What really happened to Russia's 'unsinkable' sub

Russia has yet to explain why the Kursk sank almost a year ago. But British scientists have uncovered compelling new clues. Martin Bright reports

Special report: Russia's stricken submarine

It was supposed to be unsinkable. It could even withstand a direct hit from a torpedo attack. The Kursk was a leviathan with an almost mythical reputation as a war machine. This gargantuan nuclear submarine, the size of two jumbo jets, was the pride of the Russian navy.

When a massive explosion ripped open the steel nose of the Kursk during exercises in the Barents Sea a year ago this month, no one in Russia could quite believe it. The blast - the equivalent of an earthquake measuring 4.2 on the Richter scale - was so vast it was detected as far away as Alaska.

All 118 crewmen lost their lives in the disaster: a devastating blow to Russian military pride and the reputation of the recently elected President Vladimir Putin, who refused to cut short his holiday to deal with the crisis.

Few will forget the scenes of desperate relatives, waiting at the quayside for news of the sailors, growing ever more furious at the official smokescreen of disinformation. Looking back, those scenes now seem all the more cruel as it must have been clear to the navy from the start there was never any hope of rescuing the crew.

The sinking of the Kursk was a conspiracy theorist's dream, with some of the wilder explanations emerging from the highest levels of the Russian naval command. At first it was suggested that the submarine may have hit by an old World War II mine or been struck by friendly fire from the naval exercises.

But these explanations seemed to contradict Russian claims about the Kursk's impregnability. It seemed inconceivable that the double hull and nine water-tight compartments of the submarine could have been punctured by anything but the most violent explosion.

Entire websites have been devoted to the theory that something went wrong with tests on a top-secret new ultra high-speed torpedo, Shkval (Squall), said to be unstoppable by Nato technology.

But there is no evidence that there were any Shkval torpedos on board, and some experts doubt their very existence. More credible was the theory being pushed until recently by senior officers in the Russian navy that the Kursk had collided with a British or American submarine spying on the manoeuvres in the Barents Sea.

But now British torpedo experts and seismologists working on the case believe they have solved the mystery of the Kursk by drawing on secret government documents about a near-forgotten submarine accident off the coast of Portland on the southern coast of England. And what they have discovered is deeply embarrassing for the Russian navy's high command.

When the Kursk smashed into the ocean floor on 12 August last year, stories quickly emerged about the presence on board of torpedos containing highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide liquid. Far from being a new super-torpedo, the weapon cleared for use by the Russian navy in 1997 was old-fashioned, cheap and potentially unstable.

The use of so-called HTP (High Test Peroxide), which supplies oxygen to the torpedo's engine, had been stopped in British submarines in the 1950s after a series of accidents, although no one could quite explain why the substance (which is not flammable and does not mix or react with fuel) could cause an explosion.

Then, Maurice Stradling, a torpedo designer and former lecturer at the Royal Naval Engineering College in Plymouth, began to examine the similarities between the Kursk disaster and the unsolved mystery of an explosion on board a British submarine in June 1955 at Portland.

The front of the submarine, the Sidon, had been blown apart by an experimental torpedo containing HTP while the men on board were loading it; 13 men died in the blast from the casing of the torpedo. Now, with the help of documents from the original inquiry discovered by the BBC's science programme Horizon, Stradling believes he may have found the explanation for both disasters.

'I had taught students about the Sidon accident for years in a class about torpedos and we always believed it had something to do with the hydrogen peroxide,' Stradling told The Observer, 'but no one really knew how it had happened.'

But the report of the secret Board of Inquiry into the Sidon disaster revealed some staggering new pieces of information.

A stainless steel pipe carrying the HTP to the engine had burst and the original inquiry had found that the torpedo had been accidentally started before it had been fired. These facts combined to explain why the explosion had taken place.

The use of HTP in torpedos depends on the reaction it has when it comes into contact with certain metals. When it touches silver, the element often used in this type of torpedo, the hydrogen peroxide breaks down into water vapour and oxygen, which is used to help to power the engine.

At the same time it expands in volume by 5,000 times. For this reason the chemical reaction can only be allowed to begin when the engine is fully operational and during the firing process.

Stradling now believes the Sidon accident happened because the pipe containing the HTP blew open, spraying the inside of the torpedo with superheated water, pure oxygen and pressurised hydrogen peroxide which had nowhere else to go.

'At this point a completely uncontrolled reaction with the metal components in that part of the torpedo occurred, bursting the whole casing open like a balloon,' said Stradling.

The British torpedo expert believes a nearly identical scenario took place on the Kursk, except this time the consequences were even more devastating. Stradling believes the explosion of the practice torpedo set off a chain reaction with the live warheads in the bow of the Russian submarine, causing the massive explosion that sent the Kursk to the bottom of the sea.

The captain of the Sidon, Commander Hugh Verry, who survived the terrible accident, also made the connection.

'When I first heard about the Kursk, I assumed... that it was probably a collision. However, I then heard that there may have been some HTP-fuelled torpedoes carrried on board, and I began to wonder whether they hadn't had the same problem as we had on the Sidon all those years ago.'

His claims are supported by experts at the Government's Blacknest seismic monitoring station in Berkshire, who identified two distinct explosions in the Barents Sea around the time the Kursk went down. The first, 100 times smaller than the giant seismic event, is consistent with a torpedo exploding inside the submarine and took place just 2 minutes and 15 seconds earlier.

When scientists at Blacknest closely examined the formation of the two sets of shockwaves, they found that they were a perfect match. Stradling believes this evidence suggests that the first explosion failed to burst the hull of the submarine, but led to a vast conflagration that the crew were unable to put out.

It was this fire that set off the other torpedos and warheads, and even the Kursk could not withstand such a massive explosion.

'It is fair to say that there was concern among seismologists all over the world when we picked up this signal,' said David Bower from the Blacknest team.

'Once we heard about the submarine we made the link and came to the conclusion that it was a very large explosion. I couldn't believe anyone had survived that.'

In recent months Russian opinion has begun to swing towards the conclusion that some sort of torpedo malfunction may have caused the Kursk disaster. Reports in the Communist newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda in June suggested that the Russian admiralty may have been involved in an elaborate cover-up.

According to the articles, Captain Lyachin of the Kursk sent a message to headquarters just before the explosion, saying: 'We have a malfunctioning torpedo. Request permission to fire it.'

But senior figures in the Russian navy have long continued to cling to the collision theory, which had the added advantage of conveniently exonerating them from any blame. The Russians claim that two American submarines were spying on the exercises, monitoring radar transmission and tracking the movement of the Kursk.

The theory is not entirely without foundation. The United States has made no secret of the fact that their submarines operate in the Barents Sea and there have been 11 collisions in the area since 1967. In an attempt to prove their version of events, the Russian navy produced a satellite photograph of an American nuclear submarine docked at the Norwegian naval base in Bergen just after the alleged collision.

As submarines of this kind are virtually self-sufficient and usually spend months at a time without coming to shore, the Russians said this was proof that the submarine had surfaced for repairs. In October of last year, determined to prove the collision theory, the Russian navy produced video footage taken by divers, which appeared to show evidence from the wreck of a scraping collision with another underwater craft.

The Americans have strenuously denied all the Russian allegations and said that none of their submarines reported any damage around the time the Kursk went down. In a final tantalising twist to the story of the Kursk, plans for the salvage operation may now make it impossible to verify the malfunctioning torpedo theory.

The joint Russian-Dutch operation plans to raise the flooded hulk of the submarine by the middle of next month using specially contructed 'cable plugs' pierced into the outer hull of the submarine. But before this happens divers will attach a cutting chain to the front of the bow to saw off the damaged torpedo compartment, which will remain at the bottom of the sea.

The Russian government has said that it believes it would be too dangerous to raise the torpedo compartment, which may still contain live warheads.

But many commentators in Russia believe they are frightened that, if they did, investigators would be able to prove, once and for all, that the accident was not caused by a collision, but by a faulty torpedo.

Would the families of the 118 sailors who died in the disaster ever find it possible to forgive the men responsible for allowing such notoriously unstable weapons on board?

Horizon Special: What Sank The Kursk? Wednesday, BBC2, 9pm.

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