by Captain 1st Rank (Ret.) Igor Kurdin, Russian Navy and
Lt. Cmdr. Wayne Grasdock, USN
During the Cold War, as the United States military trained primarily to fight and win major theater wars, the country as a whole pursued a strategy of containing the Soviet Union and the seven satellite nations in Eastern Europe who signed the Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Assistance in Warsaw on May 15, 1955. Led by men like First Secretary Josef Stalin, First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, and Admiral S.G. Gorshkov, the Soviet Union pursued the development of a modern and innovative fleet. By 1986, the Soviets had amassed a Navy that Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman described as follows:
What is particularly disturbing about the “fleet that Gorshkov built” is that improvements in its individual unit capabilities have taken place across broad areas. Submarines are faster, quieter, and have better sensors and self-protection. Surface ships carry new generations of missiles and radars. Aircraft have greater endurance and payloads. And the people who operate this Soviet concept of a balanced fleet are ever better trained and confident.1
Achieving this modern and innovative fleet, however, did not come without some significant costs. The Cold War was the most demanding national security challenge the Soviet Union faced since World War II. It dominated strategy, force planning, and defense budgets for nearly half a century. Although the personal costs – both mental and physical – are more difficult to assess, this article provides an interesting anecdote that portrays that aspect of one costly Cold War incident.
Captain Second Rank Igor A. Britanov, Russian Navy, was the Commanding Officer of RPK-SN K-219, a 667A Project boat (known in the West as a Yankee-class ballistic missile submarine), which suffered a major accident in the Atlantic Ocean. The incident onboard K-219, an explosion and subsequent fire in missile tube No. 6, occurred approximately 600 miles east of Bermuda in October of 1986. The Soviet Union claimed that the incident was due to a collision with a U.S. submarine. Captain Britanov says, “There was no collision.”2
Although the book Hostile Waters, published in 1997, is based on the true story of K-219, this article is a more accurate technical representation of what took place – it leaves out the “Hollywood” aspects and describes the heroic efforts of a crew attempting to save a submarine.3 Despite the attempts of the officers and crew to gain more recognition, only one sailor, who died in the reactor compartment, received an award. This decoration and the facts of the incident are not spoken of in Russia. Captain Britanov states that in the eyes of his government, there were no heroes on K-219. When asked the number of times he is called to be a guest lecturer at Russian functions, he simply states, “None – I do not tell the story the way my government wants me to tell it. I did not collide with an American sub.”4
Two issues are of particular interest in this account. One of these is readiness. Resource limitations and the continuing, demanding requirement for increasingly frequent submarine patrols and deployments during the Cold War literally stretched the Soviet submarine force to the breaking point. This article will show that the Soviets had an inadequate force for the missions they attempted to accomplish.
The second issue is safety. In the U.S. Submarine Force, there is a major emphasis on this aspect of operations at all times, almost to the point where constant checking seems like micromanagement. Keeping the ship and men safe is always priority one. This was much less true in the Soviet submarine force. Perhaps the incident on K-219 would not have occurred if one more person had checked the last maintenance performed on missile tube No. 6.
The Homeland Said, “You Must”
According to plan, RPK-SN K-219 went to sea on an operational mission on Sept. 4, 1986. The boat's commander, Captain 2nd Rank Igor Anatolyevich Britanov, was an experienced submariner, who had earned the right to command an SSBN independently in 1981. The cruise was his third as a commander and his thirteenth as an officer. This time, however, he was not commanding his usual ship. Onboard K-219, watch was kept by the first crew of K-241, which included 31 officers, 38 michmen (Warrant Officers), and 49 seamen. The crew was brought up to full strength with first-class specialists.
At that time, cruise training had never been so chaotic. The Cold War was ongoing, and the Soviet Navy – plus the Strategic Rocket Forces – bore the brunt of the two superpowers’ nuclear standoff. The Soviet Union’s response to the American deployment of Pershing ICBMs and cruise missiles on the front line in Europe was to build up the forces of the VMF (Navy) of the USSR, and to extend RPK-SN patrolling up to the immediate shore of the United States. Thus, the number of deterrent patrols for RPK-SNs rose to two or three each year. The ships had reached the limit of their capabilities, and the repair base was far from adequate for the fleet’s new tasks. For Soviet submarines, several operational cruises each year, unused leave, and muddled training all became the norm. Under the pressure of these conditions, senior commanders had to close their eyes to the fact that non-proficient crews were going out to sea on unfamiliar boats. Discussion of crew proficiency and cohesiveness was not allowed.
An analysis of the K-219 personnel roster reveals that in the course of cruise training, 11 of the 31 staff officers had been replaced, including the chief executive officer, the executive officer, the missile (BCh-2) officer, the torpedo (BCh-3) officer, and the chief of the radio-engineering service (RTS). A similar situation existed among the michmen. Sixteen of the 38 michmen had been replaced, including both of the BCh-2 petty officers. This analysis is not to criticize Rear Admiral N.N. Malov, who was Chief of Staff for the 19th RPK-SN Division, which was responsible for crew assignments. At that time, on orders from above, he brought five strategic underwater missile carriers into operational duty.
Why did the Captain agree to go out to sea unprepared, on a boat that was unfamiliar to him, and with a crew that included personnel unknown to him? Because if Britanov had refused, he would have been replaced by someone else. Let us turn to the events of Oct. 3, 1986.
Explosion in Missile Tube No. 6
After 30 days at sea, K-219 moved into its designated patrol area in the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. At 0456, on Oct. 3, the submarine came to periscope depth for routine communications. Five minutes later, it began a descent to 85 meters. At the time, the GEhU (electric plant) was operating in one-echelon mode, and the capacity of the starboard reactor was at 30 percent; the port reactor had been suppressed/damped by all the absorbers, and the steam production plant (PPU) and the turbine were ready for operation; the starboard turbine operated the screw, and the port shaft line was ready to operate the propulsion motor.
At 0514, the BCh-2 officer and the hold machinist/engineer in compartment IV (the forward missile compartment) discovered water dripping from under the plug of missile tube No. 6 (the third tube from the bow on the port side). During precompression of the plug, the drips turned into a stream. The BCh-2 officer reported water in missile tube No. 6, and at 0525, the Captain ordered an ascent to a safe depth (46 meters) while a pump was started in an attempt to dry out missile tube No. 6. At 0532, brown clouds of oxidant began issuing from under the missile-tube plug, and the BCh-2 officer declared an accident alert in the compartment and reported the situation to the GKP (main control station). Although personnel assigned to other compartments left the space, nine people remained in compartment IV. The Captain declared an accident alert. It took the crew no more than one minute to carry out initial damage control measures, which included hermetically sealing all compartments. Five minutes later, at 0538, an explosion occurred in missile tube No. 6.
Black smoke appeared in compartment IV, followed by water mixed with rocket fuel from the destroyed pipes in the upper part of the missile tube. The Captain quickly gave the order for an emergency ascent to the surface. Initial inspection of the boat revealed the following damage: a high level of gas in compartment IV, about 4.5 tons of water in the bilge of that compartment, and temporary loss of status information on the missiles in the other tubes. Other systems on board also suffered damage. The submarine’s Kashtan loudspeaker communications system was knocked out, as well as the Kashtan systems for compartments IV and V (aft missile). The R-651 radio transmitter was practically knocked out. Indicators and lights in the compartments were smashed. In the superstructure, the high pressure air line was damaged. The GEhU control panel indicated that on the port side, the direct-current 220-volt power supply was inoperative, the automatic valves that supply feed water to the steam generators on the port side had opened, and the independent tertiary-circuit valves were open. The Kama electro-energy system console indicated that the insulation resistance of the electrical systems on both the port and starboard sides was zero. By command of the GKP, lines of defense were established in compartment II (control station) and missile compartment V, and compressed air backpressure was created in these compartments.
At 0610, personnel in compartments V and VI (the auxiliary machinery compartment) were transferred to compartment VIII (the forward turbine space). Seven minutes later, a report came from missile compartment IV that it was impossible to remain there because of the large amount of gas and the high temperature. The Captain ordered compartment V to prepare to receive personnel from missile compartment IV. At 0635, personnel were withdrawn from compartment IV, but three crewmembers stayed behind, including the BCh-2 officer. The electrical (BCh-5) officer ordered that the port GEhU begin operating.
After the withdrawal of personnel from compartment IV, at 0645, a two-person damage-control party was sent to compartment IV to appraise the situation and help the three crewmembers that remained there. Because of the great amount of smoke, the party could not locate the BCh-2 officer or conduct a detailed examination of missile tube No. 6. The bodies of seamen I.K. Kharchenko and N.L. Smaglyuk were removed from the compartment.
At 0725, with the boat on the surface, ventilation of compartments IV, V, and VI into the atmosphere began. At daybreak, the senor executive officer examined missile tube No. 6 from the top of the fairwater planes. The tube cover was gone, the rocket head was not visible, and the cover shaft was opened to the side. The outer hull structure around the tube was damaged. The shield-fairing to the covers of tubes 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7 were torn away and hanging overboard. The missile deck around tube No. 6 was deformed, trickling brown smoke.