Russia’s Blue Water Blues

Cristina Chuen
Michael Jasinski
January 16, 2001

On August 12, 2000, the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk sank with all hands lost. Since then the incident has been swirled in controversy. Did the Kursk collide with another submarine, as some in the Russian military claim, or was it an explosion onboard that sealed the boat’s fate? Some reports claim that sailors may have survived for several hours or even days in the crippled submarine. Could they have been rescued?

What is certain is that while Russia continues to mourn the loss of 118 sailors, the world’s attention is focused on the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. It was only chance that the Kursk tragedy did not involve a nuclear missile. The world may not be so lucky next time.

Despite Russian boasts of a leaner, meaner navy, the reality is a bloated and unsafe force, with lower funding per ship and sailor than in other nuclear navies. Russian sailors and officers receive only $50 and $150 a month, respectively, much less than the $350 the average Russian is estimated to take home each month.[1]

Many sailors and officers take outside jobs, undermining the military’s vertical command structure. Inadequate and irregular federal funding has led to insufficient crew training and maintenance of Russia’s sophisticated weapons; external funding creates the potential for divided loyalties. Disruptive administrative reforms also take a toll on efficiency and safety, while traditional levels of secrecy make it difficult to spot deficiencies, theft, and corruption.

Critics in Russia and abroad have noted the dangers of underfunding, but they fail to examine the problems with how the navy is funded, and how this affects safety. The present situation will not improve unless there are radical changes in how Russia allocates its scarce resources.

Technical Hazards

Russian submarines are armed with many types of sophisticated weapons that require careful handling. These weapons are not only carried on Oscar II-class nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines like the Kursk, but also on attack and ballistic missile submarines. If the Kursk was sunk by a catastrophic malfunction of a faulty or improperly handled weapon, then all of Russia’s submarines risk sharing its fate.

A military service that operates complex weapons is at risk of disaster if its financing is erratic. Even conventional weapons used on submarines require skilled handling. There has been much speculation since the disaster about a catastrophic malfunction of one of the Kursk’s weapons. Although the navy has not released detailed information on the submarine’s weapon load, it is possible to analyze the dangers faced by the crew.

Russian submarines can carry several types of rocket-propelled weapons, including the 200-knot Shkval torpedo and the SS-N-15/16 anti-submarine missile. Both use solid fuel, which while safer to handle than liquid fuel, is not risk free. Solid rocket fuel decomposes and may become unstable over time. In 1974, the Black Sea Fleet lost a Kashin-class guided missile destroyer when the solid fuel in one of the ship’s surface-to-air missiles spontaneously ignited. While no Russian submarine is known to have suffered such an accident, a rocket-fuel fire on board a submarine would have dire consequences.

Russia’s navy also uses several torpedo types fueled by kerosene and either liquid oxygen or peroxide, both of which are unstable and require careful handling. There are no known cases of major malfunctions involving these weapons, but in the 1950s the Soviets suffered a series of fatal accidents during experiments with submarine propulsion systems using liquid oxygen.

The navy’s electric torpedoes are less prone to fire or explosion, but they have hazards of their own. According to one theory, a secondary explosion aboard the Kursk may have been caused by a chemical reaction between damaged torpedo batteries and seawater.[2]

Finally, the latest Russian torpedoes, such as the UGST, use a new type of liquid monopropellant containing its own oxidizer, similar to the Otto fuel used by U.S. Mk 48 and British Spearfish torpedoes. This type of fuel offers increased performance, but it is toxic and potentially explosive. According to the Johns Hopkins Chemical Propulsion Information Agency, in certain conditions, the fuel poses “blast and fragment hazards” similar to high explosives. And the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament notes that British ships have reportedly suffered two fatalities as a result of improperly handled Otto fuel.[3] Since the UGST is either still in testing or has only recently entered service, the dangers associated with its fuel may not be well understood by Russian torpedo-handling crews, particularly given current training problems.

Finally, most Russian ballistic missile submarines use liquid-fueled missiles. In 1986 this caused the loss of the K-219, a Yankee-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), and earlier this year the Pacific Fleet suffered several casualties caused by improperly handled missiles. Complex weapons require skillful handling, but Russia’s navy does not provide the training necessary to safely operate its ships and weapons.


Russia’s federal funding is insufficient and irregularly disbursed. To supplement their budgets, submarine units receive additional money from regional “sponsors” and engage in self-funding activities, while individual submariners moonlight and sometimes resort to pilfering. Even the Kursk, an Oscar II submarine that carried out high profile missions and was commissioned only six years ago, was not fully funded by the federal government: Its crew was sponsored by the Kursk regional government. The situation is worse for older, less active submarines, and far worse for decommissioned nuclear submarines, despite the danger these ships represent. If Russia is unable to fully fund one of its newest nuclear subs, what might the situation be on decommissioned boats that have no sponsors?

Regional authorities have sponsored nuclear submarines since the fall of 1997. The Kursk region, for example, sent its best recruits to serve on the Kursk, constructed housing for crew members, and gave submariners vacations at Kursk resorts. Nearly all Russian nuclear submarines have regional sponsors. Yekaterinburg provides stipends to the top four submariners on the Yekaterinburg. Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov promised to fund construction of the SSBN Yuri Dolgoruki and to subsidize fuel for the Northern Fleet.[4]

These funds are not reflected in the naval budget. Nor does it appear that the funding they provide has given the regions leverage over naval activities. After the Kursk tragedy, though, the regions were quick to demand that the safety of “their” submarines be ensured. The regional sponsorship system is fickle, however, and is no substitute for sustained federal funding.

Naval units also engage in “self-funding” by growing their own food and fishing, often at the expense of training. And officers and sailors alike subsidize their meager salaries by moonlighting. While one might not consider this a source of “funding,” it does reflect the navy’s inability to pay salaries on time. Moonlighting also harms morale and job performance. Furthermore, there is a slippery slope from legal to illegal moonlighting and outright theft.

A tradition of secrecy makes it difficult to track outside employment and pilfering, but the money raised from these activities is significant. Although extra cash helps relieve subsistence problems, it also dilutes professionalism and morale, undermines the chain of command, and reduces time available for training. In short, funding shortages, combined with the desperate search for alternative financing, expose ships and sailors to grave risks and–since so many of Russia’s ships are nuclear powered or armed–the risk extends to Russia’s neighbors as well.

Training and Maintenance

Despite its economic problems, Russia’s navy is attempting to reform and modernize itself, but lack of money gets in the way. Economic hardships create an incentive to adopt cheaper weapons and to spend less on testing, which makes the adoption of new weapons riskier. It is not clear if the Kursk sank as a result of problems with new weapons, poor training, or a collision with another ship or an old mine. However, even if problems with weapons or training did not sink the Kursk, they may contribute to future submarine incidents. For financial reasons, Russian crews are seeing less hands-on training. Some officers must board sister ships and serve as “understudies” to officers with similar jobs instead of training on their own vessels. Sustained training is necessary to safely operate a complex nuclear submarine and its weapons, old or new. Submarine duty has decreased by 25 percent since 1997, and as of last July, financing of combat training was less than 1 percent of the annual requirement.[5]

The crew of the Kursk was made up of competitively selected recruits. Sailors on other boats are reportedly of uneven quality. Alcohol and drug problems exist, and retaining key non-commissioned and commissioned officers has become difficult. According to a recent article by former Northern Fleet Commander Adm. Oleg Yerofeyev, good officers are discouraged from attending a naval academy because doing so requires a cut in pay. Commanders, who must send a certain number of officers to academies each year, sometimes send unqualified or unwilling officers.[6]

Administrative changes can disrupt training. The navy has recently reformed its chain of command, creating a “Northern Bastion” and a “Kamchatka Bastion” in order to create unified regional commands. This initiative has been met with resistance and has yet to show results. Such reforms, while possibly of long-term strategic utility, are difficult to implement at best, and potentially dangerous when they disrupt already insufficient control over dangerous vessels and weapons in a time of reduced funding.

Maintenance of ships and weapons has suffered as a result of the disintegrating support infrastructure. For example, the service lives of the newest cranes used for loading and off-loading nuclear and conventional submarine weapons for inspection expired in 1998. The 500 million rubles (about $17.4 million) earmarked for cranes in the 2000 budget was spent on a new submarine instead. The crane problem has led to fewer weapon inspections; some reports suggest the Northern Fleet has halted them altogether.

The cranes are unsafe. On June 16, 2000, a crane scheduled for retirement in 1995 dropped an unarmed SS-N-18 Stingray submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in Konyushkovski Cove, about 40 kilometers from Vladivostok. The fall resulted in the release of the SLBM’s oxidizer, killing 1 and injuring 11. Had the missile’s fuel compartment been breached, 5 metric tons of toxic liquid heptyl fuel could have escaped.

While Russia’s navy has insisted on commissioning new submarines in spite of its inability to maintain existing ones, economic problems are no doubt affecting the quality of new submarine construction and creating delays. For example, the Amurski Shipbuilding Plant has been building an Akula II-class nuclear-powered attack submarine for over a decade. Its nuclear power plant is already operational, but the shipyard has not received enough money to complete the submarine. Delays in paying wages have caused 15,000 of the yard’s 20,000 employees to leave, leading Clay Moltz of the Monterey Institute to question the plant’s ability to complete the submarine even if funding should materialize.[7]


The Kursk disaster shows the extent to which cost-cutting has reduced safety. Rescue submarines inherited from the Soviet Union have been mothballed for lack of money. Improved rescue equipment has never been adopted. Rescue training has been minimal in recent years, with some rescue equipment resting idly in storage.

Naval traditions of secrecy and efforts to maintain the navy’s status within the Russian military make civil intervention difficult. Since the sinking of the Kursk, Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised to create naval rescue centers, but recent media reports suggest the federal government is unlikely to fund them. Instead, oil and gas companies like Gazprom and Lukoil, which do prospecting on the sea shelf, will likely be required to maintain search and rescue services that the state can call upon in time of need. While that would be an improvement over the present situation, it would not be the same as consistently funded professional rescue teams, and it is not clear that the navy–given the culture of military secrecy–would provide private rescue centers with necessary information. Since the accident, the regions have bombarded the navy with questions about safety and offers of assistance. However, there is no guarantee that increased regional funding will persist if memories of the Kursk incident fade and the high world oil prices currently buoying the Russian economy fall. Increased civilian attention to naval affairs may similarly wane, while the navy itself is unlikely to reveal its deficiencies to the public in the future any more than it has in the past.

Decommissioning and Dismantlement

Inadequate funding for the stewardship of decommissioned nuclear submarines has increased environmental and proliferation risks. Russia has decommissioned 179 submarines. Of these, 36 are SSBNs that the U.S. Defense Department is helping dismantle. There is as yet no money to dismantle most of the rem aining 143, 87 of which still have nuclear fuel aboard. In the meantime, these vessels must be guarded, their reactors monitored and protected. The large number of incidents of theft from decommissioned submarines alone indicates that the navy is unable to cope.

The responsibility for decommissioned boats is being shifted to the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom), which could be a difficult transition. According to Russian Navy Commander-in-Chief Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, the May 28, 1998 government decree that transferred jurisdiction over the submarines from the navy to Minatom resulted in the release of 10,000 naval personnel from duties on decommissioned submarines. Further, more than 1 billion rubles ($37 million) in the navy’s budget earmarked for the upkeep of decommissioned vessels was spent elsewhere.

It is unclear if Minatom will bolster funding and bring attention to the issue. On April 11, 2000, Deputy Minister of Atomic Energy Vladimir Vinogradov said that Minatom received 560 million rubles (about $20 million) for submarine dismantlement in 1999 and would receive 850 million rubles (nearly $30 million) in 2000. Since these funds are insufficient, Minatom plans to use money earned from selling highly enriched uranium to the United States.[8]

In the long run, it probably makes sense to transfer responsibility for dismantlement from the navy, but traditionally Minatom has been just as secretive as the navy, and it is not clear how well the two organizations will work together. International assistance and Russian transparency could help make the situation safer. It would also speed the process of getting rid of these dangerous submarines: Only eight were defueled in 1999, and Minatom may not be able to fulfill its plans to defuel more without additional funding.

The Bottom Line

Russia’s economic woes have badly hurt the navy. Its problems are compounded by spending on construction of new weapons instead of training or safety measures. Naval officers and sailors must cope with confusing economic incentives, reduced training, poorly maintained ships and weapons, and disruptive administrative reforms. The only reform that has not moved forward–one that might reduce costs and increase quality–is downsizing the navy. Safety is a low priority, as the mothballing of rescue equipment indicates. The state of decommissioned vessels is even more worrisome than that of the active ones.

Recent reforms of the military chain of command and the transfer of control over decommissioned submarines, spent fuel, and radioactive waste from the navy to Minatom may make long-term sense, but the transition will be difficult. Implementing these changes requires more, not less, money and attention.

Talk of a smaller, better navy has increased since the Kursk disaster, but in the short term, this too would require increased funding and attention. If Russia continues to develop complex new weapons and ships but does not fund maintenance, safety, dismantlement, and training, more accidents will surely happen.

[1] Los Angeles Times, August 27, 2000.
[2] Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 6, 2000,
[4] Na strazhe zapolyarya, May 19, 1999.
[5] Morskoy sbornik, September 2000.
[6] Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, August 2000.
[7] Nonproliferation Review, Spring 2000.
[8] Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, April 14, 2000.

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