In early July 2000, President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s naval brass paced nervously in entrance of ocean maps and conflict plans. An armada of unprecedented measurement had left port and was now headed towards the Barents Sea in preparation for the most important naval train because the finish of the Chilly Conflict. Putin had been in workplace just a few months, and these conflict video games represented extra than simply random exams of the most recent know-how and platforms. With the nation nonetheless affected by a extreme financial decline, success was paramount. Failure may tarnish Putin’s repute and his potential to push agendas ahead.
Hundreds of miles away, the nuclear fast-attack submarines USS Memphis and USS Toledo sped towards the Russian armada amassing within the Barents. As America’s premier espionage platforms, the commanding officers on each subs had orders to inch in near the Russian submarine Kursk and gather sonar acoustic and periscope photographic intelligence. The Nationwide Safety Company had decided that the Kursk was planning to check hearth a brand new rocket torpedo referred to as the Shkval. This new underwater weapon was reportedly 4 occasions quicker than a U.S. MK 48 torpedo, and former efforts to realize intel on its capabilities had failed.
On Aug. 12, 2000, the Kursk obtained orders from its command ship, the Peter the Nice, to check hearth the Shkval torpedo. A number of thousand yards away, aboard the Toledo, Cmdr. James Nault studied the naval chart atop the quartermaster’s desk within the management room. Nault knew the usMemphis and HMS Splendid have been additionally on station close by, however the Toledo had been given an important task: to seize vital intel on the Kursk’s firing of the brand new Shkval.
Sonar reported that the Kursk had simply opened an outer torpedo tube door. Nault’s adrenaline surged. If the Russians have been about to fireplace the Shkval, he wished to be close to sufficient to file each nuance of the occasion. On the threat of being heard, however motivated by scant time earlier than the Kursk fired, Nault elevated velocity.
Sonar maintained a relentless stream of studies from the shack. The tinted voice of a petty officer piped in each few seconds with bearing, vary, and velocity data. Within the management room, Nault peered over the shoulder of a petty officer. A coloration monitor on a fireplace management system panel displayed the Toledo’s relative place to the Kursk, indicated by a small triangle inching its method towards the goal. Nault had no intention of firing on the Oscar, however he knew there have been digital recorders within the sonar shack that have been gathering each noise the Russian submarine made. Nonetheless, he wasn’t fairly shut sufficient to seize the necessary launch sounds.
An agitated voice from the sonar shack reported a sudden course change by Grasp Two. The Kursk was now headed proper on the Toledo. Nault had seconds to react. He couldn’t order a deep dive because the ocean was too shallow. All he may do was order a slight downward angle and a hard-right flip to keep away from the upcoming collision. The diving officer rapidly relayed the order. The helmsman and planesman struggled to obey. Their arms gripped two half-circle steering wheels. One cranked to the appropriate and the opposite pushed barely downward. The boat angled towards the underside. A espresso cup crashed to the deck.
Commander Nault ordered all-ahead full and a course change away from Grasp Two. As soon as at a protected distance, he determined to carry the boat to periscope depth to evaluate the state of affairs. The Toledo angled upward. Seconds earlier than it reached periscope depth, a muffled clap rocked the boat backward and forward. Nault referred to as sonar for an evidence. A petty officer reported an explosion from the route of the Kursk, now lower than 1,000 yards away.
Two minutes after the preliminary explosion, a sonarman within the shack heard the Kursk slam into the ocean ground. He clicked his comm to tell Nault, however earlier than he may converse, he was pressured to tear off his headphones.
An earsplitting explosion, a whole lot of occasions louder than the primary, shattered the silence within the management room. The Toledo rocked backward and forward, like a bottle tossed about on a tough sea. Nault ordered a shallow dive and all-ahead full. As a educated submarine commander, he couldn’t really feel something however shock and dismay. The robust odor of Navy espresso within the management room served as a morbid reminder that he was nonetheless alive, and the crew of the Kursk may not be.
Ten days later, British and Norwegian divers helping Russian rescue forces confirmed that each one 118 sailors aboard the Kursk had perished. To today, submariners aboard the Toledo nonetheless have nightmares about essentially the most terrifying incident in submarine naval historical past.
The Barents Sea is without doubt one of the most harmful ocean areas on the earth. It spans 540,000 sq. miles and skirts the coastlines of Russia and Norway. Throughout the Center Ages, the Russians referred to as it the Murman Sea, however the formal identify got here from Dutch navigator Willem Barentsz. From a geopolitical standpoint, the Barents can be one of the strategic ocean areas because it borders Murmansk, which is considered one of Russia’s most necessary naval bases. In recent times, with Arctic ice melting at a fast tempo, the Northern Sea Route (NSR) has grow to be simpler to navigate. This necessary route runs from northern Europe, previous Russia, and down previous the Bering Strait close to Alaska.
A decade in the past, just a few dozen cargo ships traversed the NSR. Right now, given much less ice, 1000’s of ships carry tons of products alongside the route because it’s 40 % quicker and more cost effective than different sea routes. Putin clearly understands the significance of this area, and has spent billions in recent times to fortify a dozen NSR naval bases, construct extra ice breakers and nuclear submarines to patrol the realm, and has ordered the development of a brand new sort of warship, appropriately referred to as the Ice-class. These 374-foot-long polar Corvettes are a cross between an ice breaker and a “again breaker” frigate armed with deck weapons and missile launchers. They’ll break by 5 toes of ice or break an enemy combatant in half with cannon hearth. The U.S. Navy has no reply towards these opponents, and having taken their eye off the ball within the Arctic, can solely carry a knife to a gunfight.
The Russian navy boasts over 40 ice breakers, some nuclear powered, whereas the U.S. solely has one medium-duty Coast Guard breaker. Russia has dozens of submarines patrolling the Barents and different Arctic waters whereas the U.S. has a small handful. Solely three Seawolf-class subs are able to surfacing by thick ice. Not too long ago, a number of authorities officers voiced considerations about this imbalance and referred to as for a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) to “present” Putin that he doesn’t have uncontested management of the NSR or the Arctic.
In early Could 2020, NATO forces have been referred to as upon to implement the FONOP. Three U.S. destroyers from the Sixth Fleet and one UK warship ventured into the Barents Sea. Underneath the waves, a number of U.S. submarines escorted the ships. Russia responded by sending forces to watch the train, which some navy consultants imagine performed into their arms by permitting them to check surveillance and warning techniques. This FONOP represents the primary potential confrontation between the superpowers because the Kursk incident 20 years in the past. Again then, the conflict resulted within the lack of 118 lives, but it surely additionally virtually resulted in a battle that might have escalated right into a conflict.
In August 2000, Russian naval forces claimed to have recovered proof of a collision between the usToledo and the Kursk, which they believed brought about the preliminary torpedo explosion. When navy and authorities officers on Putin’s employees clamored for a response, as much as an together with an all-out conflict, Putin met with President Invoice Clinton in New York in September 2000. In accordance with inside sources, together with Clinton’s Russian affairs adviser, Mark Medish, the 2 presidents mentioned the Kursk incident intimately. These sources concur that Putin and Clinton agreed to squelch the Russian collision claims to keep away from a possible battle. Putin later fired or demoted a dozen of essentially the most vociferous officers who had been calling for retaliation.
The FONOP within the Barents Sea represents the primary time in 40 years that NATO warships have stepped into Russia’s entrance yard. It’s additionally the primary time in 20 years that U.S. spy subs have been given a mission of this significance within the area, with the potential to start out a taking pictures conflict ought to something go incorrect. Hopefully historical past won’t repeat, and no ships or submarines shall be misplaced on this face to face problem. Extra importantly, if one other tragedy ought to happen, we will solely hope that it’ll not escalate into World Conflict III.
William Craig Reed is the New York Instances bestselling writer of the award-winning ebook RED NOVEMBER and the upcoming “Spies of the Deep: The Untold Truth About the Most Terrifying Incident in Submarine Naval History and How Putin Used The Tragedy To Ignite a New Cold War.” Reed is a former U.S. Navy submariner and diver and co-founder of Us4Warriors.org, an award-winning veteran’s non-profit.
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