two days after Kursk sank, the lack of immediate application of all resources available, even foreign resources, is indefensible.

While acting with cold-war paranoia, the Russians have ignored the long term psychological impact on the remaining submarine crews. Those sailors can accept the inherent dangers of submerged operation and the possibility of catastrophic equipment failure. However, the trust and confidence those sailors place in their leadership has now been severely damaged. Why should a submariner risk his life on a daily basis if he knows that in the event of a casualty the leadership is going to respond with finger pointing, blame shifting and buck passing? Effective military leadership relies as much on "loyalty up" as it does on "loyalty down". A sailor will be loyal to his leadership only when he perceives that the leadership is loyal to him. The Russian leadership has shown that it has no loyalty to its sailors.

If the Russians aspire to become a truly effective military power, they need to set aside their paranoia and realize that sometimes a nation must disregard its animosity and pride. The Russian political and military leadership needs to understand that it takes more than expensive ships and destructive weapons to be a superpower. True military leaders realize that people are their most important asset.

The loss of Kursk with all hands is a tragic event made all the more tragic by the irrational, irresponsible response of the Russian leadership. The submarine is replaceable; the men are not.

As a former submarine officer, I extend my sincere condolences to the families of the men lost in Kursk.

God our Father, strong to save,
Whose hand doth calm the restless wave,
Who bids the might ocean deep,
Its own appointed limit keep.
Oh, hear us when we cry to thee,
For those in peril on the sea.
--Navy Hymn

© 2000 Charles Bloomer. Mr. Bloomer is a retired US Navy submarine officer. He can be contacted at clbloomer@enterstageright.com.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

Current Issue

Archive Main | 2000

E-mail ESR



1996-2020, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.